The Science of Play: Making STEM part of the early-learning equation

In a previous blog post to Aspire Wire, I wrote that “there are no greater natural scientists and engineers than young children, inquisitive learners who learn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) concepts through play” and linked the important connection between STEM and early childhood to economic competitiveness.  JD Chesloff

As the venerable Fred Rogers – of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame – once said, “Play is the real work of childhood.” Yet a young child probably could not articulate the concept of “work,” nor could they define “technology” or “engineering.” Nor should they…they’re children.  However, they know it when they see it. In very young children, STEM and play are one in the same, with some of the most basic STEM concepts characterizing the play experience. Creativity. Collaboration. Curiosity. Critical Thinking. To them, STEM is play.

To employers, who compete in a global economy, high quality early learning experiences are essential to developing tomorrow’s workforce. A high quality pre-k experience cuts the rate of kids being held back a grade in half; decreases juvenile arrests by 1/3; increases high school attendance by 1/3 and college attendance by a whopping 80%; and increases employment by 23%. And play is an essential component of a quality pre-K experience.

Research has found that “Childhood play is imperative for cognitive , social , and emotional development of children.” That simple concept – play – is a key ingredient to successful pre-K experiences, which are such an important determinant of later learning and success.

In the incredible video linking science and play, Neuroscientist Beau Lotto and 12-year old Amy O’Toole share their experience of publishing a science experiment led completely by children. In making the connection between science and play, Lotto highlights the concept at the heart of the STEM disciplines – questioning – and says that “the best questions create the most uncertainty”…and “evolution’s answer to uncertainty is play.” These are some high-level, complicated adult concepts that attempt to describe the most simple childhood concept. Play.

A report released this summer from the Center for American Progress and the Center for the Next Generation found that more than half of US postsecondary students drop out without receiving a degree. More than half. It also found that “half of U.S. children get no early childhood education, and we have no national strategy to increase enrollment,” while China, for example, has plans to enroll 40 million children in preschool – an increase of 50% – by 2020. Just for some context, there are a total of about 24M children aged 0-5 in the US.

Which gets back to the point about workforce. By 2030, China will have 200 million college graduates, more than the entire US workforce. So clearly we need to be investing in the workforce pipeline, with a focus on STEM competencies, to remain competitive in the global economy. The best investment in that pipeline is to start early, and play must continue to be the real work of childhood.

You can find the official Ted Talk:

You can download the Center for American Progress and the Center for the Next Generation Report here:

JD Chesloff is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Chairman of the state’s Board of Early Education and Care, and Chair of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council Executive Committee.


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