For Kids’ Education, Playing “Engineer” Beats Being Taught “Engineer”

December 9, 2013

Play, not pedagogy, starts young children on the road to engineering.

Learning Engineering or Playing Engineer?

Credit Sarah GilbertPlaying isn’t what children do between educational activities; it is an educational activity. We all want our kids to emerge from early childhood education prepared to excel academically – and, admit it, follow us into engineering and science – but it’s important to remember that direct instruction is at best only part of a successful strategy. Playing engineer is where it’s at.

Play is useful for a lot more than teaching social skills or letting kids unwind. In The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy: Instruction Limits Spontaneous Exploration and Discovery, researchers gave a novel and deliberately complicated toy to two groups of preschool children. It was constructed of four tubes, each with a hidden feature; one concealed a mirror, one squeaked if pulled just so, and so forth. In the first group, researchers introduced children to the toy through direct instruction (“Want to see how my toy works? If you pull this tube, it squeaks!”). Presenting the toy to the second group, researchers gave no specific instructions. Rather, they feigned accidentally triggering the squeak function, repeated the action to ‘confirm’ what they’d just learned, then left the kids to their own devices.

The first group immediately mastered the squeak function, much more quickly then the kids left to figure it out for themselves. The second group of kids puzzled it out eventually, of course, but they also went on to discover the toy’s other hidden features – something children in the first group did more slowly, if at all.

Credit Steve BerryWhy? For the first group, experimentation and exploration had been re-framed as errors. When you poked and prodded the other three tubes, you were just failing to make the thing squeak. The second group was given a hint that understanding the mechanical principles of the toy would unlock surprises. They smashed, squeezed, pulled, and poked until they knew everything it was capable of.

Which group sounds more like successful engineers?

Natural Born Engineers

In a Salon article summarizing this and subsequent experiments, Dr. Alison Gopnik goes on to describe an experiment she (and others) conducted which demonstrated that children are better engineers when allowed to play with complex mechanisms rather than receive concrete instruction.

The toy in this experiment played music, but only if children triggered two parts of the mechanism in sequence. Besides these to key triggers, there were a number of essentially useless options – rings to pull that did nothing, buttons that weren’t connected to switches, and so on.

Credit woodleywonderworksAgain, children were divided into two groups. In the first group, researchers would explicitly tell the children “this is how my toy works,” then demonstrate several series of three actions (useless action followed by the two key triggers). In the second, the researcher would approach the toy as something they’d never seen before, express puzzlement, then run through the same demonstration sequences as before.

After the demonstration, each group was handed the toy and allowed to do whatever they liked.

The second group, presented with an engineering problem to solve, went to work on the toy and discovered the two key triggers in short order. The first, having the Received Wisdom that this toy was triggered via a series of three actions, followed the demonstrated patterns exactly… and learned nothing.

Dr. Gopnik and her colleagues effectively demonstrated that young children learn more through play and exploration than direct instruction; in fact, children who are allowed to play engineer get more out of the same learning opportunities than those approached as receptive students. Active experimentation – play, in the vernacular – encourages the very values and skills we seek to cultivate in our children.

Dr. Gopnik’s experiment is perhaps the more telling of the two. Anyone can memorize a series of discrete steps; optimization requires active thought, problem solving, and real understanding. Children who were allowed to play engineer, acting on their natural inclinations, came away with a better understanding of the puzzle and experience solving a novel problem.

Playing Engineer with Your Kids

Credit WikicommonsIf you want to prepare your preschool children to excel in engineering – later in life, that is – play is the best place to start. Give them weird little puzzles to solve, novel situations to explore, and opportunities to put their natural talents to work. Above all, don’t let your own eagerness get in the way of playtime; you may be chomping at the bit to demo all the crazy functions and applications of the latest toy to your child, but it’s better to play dumb … and let them play.

Have any examples from your own experience? Share them below.