If you’ve been following national education trends with even passing interest, you’re familiar with STEM. The curricular model focuses on educating students across four disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) through an integrated, applied learning approach. It first gained ground under the Obama administration’s 2009 “Educate to Innovate” campaign, galvanized by the recognition that US students were lagging behind their counterparts in other countries in math and science proficiency.
Students of color, in particular, lack access to quality education in these areas. This gap has been recognized by educators and policy makers not only as a moral concern but an economic one; the U.S. Department of Education has reported an estimated 8.65 million job vacancies in these fields.
And across the country, in laboratories and urban gardens, in college preparatory high schools and career and technical programs, teachers and administrators are working to integrate STEM into their programs. For children of young ages, one of the best approaches is through a sand and water table, or a larger integrated sand and water play system.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has reported on several ways sand and water play can benefit children, from promoting the acquisition of problem solving and early math skills to engaging children in sensory motor activity (imagine all the tactile sensations of building a sand castle). At the most basic level, creating a play-based venue for learning makes math more accessible for younger children.
A case study of play-based kindergarten classroom led by teacher Mary White, published in an NCTM report, outlines two excellent examples of how a sand and water table might be used for a math lesson in a classroom setting.
In one model, teachers placed graduated cylinders, measuring cups, and funnels in a sand table and allowed children to engage in free play. After some time, teachers joined the students and asked questions intended to draw their attention to the connections were making. For instance, the concept of equivalency – that two different containers can hold the same quantity of sand – can be drawn out by asking simple questions: “Wow, these containers have the same amount of sound?”
Later in the exercise, teachers showed children that, even when filled with water, bird seed, or other materials, the volume of the two containers remained equivalent. Afterwards, they evaluated student understanding across particular NCTM standards, for instance, that kindergartners should “describe attributes and parts of two- and three-dimensional shapes” and “investigate and predict the results of putting together and taking apart two- and three-dimensional shapes.”
In another activity coinciding with a unit on dinosaurs, teachers buried bones, shells, acorns, rocks, rubber dinosaurs, and other artifacts in the sand. Then they let children dig up the objects and sort them into categories based on their attributes. From there, children engaged in several math activities, charting the quantities of various objects on bar graphs, organizing them from smallest to largest, counting the objects in each group, and representing them numerically.
It’s easy to see how these lessons could be adapted to a sand and water table at a playground. A simple activity, such as allowing children to pour sand from one bucket to another, is a STEM exercise in size and volume.
But, as the authors observe, the guidance of adults is integral in making these connections meaningful. “Using play as a tool to teach young children mathematics,” the authors write, “involves more than presenting various manipulatives to children and leaving them alone to freely explore.” And further, “play does not guarantee mathematical development, but it offers rich possibilities.”
The Reggio Emilia approach to preschool and primary education is one useful way of thinking about how parents, caregivers, and older children can engage their children as they participate in play-based STEM activities. Developed after World War II by psychologist Loris Malaguzzia, the philosophy is one in which children are viewed as curious, competent individuals capable of self-directed learning. By observing, touching, and engaging their environments, children are the principal agents in the learning process.
Still, parents and caregivers play an active role, not by being pedantic, but by being present and inquisitive, guiding children to experiment and think in new ways.
At Goric, we are proud to offer several sand and water play systems and single pieces that can work alone or in combination to create venues where STEM learning can take place as a part of the play experience. The Farm Pump and Winder Pump are fun, hand-operated tools that can help ground lessons on simple machines. The New Orleans system is a gravity-driven system of channels and basins, regulated by a gated dam, that demonstrates the mechanics of water flow and diversion. Another popular sand tool is the Spoon, a digging machine, whose articulating scooping arm and rotating seat, in addition to allowing children to imagine themselves as part of construction crews, embody core concepts in physics.
The common denominator in all these play elements is that they give children the opportunity to learn by doing, something progressive education theorists from John Dewey to Maria Montessori have touted as crucial to children’s learning and development. Far into the future, some of these children playing cheerfully in the sand and water may become architects, engineers, builders, and computer scientists. Others may not. But their lives will undoubtedly be richer for having had the chance to touch the material world and to have known, in a direct, physical way, they had the power to shape it.