Playing Around with STEM and Literacy: Libraries Bring Together Learning through Play

Summer Blog Series 2023:
Summer, the Libraries & PLAY #3

By returning guest blogger Elizabeth McChesney (bio below), along with Bryan Wunar,  President and CEO of Discovery World (Milwaukee).

Playing Around with STEM and Literacy: Libraries Bring Together Learning through Play

Play as a public service is a global concept explored by public libraries. Library leaders worldwide convened in May 2023 in Aarhus, Denmark, for the NEXT Library Conference. The Aarhus Public Libraries, who created this conference, is a mecca for play and learning for people of all ages.  The role of play as a democratizing and essential public library service was one of the core pillars of the conference.

We were honored to present a session called Playing Around with STEM and Literacy  at the conference. In this session, we explored how playing, linked to scientific concepts and children’s books, can help build the flexible and agile thinking scientists and science-literate citizens need. Play can promote critical 21st-century skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, and it can also help children to spark curiosity and informal learning and be successful working in diverse teams. It can also develop key cross-cutting science concepts laid out in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Playing with science or science play marries together some of the characteristics of play (active, risky, communicative, enjoyable, involved, meaningful, sociable, therapeutic, and voluntary) to  to best practices of scientific thinking (including persistence, curiosity, and perseverance). Open play allows children to explore concepts related to a scientific idea or principle. Examples include filling plastic cups with water in the bathtub or playing with how sound reverberates when a young child hits a kitchen pot with a wooden spoon. Directly connecting play to a scientific principle allows youth to make sense of the world around them. These examples show how a child utilizes both inquiry and observation in their play. Good science learning depends on taking chances, exploring the unknown, and being curious about how things work, fit together, or act upon one another. Science play promotes the habits of mind of effective 21st Century learners: those who can practice communication, collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving.

Our session at NEXT Library focused on two types of science play. First, we explored the engineering design process and how play can help us help a character in a book. Participants played with a way to use index cards to build a stable structure for the three little pigs to take cover from the blustering, big, bad wolf. In teams, we played with shapes in structures, what makes a stable foundation, and how to build a tower. This is an example of how libraries combine a children’s book with play and scientific concepts. Said Lena Sjornsen, Sweden: “Playing with these concepts is the best of hands-on learning and play. It is fun, but it also helps build vocabulary, solidify science knowledge, and even helps us build empathy for those little, lazy pigs!” We believe this type of scientific play also builds the skills needed to promote the language comprehension strand of the Scarborough Reading Rope which comes from the research we refer to as the Science of Reading. When we engage children in playful reading, we are helping to build background knowledge, vocabulary, language structure, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. Casper Gurrensen of Finland said, “This makes so much sense to play with stories and extend them in these fun and informal science investigations. It takes the risk out of doing science and makes the play the center while children are learning all around the play.”

For our second experience, we used scientific background knowledge and habits of mind to help land a payload- a raw egg-without it breaking. Teams used materials, bartered with others, and played with how to drop or land something successfully. Scientific skills, including testing, observing, predicting, problem-solving, utilizing resources efficiently, collaborating, and iteration, are all displayed when children or conference participants try this project.

Connecting play to scientific concepts is a fun and effective way to learn in the summertime or anytime. Play is an enormous vehicle for learning and libraries and museums are wonderful places for the discovery and exploration that bring together science, and literacy through play. Discovery World in Milwaukee, WI, offers this extensive list  of science activities that can easily be adapted for kids of all ages to use in playful learning.

Photo descriptions:
Photo1 – Bear Slide outside the Dokk 1, Aarhus Library
Photo2 – Participants at Playing with STEM and Literacy build a stable structure. But can it withstand the weight of the wolf? Or in this case: a book about a wolf?
Photo3 – Raw eggs are loaded into a landing contraption at NEXT Library Festival, Aarhus, Denmark.
Photo4 – A team of new friends collaborate on their ‘egg-stronaut’ lander, “NEXT Egg.”

About the Author: Liz McChesney served as the Chicago Public Library Director of Children’s Services and Family Engagement, where she earned numerous national awards, including the American Library Service to Children Distinguished Services Recipient. She now serves as the Community Partnerships Consultant to the Laundry Cares Foundation, where she helps build early learning in everyday spaces such as laundromats, WIC Centers, and family courts. She additionally serves as a Senior Advisor to the Urban Libraries Council and is a Senior Fellow at the National Summer Learning Association. In all these roles, play is at the center of her work. She has two books with the American Library Association, Summer Matters: Making All Learning Count (2017) and Pairing STEAM with Stories (2019). Her first picture book, Keke’s Super Strong Double Hugs, was published in 2020 and her forthcoming book, The Path Forward: Serving Children Equitably is forthcoming.

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2023 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring invited play partners as our content experts.  PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here!  For 2023, we are reprising the Libraries & PLAY blog series.