Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.4: STEM Play Experiences Promote Learning

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)

    COURSE COMPETENCY 1. Explain the basic concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

    Criteria 1.4 Explain how STEM experiences promote learning in all domains across a continuum.


    The Value of Play

    Young children’s ways of learning require an approach to curriculum that allows them to build concepts and skills in integrated learning contexts. Such an approach supports children with analyzing a problem to discover a possible solution, experimenting with, and testing ideas, exchanging ideas with others, thinking creatively, cooperating with others to reach a goal, and focusing their attention and organizing their behavior as they play with others. These skills and dispositions work together to give children a foundation that enhances development and learning in all domains.

    Early learning programs use numerous strategies to support children’s play, such as observing and documenting, planning the learning environment, providing engaging and appropriately challenging materials, and being responsive to children’s interest in engaging in play.

    Through observations of children’s play, teachers can deepen their appreciation of the value of play in early learning. For example, imaginary play is an important means of exploring ideas and social behavior and roles among preschool-age children. While older infants and toddlers engage in solitary imaginary play, such as feeding a stuffed animal or making a roaring sound while pushing a toy truck across the carpet, preschoolers engage with one or more peers in the more complex and elaborate form of imaginary play called “sociodramatic” play. In this type of play, children cooperate with one another to create a story and “script,” assume various roles, figure out appropriate “costumes” and “props,” and negotiate new ideas for play, such as, “I want to be a wolf, not a dog!”

    Because imaginary play holds such rich potential for promoting children’s cognitive, linguistic, social, and physical development, high-quality early learning programs recognize play as a key element of the curriculum. Children’s spontaneous play is a window into their ideas and feelings about the world. As such, it is a rich source of ideas for curriculum planning (Lockett 2004). For example, if a teacher observes a group of children repeatedly engaging in imaginary play about illness or hospitalization, she or he might decide to convert the playhouse area into a veterinary clinic, adding materials to stretch their play. The educator might also read children stories involving doctors, hospitals, getting sick, and getting well. The educator’s observations of children’s resulting conversations and activities would suggest ways to deepen or extend the curriculum further. In thinking of ways to extend the curriculum, it will be important that teachers ensure that the materials used, and themes built upon are culturally familiar to the children and value children’s cultural heritage.

    While involved in play, children are challenged to meet the language, problem- solving, and social competencies of their peers. When play is interesting and important to children, they are eager to learn new vocabulary, new physical skills, and new social behaviors that will allow them to stay engaged in play (Jones and Reynolds 2011). Many three-year-old children, for example, have not yet mastered socially appropriate ways to enter other children’s play.

    Coaching by a sensitive, observant teacher on appropriate language for asking to join play can help a child overcome this hurdle, thereby opening a new area for learning.

    When educators regularly observe and document brief, subtle moments of children’s learning through play, those records can help families understand how useful and important play is in helping children to learn and grow. For example, a teacher might report a child’s language and social development to the parent of a three-year-old: “I watched Sarah standing outside the playhouse area today. Instead of just watching the other children or wandering through their play without getting involved as she often does, she brought the children a book to read to the ‘baby’ in the family. They asked her if she wanted to be the big sister, and she said yes and joined right in. I have been thinking about ways to help her learn how to use her language to get involved in play with other children, but she figured out her own, creative way to join them.”

    During the early years, children grow markedly in their knowledge and skills in all areas of development. The dramatic increase in their emotional, social, cognitive, and language knowledge and skills occur hand in hand with the development of key areas of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex and its connections with the limbic system. Children are naturally curious and driven to learn about the way the world works and often develop and test hypotheses through observation and experimentation. Children’s learning and development in all domains progress well when they are provided with appropriately challenging opportunities for play and exploration, with the support of skilled teachers who scaffold learning experiences.

    What Children Learn Through Play

    Just like the “whole child” is often broken down into developmental domains for studying, so too is learning. Many aspects of learning occur simultaneously; it is integrated and connected. To define learning we often break it into categories. Because the connection between play and learning is so important, the way it is broken down exists in many forms. Table 1.4.1 is a compilation of skills tying development into learning.

    Table 1.4.1 What Children Learn Through Play


    How it is Tied to Learning


    • Personal care (hygiene, feeding, dressing,)
    • Nutrition
    • Safety
    • Motor (Movement) Skills
      • Active physical play
      • Perceptual motor (senses, effort, direction,)
      • Gross (large) motor (running, throwing, …)
      • Fine (small) motor (hands, fingers, feet, toes)


