Young Maker Field Trips Nurture “Creative Confidence” in Early Learners

By Amanda Wilkening
Visitor Engagement Manager, Hands On Children’s Museum

Teachers in our focus groups identified Technology and Engineering as the two Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) areas where they most needed support. Focusing on these topics, we created five stations for our STEAM field trips that reinvented some of our favorite early childhood education activities through a “tinkering” lens. We also chose several “big ideas” we wanted to get across:

  • Technology doesn’t have to plug in
  • We use tools every day
  • Block building and water play involve engineering

Field trip activities include clay slab construction using mallets and golf tees; “hydraulics” using syringes and tubing; “pneumatics” using tools to blow pompoms through a maze; building with Keva planks and playdough; and Makey Makey, a device that teaches about circuits using a computer and everyday objects that conduct electricity.

Our hydraulics and pneumatics stations are good examples of how we have refined activities to add more depth. Our first prototype, introduced at last summer’s Sand in the City street fair, built heavily on traditional sensory play at a water table. We used water wheels and scoops, a plexi wall with holes for tubing, funnels and giant syringes. For our field trips, we limited the activities to the dynamics of suctioning, squirting, pouring and measuring. We reduced the amount of water available and narrowed the focus, adding color tints in bottles and graduated cylinders to make cause and effect more visible. At the same time, we developed a parallel “pneumatics” station to emphasize the force generated by the tools used (syringes, turkey basters, squeeze bottles, etc.) and how they work in similar ways for water and air. We wanted to emphasize that technology is about the use of tools — any tools.

Tinkering Tenets (from The Art of Tinkering) help shape our work. Below are some of our favorites.

  • Revisit and iterate your ideas
  • Use familiar materials in unfamiliar ways
  • Reinvent old technologies (and discover new ones, too)
  • Balance autonomy with collaboration

We have also added our own tenet: Value the process more than the product. While parents and teachers often expect a tangible take-home product from workshops, we are more interested in providing engaging experiences, which sometimes result in products and sometimes do not. “Using familiar things in unfamiliar ways” includes obvious tools such as mallets and computers, as well as more unusual ones, such as turkey basters, syringes, playdough and spoons. It has also been a great way to create a sense of whimsy and playfulness.

In the process of developing and rolling out these field trips, we have changed our curriculum philosophy from focusing on specific tasks and outcomes to nurturing “creative confidence” in kids. By showing kids things, such as metal spoons operating as a piano or playdough acting as mortar for blocks, we hope to inspire our young learners to experiment with what they know and to reinvent everything.