Designing Innovative Guided Play Experiences to Empower Parents and Engage Preschool-Age Children in STEM Learning

Project: Research project

Project Details


Parents exert a strong influence on the development of foundational science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) skills in early childhood. This influence occurs, in large part, through playful parent-child interactions and conversations that expose children to mathematical and spatial concepts in interesting and useful ways. For example, parents of preschool children are often encouraged to use puzzles, board games, and construction activities to foster children's spatial thinking and early math skills. However, mastery-oriented toys like these typically elicit highly structured interactions, with parents directing children to follow explicit step-by-step instructions and game rules. Although this kind of parent-directed play can build content knowledge in STEM, it does little to encourage the kind of intrinsically-motivated discovery, generative collaboration, and creative problem-solving skills that support STEM education and attainment. This research in service to practice project seeks to understand how parents can play with their preschool children in ways that build children's STEM skills while also supporting children's social-emotional skills. As such, this research has the potential for advancing knowledge on effective strategies for enriching informal learning opportunities in under-resourced and sparsely populated communities where access to children's museums and other informal learning institutions is limited.

Over a period of three years, approximately 135 children and parents from a rural Appalachian community are expected to participate in this research, which is organized into three phases. During Phase 1, human-centered design processes will be used to develop and refine play guides and parent scaffolds that promote productive pretend play, which is characterized by joyful and creative problem-solving and rich parent/child conversations featuring mathematical and spatial concepts and reasoning. In Phase 2, measures will be developed and validated to operationalize and code this kind of productive parent-child play and play guides will be tested and refined in a local children's museum. In the final phase, a formal field test will investigate the feasibility and acceptability of outreach programming involving the use of play guides over time. Pre-, mid-, and post-intervention measures will estimate program impact on child STEM and social-emotional skill acquisition, relative to a comparison group. An expected outcome of the project will be research-based educational materials that illustrate and support pretend play in ways that generate spatial and mathematical thinking and parent/child conversations. These materials will will be made available to families and informal learning practitioners. This project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date9/1/188/31/22


  • National Science Foundation: $1,264,388.00


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