Messy Play – It’s not rocket science! By Verity Welch

27th April 2017

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As I was reading Jenny Rohn’s article, Can pre-school children learn to do science?, I realised that the answer to her question was definitely ‘yes’ – they do all the time whether we teach it them or not. Our investigations take place in the water tray, sand pit, and mud kitchen. On other occasions, we make our home corner into a ‘magic planet’.

Children are curious, keen to learn and as early years practitioners we should spend their time enhancing these natural lines of enquiry. Whether that’s by spending our Saturday mornings ordering borax online, throwing in bags of flour into our weekly shop or getting excited when we see cheap spaghetti for 20p. We constantly reflect on our enabling environment to support deeper learning opportunities.

I’ve met many budding scientists in early years. Once, I found myself observing a group of children who were fascinated by mixing things; using tiny teaspoons and yoghurt pots filled with water and random pieces of pasta. That evening I reflected on my observations and arrived at school very early the following morning. I needed to have time to soak lasagne sheets so they were softened and ready for the children’s arrival. I added glitter, coloured paint, a tablespoon of flour, a teaspoon of coffee, white wine vinegar, a few drops of oil, food colouring and some sprinkle stars. I then spent a pleasurable 10 minutes experimenting myself by mixing different combinations. I realised the time and went to open the door to let in the children.

They came in and did their usual walk around to inspect opportunities available. There was a whoop of joy when one noticed 4 extra hole punches in the writing area. A quiet smile when one saw charged up torches freely available by the cosy den. A merry laugh when one saw the teddies by the water tray ready for their termly bath. A look of delight and instant involvement as a child ran off to explore the sieves, wheels and cones in the dry sand.

But the children were not interested in the lasagne sheets. A few commented “yuck” and walked passed. A parent politely smiled and said, “That looks like fun”. One child eventually went over to investigate. This was the child who the day before had been responsible for bringing out my messy play activity idea. She correctly commented that the lasagne was “soft and different” and then moved on to pick up another dry piece of pasta from the creative area and started to recreate her play from the day before. Once again she was following her own research idea.

It was only later when I spoke to an experienced practitioner (she appears in all my blogs) who suggested that I consider the idea of allowing children to experiment and explore materials themselves. The children, not me, should have been the ones to decide if they wanted to soften the lasagne sheets in water. I realised that messy play and science is more fun if children have ownership in creating it.

(But from personal experience I wouldn’t advise sugar and weed killer. Many years ago I naïvely acquiesced my son’s request to buy two packets of the above and 15 years later there’s still an unmovable dark black dry lump on the bathroom floor. He did go on to study chemistry – which was a relief for the plants and neighbours!)

Children in early years are great observers and explorers. They compare, classify, predict, problem solve and carry out fair tests. It is sometimes difficult for them to interpret and explain findings, but surely it’s our role to develop the language of science. So if your children are developing a love of mixing things, then why not let this lead to the development of a science area. White shirts can replace plastic aprons and kitchen cupboard resources can be made easily accessible. You may want to dress up as a scientist yourself and invite them to explore with you. Teach with equal status!

‘Capturing Curiosity’ requires us to observe, listen, question and reflect on children’s interests. Enable your environment so children can explore, develop knowledge and new skills. It’s not rocket science!

By Verity Welch, Head of the International Early Years Curriculum, Fieldwork Education

You can visit Verity on stand C14 at Childcare Expo Manchester to chat more about play-based learning and strategies for ‘enabling your environment’.

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