Using museums, the community and playfulness to bring STEM concepts to life

Please welcome guest blogger, Brooke Shoemaker, who brings her museum education expertise to The Early Years blog. Brooke was a pre-k classroom educator at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) in Washington, D.C. for four years, before joining SEEC’s outreach arm, the Center for Innovation in Early Learning as the Pre-K Museum Education Specialist. You can read SEEC teachers’ reflections on their practice on the SEEC blog

SEEC invites you to join them for a two-day seminar, “Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments,” on June 28th and 29th, to explore how to use play as a vehicle for engaging young children in the classroom, museum, and community. 


As early childhood educators, we know play is important, but how can we utilize play to engage students in the classroom, museums, and the community? At the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, we playfully approach object-based learning to engage our young learners and help them make connections between concepts being taught and the world around them. Object-based learning represents a framework for teaching and learning that engages students in a process of understanding the world and its complexity through the study of objects.

Webpage of the Sant Ocean Hall.This past fall, my co-teacher Tina Brimo and I decided to explore the topic of oceans with our class of three-year-olds because every time we walked through The Sant Ocean Hall at The National Museum of Natural History the children were full of questions about the animals and objects they saw.  Tina and I wanted to present the science, technology, engineering and math concepts in the lessons playfully through hands-on, teacher-guided play, as well as unstructured, child-directed play opportunities, such as dramatic, and symbolic play.   

A web of children's questions about ocean life.To begin our exploration of oceans, we went to The Sant Ocean Hall where children’s curiosity was sparked, and created an ocean web graphic organizer to record questions that the students had, and wanted to learn about over the course of the unit.  One of the questions that day was, “Why do seashells open up?”, so I knew we would have to learn about bivalves at some point during the unit!  But how do you make a lesson about bivalves for preschoolers playful and engaging?

The objectives for the bivalve lesson were to understand that bivalves are animals that have two shells that enclose them, which serve as protection, and that those two shells are symmetrical.  To help make these concepts more concreate, I used a collection of seashells and two sculptures in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Children inside a sculpture, by Dan Graham Matching ShellsDan Graham’s sculpture, For Gordon Bunshaft, was a perfect object to introduce the idea that bivalves are enclosed in two shells.  We were able to sit inside the piece and pretend to be bivalves ourselves.  We talked about how the walls of the sculpture made us feel safe and protected from the outside elements, just like the shells of a bivalve do. 

While sitting inside the sculpture I passed around the collection of bivalve shells, and the students made observations about the size, shape, and texture.  We noticed that the shells’ hardness made them ideal for protection.  Noticing and describing size, shape, and symmetry demonstrates a beginning understanding of geometry.

Child looking at sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly.Then we turned our attention to Ellsworth Kelly’s sculpture, Untitled, to introduce the idea of symmetry.  As the children observed the sculpture, they noticed that it looked like a circle folded in half, and that each half was exactly the same or symmetrical.  The children explored the collection of shells again, this time putting two shells together.  Children noticed that if two shells were mismatched, or asymmetrical, the shells left openings on the sides, however, symmetrical shells closed snugly, and therefore protected the bivalve.  The class practiced their careful looking skills by playing a game to match shells to their symmetrical counterpart.  To end the lesson the children used their fine motor skills to cut a shape out of a folded piece of paper, yielding a shape that was the symmetrical on both sides.  They called these their bivalves, and had a blast making them open and close.  The children gained early engineering understanding through examining how the symmetrical shells fit together, as well as learning about the mechanics of bivalves.

Children moving as bivalves do.That afternoon in our classroom, we used technology to watch several videos to see how bivalves move. The children were curious to see how bivalves move around since they do not have legs like humans do. The videos helped the children visualize bivalve movement, which they were having a hard time imagining.  After watching the videos we jumped like a cockle to get away from a sea star, we swam like a scallop by opening and closing our shell, and wiggled back and forth like a clam to bury ourselves in the sand.  Reflecting on the lesson I realize the videos could have been used to begin the lesson so that the children had a better idea of how they move, before delving into the mechanics of bivalves.

