Jenni Vartiainen: Play-based science education raises children to be active and critical

If science education were more firmly integrated into early education, children from different backgrounds would be even more equal in adopting a scientific way of thinking, which would in turn benefit our society.

Remember the joy that you felt as a child when you realised something for the first time? Perhaps you learned a new trick or understood how something works. It is precisely these insights that can have a great effect on how you act and make decisions today.

If we can learn a meaningful way to find out about things as children, we will grow up to think of ourselves as active agents, learners and critical thinkers. Children who practice research skills and receive science education before they enter school are more motivated and gain better learning results later in school.

In science education, children practice research skills through play and independent realisation. Small children are very inquiring by nature – from the very moment they first start interacting with their surroundings.

Indeed, children get to know the world around them through exploration. They make observations and try things and adjust their behaviour accordingly. By doing so, children learn to understand the significance of their actions and small everyday choices.

The University of Helsinki has developed a playful model for science education

At the moment, the University of Helsinki offers science education for children in science clubs and various courses and online. This education focuses on practicing the skills of exploration, including how to make observations about the phenomenon under scrutiny. Activities always use stories, play and drama to tie the examined phenomenon into children's everyday experiences.

The playful science education model for small children was developed at the University of Helsinki, and it is currently applied in numerous science clubs across Finland. Over the past five years, more than 4,000 children have participated in playful science education.

Although science education is often applied to natural sciences, it actually encompasses all disciplines: at its core, science education develops scientific and critical thinking and scientific literacy. These are prerequisites for being able to become a full member of society, make justified choices and participate in discussions about science.

Science education also has important social effects. The University of Helsinki currently studies, for example, whether science education could prevent socio-economic bubbles from forming.

If science education were more firmly integrated into early education, children from different backgrounds could become more equal in learning and adopting a scientific way of thinking. This way, science education would not just remain a hobby in families with parents who are already interested in science, but become available for all.

The current early education curriculum already includes topics that can make use of science education, such as making observations about one’s surroundings, naming phenomena and classifying things.

Play, an important export product

Finland is not the only country that offers science education, but we have found a unique way to incorporate play into it. In Finland, exploring a subject can be a great big role play in itself, or the learning environment can be built in a way that allows children to use research tools as part of their independent play.

With small children, playfulness is crucial in preventing the learning situation from exceeding the child’s comprehension. If that happens, the child's enthusiasm and confidence can suffer, and the feeling can later come to haunt the child in school, crumbling his or her motivation.

Teachers and educators need to be encouraged to adopt science education by offering them training and materials. At the University of Helsinki, we conduct plenty of research about what constitutes meaningful early education. Our objective is to see science education courses increasingly integrated into university education in the future, especially in early education and teacher education.

Finnish science education is exported to the world in a package that includes digital know-how and a unique element of playfulness. Play is a way to motivate children to learn scientific phenomena, thus creating a valuable foundation for future grown-ups and decision-makers.

The Playful Learning Center at the University of Helsinki organises science education for the children.