Explore to Learn about the World
Amy has more than 10 years of experience as an early childhood educator, both in the classroom and the museum setting. In her current role, she focuses on staff professional development, program evaluation, coaching, and consulting for the Center for Childhood Creativity. Previously, she spent six years directing early childhood education strategic initiatives at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and a large science center in the Midwest. She was a classroom teacher, primarily for preschool, prior to her work in museums. She currently sits on the First 5 Marin Commission and was a founding member of the Leadership Team for the Association of Science and Technology Centers Early Childhood Community of Practice. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and a Master of Education degree in early childhood education.
As Director of Research at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Helen authors original research on creative thinking and child development including the white papers Inspiring a Generation to Create, Reimagining School Readiness, and Roots of STEM Success. She launched and manages the onsite research lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and partners with U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University to conduct empirical research on cognitive, social, and emotional development, with a focus on creative problem solving. She brings more than 18 years of experience in research and education settings, including years in the technology and toy industries conducting research with parents and children to develop innovative learning products at Hasbro, Apple, Leapfrog, and LEGO. Helen received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Stanford University and has taught at U.C. Davis and San Francisco State University.
The CREATE Framework
E - Exploratory Play
- Ask your child open-ended questions. Open-ended questions have many possible answers rather than just one correct solution. Try asking, “What does the flower feel like?” instead of, “What color is the flower?” This invites richer conversation and deeper learning.
- Encourage children to come up with more than one solution. If their first attempt at building a tall spaceship fails, ask, “What is a different way you could try to build it?” Coming up with lots of different ideas helps build divergent thinking skills.
- Provide lots of time for children to “mess about” or tinker with parts and pieces. Let children experiment with the parts and pieces of their model airplane kit to see how they fit together before following all the steps in the right order. This open-ended experimentation is how children learn about the world.
Children are naturally wired to explore the world around them and to build their understanding of the world through play. Play provides an opportunity for children to engage in hypothesis testing—generating, testing, and revising theories about how things in the world work.
Research with young children speaks to the value of providing opportunities for children to experiment with a range of ideas and actions and then work out the consequences. Educators often refer to this process as “messing about”—a time for unstructured, open-ended exploration that leads to further questioning and experimentation.
Do you ever notice your child tinkering with objects, determined to figure out how they work? Researchers and theorists have long believed that children learn about causal relationships through exploratory play. In other words, the type of evidence that children observe affects the way they engage in exploratory play. Interestingly, researchers have found that children engage in more exploratory play when they observe something that goes against their “theory.”
In one study, children were shown a shadow-making machine that projected shadows of puppets. The shadows were varied in size according to the size of the puppets, and their distance from a light source. Some of the children were shown conflicting evidence (i.e., evidence that went against how they thought the machine should work) while other children observed evidence that confirmed their theory. When researchers analyzed children’s play, they discovered that children who were confronted with conflicting evidence performed more informative experiments during free play. Children explored more when there was something for them to learn.
Exploratory play also provides opportunities for divergent thinking – the creative process of generating many ideas followed by convergent thinking – selecting the most appropriate solution.
Creative ideation involves both divergent and convergent thinking—a cyclical process of generating many ideas, which helps to increase originality, and then selecting ideas that are most useful. Traditional educational approaches often focus on finding one right answer. By encouraging children to brainstorm many possible ideas or approaches to a problem, adults teach that real-world problems rarely have just one answer.
One way to become more comfortable with divergent thinking is to first identify those things that most people take for granted by always doing them the same way. For example, ask your child if he or she always puts the left sock on first? How about the route you take coming home? For example, while most math problems have one right answer, there are ways to explain math concepts in a more open-ended context. Instead of asking children, “What is 4 + 6?” ask, “How many ways can you think of to make 10?” Work together to name as many of those auto-pilot activities as you can and brainstorm the ways that you could mix it up and do things differently. Recognizing patterns and learning how to reinvent new ones is not only divergent, but one of the biggest steps towards innovation!