Dot Physics

PlayLab and Informal Science

There is a question that keeps coming up in discussions I have. “What should elementary students study in science?” Probably the best answer to this question is: something other than what they are doing now.

What do I think students should know about science? Should they learn how to calculate kinetic energy? Should they learn the difference between mass and weight? These things are important building blocks for other ideas, but sometimes it seems like there is a lot of focus on these building blocks and no focus on science. Just talking about kinetic energy is not necessarily science.

I would like to see children asking questions and making experiments to answer these questions. That would help them understand science. If they shared their findings and debated them, it would also help in many other areas (like communication and critical thinking). Well, why don’t students do more things like this in class? First, there are classes that do these things. Cool schools do actually exist. However, there are many schools that don’t do these things. The biggest road block to these experiments might be testing. If a whole bunch of students all do different experiments and learn about science, how do you test that? My answer: does it matter? Learning is about learning, not testing.

I think another road block is teachers. Unfortunately, there are some teachers that are uncomfortable with their understanding of science (just like a large portion of the general public). If students are asking questions, what if they ask a question the teacher does not know the answer to. Really, it is difficult to blame the teachers for this, they are just doing what they were trained to do – be the dispensers of knowledge and answers.

Then what?

I think that PlayLab has an interesting idea. It seems there are two projects to consider. The first is Play Cards project. The basic idea is to create some cards with questions (and some short narrative on the back) that can be a spark of a discussion with children. You can download a couple of sample cards. One sample card is about balls:

What does it take to get a ball going?

I like the idea of some starting questions and this is a fairly good one. It is a good question because it clearly leads to an experiment. Kids can try kicking some balls, they can let them roll on different surfaces. Maybe the cards should just stop there though. But they didn’t. On the back, the cards try to give a scientificy explanation (probably to appease the parents). For this example, here is part of the narrative:

…It takes force – push or pull – to move an object in any direction. The harder you kick, the farther the ball moves down the field…

Although you could argue there is some truth to this statement, I think it supports the common (incorrect) idea of Aristotle that a force makes things move. A better idea to support is the Newton/Galileo idea that forces CHANGE motion. I agree that this is a hard idea to show with kicking balls, but it is not impossible.

So, I think the cards are a great idea, but maybe they need a little tweaking. Honestly, I am more interested in learning about their Flagship Science Playground. I want more details. I probably want one in my backyard. But really, this idea has a ton of potential. Kids (meaning me) love to play with stuff. A normal playground is already a great place for impromptu experiments, but what if the equipment is designed for experiments? Already I know something they should include. Somehow make a very low friction cart. What happens when you keep pushing it? (hint: it doesn’t move at a constant speed). Take THAT Aristotle.


  1. #1 Marcus
    January 26, 2010

    What should elementary students study in science? That is a very important question for science teachers…what does really import for the students life! Answer is not so simple but some projects like playlab probably will help us to find out the answer or at last some partial answer.

  2. #2 Eli Lansey
    January 26, 2010

    One of personal favorite places in the world is the Science Garden at the Weizmann Institute.
    It’s a giant outdoor hands-on science museum / garden / playground.
    BTW, thanks for linking to my post about science in NYC public schools a few weeks ago.

  3. #3 Donna Guthrie
    January 26, 2010

    Here’s a site that I think our readers might enjoy. It is called MEET ME AT THE CORNER, Virtual Field Trips for Kids (

    This series of free educational video pod casts is directed at kids ages 7-12. Each three-minute episode includes links to fun websites, a list of recommended books and a Learning Corner of questions and extended activities about the topic.
    New episodes are uploaded every two weeks. On 1/18 there will be an episode about Everyday Physics from the New York Hall of Science. On February 1, there’s a show about Thomas Edison filmed at the new Thomas Edison Museum in West Orange New Jersey. And later in February, there is an episode on how to prepare for your school science fair.

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