Learning happens in many different ways with children. One way involves a hands-on approach, where children learn through playing with different materials. This approach offers a way of seeing and understanding how things work and why those things work the way they do. I will never know what is on a child's mind and what their interests are when they come into the STEAM room. The only way for me discover this information is to observe and ask questions about what they are doing. Their play can start off looking chaotic, going from one area to another trying different things out and that's okay. I look at it as though the children are trying to figure out what they really want to do or, better yet, making a connection from what they were doing into their next idea. Some children jump right into their play with their mind set on an idea, such as building structures or exploring one of the many materials (nails, wood, bamboo, computer parts, Styrofoam and more) at their disposal. Others take their time to settle in, but when a thought inspires them, they are locked on that inspiration, and that is when learning through play with materials becomes their learning experience. In the case of the these children that came into the STEAM room, their experience was understanding how tools, nails, wood and Styrofoam worked while they creatively crafted houses, beds and tables with those materials over the course of two visits to the STEAM room.
Three children came into the STEAM room for their first time an did some exploring. They looked around checking out all the interesting materials. All three children went to the wood blocks and Styrofoam. They pulled some pink Styrofoam pieces down from the shelves. We looked at it, we touched it, and we felt that it was soft and it would get smushed when stepped on by our feet or pressed down with our fingers. One girl started laying out wooden blocks and placing the pink Styrofoam pieces on top of them, then calling it her "bed" as she laid down on it. The other two were working together to build a house out of Styrofoam. Over time they realized that building a house was tough to do with this soft Styrofoam material. It kept falling over and the walls would not stay up for a long time.
"What do you need to help you build this house?", I asked them
They looked around, and on one of the tables they saw some jars filled with nails and screws. They grabbed the jar of nails and started to push them into the Styrofoam. **(The children were closely monitored at all times while using the nails and tools)** I watched them push the nails with ease one after another for a couple of minutes, this is where their connections to building houses and beds brought them through the question I asked. Some of the children were pushing the nails into thin strips of Styrofoam, and some into thicker pieces. One girl put nails into her piece of Styrofoam and said,
"Look a table!"
They all began making tables with their nails and pieces of Styrofoam. They realized that pushing those nails into the Styrofoam was easy and that they could use their hands to do so. I showed them why it worked this way by taking a nail and pointing out to them that one side was flat and the other side had a point on it. I explained that the point end helps to makes it easier to push the nails through the Styrofoam. At this point their first visit in the STEAM room was done, but they had returned the next week and we continued right where we left off. This is when I introduced them to another material. I brought them down a wooden stump and asked them if they could push nails with their hands into it. They tried and were not successful.
"What can we use to help push those nails into the wood?" I asked them.
"A hammer!" one of them replied.
I brought down the tool box and opened it up for the children. We glanced at all the tools and right away they knew what tool was necessary to accomplish our goal, a hammer. I showed each of them how to hold the hammer and the nail and to gently tap the nail into the wooden stump before they started banging those nails in. Each of them tried and hammered nails into the wooden stumps. They noticed that you have to hit the nail pretty hard and that hitting nails into wood was tougher to do because wood is hard. I brought over the Styrofoam they were pushing nails into and reminded them that they used their hands with the Styrofoam. It was a verbal cue so they could make the connection at how differently they needed to, and how they did handle both materials. The enjoyment the children get when using real tools as opposed to plastic toy tools is evident when you see the pride and excitement they have throughout the experience. Their realization that they could hammer real nails into wood was expressed with excitement of "I DID IT!" as they showed me their accomplishment.
You can really see the progression and really pinpoint and make the connections of their thoughts from when they first came into the room to the end. Everything was connected from starting with building houses and beds, to building tables with nails and Styrofoam. Finally to knowing that when we build and construct we need to use tools and how they are applicable to the nails they were using. The engineering shined bright in those children that day children that day. I hope their return to the room will continue on that path and their interest stays focused, as we will attempt to go deeper into understanding about tools and building.