The students were exposed to concepts in multiple ways through art, hands-on objects, and kinesthetic learning, which made the concepts more concrete. They were playfully engaged with bivalves in different ways including exploring shells through touch, practicing fine motor skills, and using their bodies and imaginations.  Through these playful techniques, bivalves came alive for the children.

We designed other playful experiences to teach the children about the biology of ocean animals. We explored how coral reefs are made by observing the physical attributes of live and preserved coral in the Sant Ocean Hall and a photograph of a coral reef in the museum’s Nature’s Best Photography Exhibit, by using our fine motor skills to build coral out of pipe cleaners, and by reading about how reefs are formed through the lifecycle of coral polyps.  To end the lesson, the children used their bodies to create a coral reef. By engaging their bodies, the kids were up and moving (always a plus for young children), mimicking the various shapes of coral, and coming together to create a coral reef.   

Child feeling inside a box with hands, not looking.Child wearing traffic cones on head, hands and feet.We also explored the physical characteristics of stingrays, specifically their flat bodies which mean that they cannot see what they eat.  We pretended to eat like stingrays by feeling inside a mystery box and trying to detect what plastic food was inside.  Through imagining what it might be like to be a stingray, the children continued to learn about the variety of body structures found in the oceans’ living organisms, and what these structures mean for the animals’ lives. After feeling a real sea star, and counting its legs, the children put cones on their feet, hands, and head to illustrate the five points. 

Child-constructed "octopus." Child-constructed "jellyfish."While the above examples were teacher-guided playful lessons, Tina and I also observed the children spontaneously exploring and communicating about the ocean life content through their child-directed play.  For example, one child ran up to me on the playground and said, “Look, I made a whale, it has eyes and a tail!”  I followed him to a spot on the playground where he had cleared fallen leaves to make a whale shape. After learning about octopus, one child grabbed a handful of stilts, and said, “Hey Tina, these suction cups are coming for you!”  Another child found a torn ball on the playground, opened it up said, “Look, it’s a bulbous octopus head.” Even when playing with pretend food, the children found a way to use it for ocean play.  The children attached pieces of yarn to the Velcro strip on plastic pears, and made them move like jellyfish. Playful lessons were essential in creating engaging experiences for the students to learn content about life in the ocean, but the children’s play also helped us to know what content they understood, and what they wanted to learn more about.   

Through the playful and hands-on experiences in the museums and community, our class was able to learn about diverse animal life in the ocean.  Handling objects helps make concepts more concrete and real, and playful approaches make content more engaging for children. 

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4 Comments

  1. Posted May 22, 2016 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Very much enjoyed your blog on bivalves thought you might like to share with your readers a preschool science curriculum the museum of science in Miami developed through a research grant from the USDOE’s Institute for Education Science. It’s called Early Childhood Hands-0n Science ( ECHOS) and has a very popular unit on Shells. Info on website cited above.

  2. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted May 22, 2016 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Thanks Judy, I also enjoyed Brooke’s blog post on her preschool class’s bivalve study using art to extend their understanding. Readers can find and purchase the ECHOS curriculum here: https://www.miamisci.org/echos/unit4.php
    What other curriculum materials can everyone recommend for learning about the natural world?

  3. Cindy Hoisington
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I can recommend the teacher’s guide Discovering Nature with Young Children by Karen Worth and Ingrid Chalufour 🙂 published by Redleaf press. A trainer’s guide, and a DVD of classroom videos is also available! The teacher’s guide is not prescriptive but guiding and includes ideas for engaging children in outdoor nature explorations as well s more focused plant and animal investigations indoors and out. It provides specific information and “how-to’s” for activities such as setting up a terrarium for worms or snails; supporting children’s representations of living things; and facilitating science talks. It also links to specific concepts and science practices.

  4. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted July 21, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I agree, Cindy, that the “Discovering Nature with Young Children” teacher’s guide is a valuable resource that can be adapted for the needs of diverse programs. I love having suggested follow-up questions and prompts such as, “Share your excitement about becoming naturalists” and the guidance on transitioning from open exploration to focused exploration. Excerpts from teachers’ journals really show how this is a resource that is based on real classroom experiences.

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