The Theory Behind the Play

By now, you all are familiar with the format of LEAP: free choice between several open-ended stations, then gathering together at the end for our wrap up activity and song. I’d like to explain why we chose to set up LEAP this way. LEAP’s guiding principles are based on the renowned psychologist and pioneer in child development Jean Piaget’s theory of constructivism.  Constructivism states that people construct their own knowledge of the world by actively experiencing, exploring, and reflecting on their environment. Children learn through trial and error and making discoveries through their own actions. This is why we provide opportunities for the kids to engage with the stations at their own pace and based on their own interests. Below I’ve detailed three vital components of LEAP. These philosophies apply not just to nature play activities, but all kinds of learning for little ones.

Hands-on We design LEAP to be extremely hands-on. We provide a variety of materials with different textures, smells, sounds, and sights to encourage the kids to touch, manipulate, and actively participate in their learning. Providing multisensory stations allows children of multiple learning styles to create individualized meaningful and memorable experiences. Both kids and adults learn and retain more information when multiple senses are provoked.

Free-choice We encourage LEAPers to follow their interests and choose which stations they explore and how long they will stay at each station. Kids learn best when they are able to make their own choices in their discoveries, and they are most excited to engage in activities that they choose for themselves. Free choice also allows for individualized learning. Not all children learn the same way. Some learn best by fiddling and experimenting with something by themselves while others learn best by watching peers. While the kids explore at their own paces and levels, adult facilitators (both our LEAP educators and YOU) can support and extend the learning by making connections to past experiences, giving words to what the kids are doing, and providing ample time for investigation with the materials.

Open-ended Our stations at LEAP are open-ended, meaning there is not one correct way of interacting with the materials. Instead, the focus is on the process of exploration. Kids are able to tailor the activities to their own abilities and interests. While one LEAPer may choose to carefully scoop up beans with a shovel and then dump them into a bucket at the sensory bin, another LEAPer may choose to instead pick up the beans with their hands and watch them fall down back into bin. These children are both learning, and one way is not superior to the other. This is an empowering way to learn, as kids are able to control their learning by posing their own questions and conducting their own experiments. A neat product of this is that different learning happens at every session, even though we use some of the same materials week after week.

So next time at LEAP, remember that there’s a method to the madness! While it may not be obvious, your little ones are gaining skills, knowledge, and confidence through their play.

Source: Marcie Oltman, Editor (2002). Natural Wonders: A Guide to Early Childhood for Environmental Educators. St Paul, MN: Minnesota Children’s Museum and the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance

-Stacey Martin