    • Cognitive approaches to learning and self-regulation
      • Maintain attention
      • Self-comfort
      • Curiosity and initiative
      • Self-control of feelings and behavior
      • Engagement and persistence
    • Skills of inquiry
      • Observe, investigate, document, communicate
    • Knowledge of the natural/physical world
      • Understanding properties and events
    • Cause and effect
      • Understanding relationship between cause/effect
    • Classification
      • Learning the attributes of objects by exploring
      • Compare, match, sort, categorize
      • Finding similarities and differences
      • Symbol
    • Number
      • Understanding quantity (amount, degree)
      • Assigning a numerical symbol to quantity
      • Counting
    • Measurement
      • Awareness of difference in properties
      • (Size, length, weight, capacity, volume)
      • Seriation (order 3 or more by comparison)
      • (small/medium/large, loud/louder/loudest)
      • Time (sequence of events, rhythm, yesterday/ tomorrow)
    • Patterning
      • Recognize, reproduce, repeating sequences
    • Spatial relationships
      • Experience an object’s position in relation to others


    • Symbol/symbolic reasoning
      • Sounds and letters are put together to represent things
    • Receptive language
      • Listening, understanding, responding
    • Expressive language
      • Speaking, communicating, conversation
    • Graphic (written) language/literacy
      • Interest in print & books, phonology, pre-reading, reading
      • Symbol, letter, print knowledge, pre-writing, writing


    • Skills learning with adults
      • Can stay at school without parent
      • Can respond/enjoy adults other than parents
      • Adults will help in times of need
      • Adult will not always solve problems
    • Skills learned with peers
      • Different approaches work for different peers
      • Cooperation and turn taking
      • Lead and follow
      • Sustain relationships and helping peers
      • Share materials, equipment, people, ideas
      • Asserting rights and self defense
      • Negotiating skills and solving conflicts
      • Anticipate and avoid problems
      • Realistic expectations and valuing differences
    • Skills learning in a group
      • Respect
      • Responsibility
      • Compassion
      • Tolerance
      • Group identity
      • Follow and adapt to routines and expectations
      • How to enter and exit situations
      • Deal with delay of gratification (patience)
    • Skills learned as an individual
      • Self-help and self-care
      • Make choices and initiate own activities
      • Cope with rejection, hurt feelings, disappointment
      • Take responsibility


    • Ability to deal with feelings
      • Notice, label, and accept feelings
      • Express feelings in appropriate ways
      • Deal with the feelings of others
      • Resolve inner fears, conflicts
    • Ability to exercise judgment
      • Notice, label, and make choices
      • Think through consequences
      • Evaluate the effectiveness of choices
      • Learn to take another viewpoint
    • Enjoying oneself and one’s power
      • Acquire a sense of self
      • Develop self-confidence and self-esteem
      • Build trust in self and others
      • Reveal own personality
      • Learn to take risks & learn from mistakes
      • Become competent in several areas


    • Flexibility (shifting from 1 idea to another)
    • Fluency (producing many ideas)
    • Sensitivity (awareness (moods, textures, senses,)
    • Imagination / Originality
    • Risk Taking / Elaboration (pushing boundaries)
    • Self as a resource (awareness, confidence in ability)
    • Experience (to build proficiency to build upon)
    • Visual and Performing Arts

    two young chldren playing in a small pond

    Figure 5: Play is active learning (Image by Hai Nguyen Tien from Pixabay)

    Indigenous Perspective

    Indigenous infant wrapped in a cradleboard

    Figure 5 Indigenous Infant and a cradleboard (Image provided by author)

    The Oneida Nation, like many Indigenous communities, traditionally used cradleboards as a tool to foster a child's development in various ways. Here are some of the ways in which cradleboards were and are still used within the Oneida community:

    1. Physical Development: Cradleboards provide a secure and supportive environment for infants, promoting healthy physical development. The board's design helps keep the baby in a safe position, preventing injuries and promoting proper spinal alignment.
    2. Bonding and Attachment: The close contact between the baby and the caregiver while in the cradleboard fosters a strong bond and attachment relationship. This is crucial for the child's emotional development and sense of security.
    3. Cultural Connection: Cradleboards are often adorned with traditional symbols, patterns, and materials that reflect the Oneida culture. By using cradleboards, parents and caregivers pass on cultural values, stories, and traditions to the child from a young age, promoting a sense of identity and belonging.
    4. Mobility and Exploration: While in the cradleboard, infants can observe their surroundings and participate in daily activities with their caregivers. This exposure to the environment allows for sensory stimulation, curiosity, and early learning experiences.
    5. Transition to Independence: As the child grows, the use of the cradleboard can gradually transition into other forms of carrying or mobility, such as using a traditional baby carrier or learning to crawl and walk. This gradual transition supports the child's development of motor skills and independence.
    6. Safety and Comfort: Cradleboards are designed to provide a safe and comfortable space for infants, especially during travel or outdoor activities. They offer protection from weather elements and can be easily carried by caregivers.

    Overall, cradleboards play a multifaceted role in fostering a child's development within the Oneida Nation, encompassing physical safety, emotional bonding, cultural connection, and early learning experiences.

    (OpenAI. (2024). ChatGPT (3.5) [Large language model].

    1.4: STEM Play Experiences Promote Learning is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vicki Tanck (Northeast Wisconsin Technical College).