Preschool Science Place: Creating a Playful Space for Early Learning
Science for Early Learners:
Reaching Very Young Audiences
By Marcia Rudy
This November, as part of a larger 55,000squarefoot expansion project, the New York Hall of Science will debut Preschool Science Place, a 2,000squarefoot exhibit area for children aged 6 and under and their parents, caregivers, and teachers.
The current, 500squarefoot preschool exhibition at the New York Hall contains thematic modules where children can experiment with and explore concepts of science and technology, such as sound and music, simple machines, light and color, structures, and measurement. Our objective for the much larger, relocated gallery is to involve children in playful science learning centered around the intersecting natural and built worlds of "the city in nature and nature in the city."
Grounded in research
The decision to expand our exhibit area for very young children resulted from two major factors.
First, we were experiencing an increasing number of family visitors with preschoolage children, especially toddlers. In this, we were not alone. Many other science centers are noting this trend and responding by adding or expanding exhibits for early learners. Recent examples include the Kids Room at the Maryland Science Center (see "One Experience at a Time," page 6), the Kid Science area (for ages 5-8) at the Franklin Institute, and the Discovery Center (for 5 and under) at the Museum of Science, Boston. Children's museums, of course, have long excelled at serving these youngest visitors.
Second, research findings, such as those presented in The Scientist in the Crib, a 1999 book by developmental researchers Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl, indicate that handson science learning can be stimulated and encouraged as early as infancy.
Development of the exhibition took into account children's developmental stages, differences in learning styles, the diversity of our audiences, and the need for individual and cooperative play activities. We included exhibits and activities that linked in part to
Our work also corresponds to findings
from research presented at several recent conferencesthe 2003 21st
Century Learner conference sponsored by the Association of Children's
Museums (ACM), the 2003 ASTC Annual Conference, and the 2004 ACM
and American Association of Museums' annual meetingswhere the emphasis
was on the importance of play, enriched environments, wordplay and
story building, and providing experiences on how to learn (process
skills) rather than what to learn.
- guidelines for prekindergarten science/technology learning published in 2002 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC);
- reports on child developmental stages published by the educational nonprofit ZERO TO THREE;
- Howard Gardner's theory of "multiple intelligences";
- Golinkoff and HirschPasek's studies on how children really learn and why they need to play more, and
- cognitive scientist Rochel Gelman's findings that young children can do causal reasoning about the animate and inanimate world. (For full references, see "Science for Early Learners: A Resource List" at the end of this article.)
Designed for playful learning
To design and develop our rich and playful new space, we selected
Joan Krevlin of BKSK Architects, designer of the museum's two existing
outdoor science playgrounds for schoolage and preschool children
(see "Design for Playing," ASTC Dimensions, March/April 2003).
In addition to our educational goals, we wanted to create an immersive
urban environment with a strong "sense of place"the kind of neighborhood
that is particular to our area in Queens (one of New York City's
five boroughs). Our thematic areas would invite interactions with
city trees and animals and include a market, with foods representative
of cultural diversity, and buildings in the process of construction.
The space for the new gallery posed some design challenges (adjacency
to an open staircase, a partial opening to the floor above, an enclosed
fire stair, and a strong element of natural light), but the architect
found ways to use these conditions to advantage in achieving a thematically
Children and caregivers attend a program in the New York Hall of Science's current early childhood exhibition space.
Photo courtesy of New York Hall of Science
Preschool Science Place will be partially enclosed to separate
it from the open staircase, and the fire stair will be incorporated
in the design of CityScape, a twostory, partially built facade
where children can roleplay and experiment as future architects,
designers, or builders. Children will navigate their way through
the twostory building, peering at branches and animals from different
vantage points, seeing other exhibit areas, and moving objects up
and down with buckets and pulleys. Young visitors and their adult
caregivers will be able to send each other messages via speaking
tubes, videophones, and computers.
We invited two artists whose works speak to the fun and fantasy
of play to help us create a whimsical, tactile, and engaging environment.
Sandy Skoglund responded to the challenge of the opening to the
floor above by designing Tree of Trees, a 10foottall central
sculpture made of seven preserved native trees. The sculpture's
branches reach up into the open space and spread a canopy of spring
and autumn leaves over exhibit areas where children can discover
reallife objects, models, taxidermy specimens, and puppets of local
animals and plants in their habitats, both in the trees and below
In the Market exhibit area, children will be able to shop and stock
shelves, as well as count, weigh, and measure food with scales,
rulers, and calculators. In this area, artist Ben Schonzeit has
imaginatively reproduced the diversity of nature found in the city
with his overscaled watercolors of animals, birds, vegetables,
and fruit. Kids can learn here about fruits and vegetables sold
in local ethnic markets; an adjacent garden area will allow them
to plant and pick vegetables and fruit, making the association that
food comes from nature, not just the store.
CityBuilding is a "construction site," complete with cranes, building
sets, blocks, foam bricks, tools, and a brickyard conveyor system
(designed and built by the museum's exhibits department) that extends
up to the ceiling. Exhibits here will encourage cooperative play
in sorting and arranging bricks or building walls and other structures.
