The Dos And Don’ts Of Free Play. A STEM Perspective

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Playing is the essence of childhood. Whether it is building with blocks, running and jumping, or any sort of role playing. This is how children experience the world. Through play. Sometimes it is structured, certain games have certain rules, or certain toys are “intended” to be played with in a certain manner. Other times children are allowed the chance to let their imagination flow and play at their own pace and follow their own rules. This is what is known as free play. A time in which we allow our children to explore the world without a structured agenda in place. In this post you will learn the connection between free play and STEM. As well as the dos and don’ts of free play.

Free Play: A STEM Perspective

Many educational theories strongly advocate for giving children the chance to engage in free play. Especially in the early developmental years. But you might be wondering how this is relevant to STEM. Doesn’t STEM need more guidance, such as experiments and math activities to learn this skill set? And yes, this blog is mostly about guided STEM activities. But I believe that all roads lead to STEM and free play is still extremely relevant. Allowing kids to explore by themselves, to make mistakes and try over and over gives them the confidence that they will need when engaging in STEM activities.

free play stem

Failed experiments or challenging projects are a huge part of real-life STEM and the earlier kids learn that this is all part of the process the better. Reducing frustration, creating tolerance and acceptance of long procedures, understanding that mistakes are part of learning. These are all things that are nurtured through free play. Without adult guidance a child will have to figure things out by themselves and that is the highest form of STEM. Solving problems with the resources at hand.

The Dos And Don’ts Of Free Play

So, how can you let your child engage in free play and hope for more specific STEM learning? The main idea is that you create an environment that will invite them to explore STEM concepts with open-ended activities. Here are some suggestions for the dos and don’ts of free play:

Leave STEM-related toys or materials out (Activities become invitations to play but are not mandatory)Take the materials out and push them to do the activity/play with the toys
Encourage in a subtle way. Use language focused on possibilities rather than on something specific
“I wonder if it would be possible to build something with all these materials”
Use language that encourages one specific action such as “let’s build a tower with toothpicks and playdough”
Wait for them to ask for help when they struggleGet involved if they haven’t asked for help (if you think they can manage on their own don’t get involved the first time they ask. You can tell them you are finishing something and you will help as soon as you can, giving them the time to keep trying)
Let them use toys/games/materials in their own way even if it is different from the way it was intended to be used (as long as it is not dangerous for them or anyone around)Discourage their imagination by telling them that objects that are not dangerous have to be used in a specific way 
Be present but on the sideTake over the activity/game (again, as long as there is no danger). Remember they are still learning even if they don’t “get it right”

If you follow these suggestions you will be creating an environment that will allow your child to engage in STEM activities in a free way.

By being present and letting them ask for help before intervening, you are giving them the chance to figure things out by themselves. But they know they still have you as a safety net. You are nurturing their confidence and showing them your support and that you believe in them. You believe in their independence and individuality. Observing your child in free play gives you insight into what they are interested in. This will give you the chance to tailor other activities to your child. Presenting your child with activities that are more in tune with their interests offers a higher chance of them engaging. This itself will boost the learning that occurs during the activities. 

So sit back and just observe. Let your child explore their surroundings and let them know you are there if they need you. And remember, it does not always have to be full-on free play. You can find a balance by allowing more freedom within a structured activity or guiding something that started out as free play. Just pay attention to your child and see how they respond to whatever is happening at the moment. As in everything, balance is key. 

Great Activities That Allow More Freedom:

free play stem

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