In CityHouses, an area suggestive of a typical city dwelling, wall
openings will function as both windows and puppet theater stages
where visitors and staff can produce plays. Hand puppets, handmade
animal costumes (squirrel, turtle, butterfly), and books about animals
will stimulate roleplaying and again invite children to explore
the world around them.
A family tests a prototype gantry
crane for Preschool Science Place.
Photo courtesy of New York Hall of Science
SmallTown is a separate area for toddlers, focusing on playful experiences.
We planned this area based on research findings which indicate that
it is important to encourage and reinforce sensorimotor learningphysical
movement, touching, tasting, seeing, and hearingin children up
to age 2, as a way for them to understand the world. Exhibits will
include a crawlthrough structure, tactile boxes, mirrored walls,
soft blocks, musical play stations, and audioscapes of bird, animal,
and city sounds. Adult caregivers will be encouraged to interact
with and play alongside the children as they explore or look at
illustrated science storybooks.
Finally, we reserved the area that has natural light and a view
of the outdoors for StudioWorks, a space where staff will offer
guided activities. Here, children can design and build science/art
projects to take home or involve themselves in contemplative activities
from six changing, themerelated Discovery Boxes: ocean life, insect
life, bones, plant and animal life cycles, magnets, color, and light.
Each box will contain a themed book, tactile artifacts and objects,
and activities to do in the studio area and later at home.
To date, we have prototyped foods and scales for the Market, objects
to use with the cranes, different building sets and types of blocks,
and multilayered and ageappropriate building challenges for the
brickyard conveyor system. As we work to complete Preschool
Science Place for its opening in November, we look forward to
seeing how our youngest visitors will respond to this engaging way
to play and learn about science and technology in a "city of nature/nature
of a city" environment.
Marcia Rudy is director of public programs and special
events at the New York Hall of Science, Queens, New York. For more
information on the museum's expansion, visit www.nyscience.org.
Science for Early Learners: A Resource List
BOOKS & ARTICLES
Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown,
and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. How People Learn: Brain,
Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.:
National Academy Press, 1999. Posted online at http://www.nap.edu/books/0309070368/html/.
Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind:
The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York,
N.Y.: Basic Books, 1983.
Gelman, Rochel, and A.L. Brown. "Changing
Views of Cognitive Competence in the Young." In Discoveries
and Trends in Behavioral and Social Sciences, Neil
Smelser and Dean Gerstein, eds. Washington, D.C.: National
Academy Press, 1986. Posted online at http://books.nap.edu/books/ 0309035880/html/175.html.
Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick, Kathy
Hirsch-Pasek, and Diane Eyer. Einstein Never Used
Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learnand Why They
Need to Play More & Memorize Less. Emmaus, Pa.:
Rodale Books, 2004.
Gopnik, Alison, Andrew Meltzoff,
and Patricia K. Kuhl. The Scientist in the Crib:
What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind. New
York, N.Y.: William Morrow, 1999.
Roopnarine, Jaipaul, and James Johnson.
Approaches to Early Childhood Education, 3rd
edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice
Shapiro, Bonnie. What Children
Bring to Light: A Constructivist Perspective on Children's
Learning in Science. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College
White, Judith. Snakes, Snails,
and History Tales: Approaches to Discovery Rooms at
the Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.:Smithsonian
of Children's Museums (ACM)
Formerly the Association of Youth Museums, ACM offers
an annual InterActivity conference and frequent professional
development institutes and publishes a quarterly journal,
Hand to Hand.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
A U.S. nonprofit, NAEYC is dedicated to improving the
quality of programs for children from birth through
age 8. On their web site, look for Early Years Are
Learning Years, a series of short articles for parents
and other adult caregivers that may be reproduced without
charge, and Developmentally Appropriate Practice
in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth
Through Age Eight, a 1997 position paper posted
in the NAEYC Resources. .
University of Pittsburgh Center for Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE)
UPCLOSE is a partner of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh (see pages 5 and 17). Look in the "Projects" section of their web site for information on "explanatoids," "islands of expertise," and other focuses of this research team.
ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families
The web site of this Washington-based nonprofit association
devoted to the healthy development of infants and toddlers
contains archived articles from their Zero to Three
journal and other resources for parents and professionals
who work with young children.
Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education (1999)
The proceedings of the February 1998 Forum on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Foundation as part of Project 2061. Among the 15 articles posted here are reports on early childhood mathematics, young children and technology, and science in early childhood..
Early Childhood Education Quarterly, Vol. 19, Issue 1
(First quarter, 2004)
A special issue of NAEYC's scholarly journal, edited by S.L. Golback and H.P. Ginsburg, on the theme "Early Learning in Math and Science" (articles posted in HTML and PDF formats). Topics of the papers include children's learning about water in a museum and the classroom, early mathematical experiences in the everyday activities of disadvantaged children, the effect of older siblings on parent-child interactions, and the ability of preschoolers to use arithmetic strategies of predicting and checking. The issue also includes short descriptions of innovative practices in early math and science.
Pre-Kindergarten Standards for Teaching and Learning
Developed by a panel of early childhood experts selected by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with funding from the McGraw-Hill Companies, the standards are intended to provide a "sound and reliable foundation" for what 3- to 5-year-olds should learn in their preschool years.