Creative Play and Scientific Inquiry, Part 2: A Mandate to Make Learning Meaningful | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Creative Play and Scientific Inquiry, Part 2: A Mandate to Make Learning Meaningful

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Low-performing schools believe they must spend every available instructional minute focused on tasks that will raise standardized test scores.

So our kindergartners miss out on creative play. Our elementary school students lose opportunities to explore science by reading what interests them instead of the carefully selected readers we provide. Our middle school students spend their science-class time memorizing rather than investigating. And our high school students simply walk away because they no longer care what is on the test, having become disengaged years before.

At the same time, we expand the capacity at our prisons, already filled with people who lack self-control. We incarcerate more than 1 percent of the total population and more than 10 percent of young African American men. It may seem strange to make this juxtaposition, but I believe that the ability of our young children to play, explore, and satisfy their curiosity is far more than child's play: It is a matter of life and death.

I only hope the reexamination of the whole standardized-testing project that awaits us after the demise of the No Child Left Behind Act -- and I do believe its days are numbered -- will yield some deeper questions about the nature of education. This shift does not mean we will ignore the ability to read. It means we seek to inspire students by having them read material they are interested in reading. It doesn't mean we do not teach math skills. It means we must be creative in developing a true interest for math in our students, so they develop their skills by solving real problems. It doesn't mean we make science easier. It means we challenge students to design and perform real experiments, rather than simply memorize facts.

For me, there are a couple of questions: How can we teach our students the most profound lesson of all -- to be responsible for their own knowledge? How can we teach them to have an awareness of and curiosity about the world around them? We need to evoke the scientist, the writer, the solver of mathematical conundrums, the historian, the musician, the dancer, and the athlete that resides within each student. Our students are waiting to be challenged by their own curiosity, by their own creativity, and by the thrill that comes from expressing their own unique humanity. My mission as a teacher is to get them to that point, not just to prepare them for a test.

Please share your thoughts.

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Comments (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Renee Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked the way you linked the effects of limiting play and creativity in children starting at kindergarten and ending at prison. Children's Defense Fund has also looked at how the things we do (or don't do) for children creates a "cradle-to-prison" pipeline for many youth, especially African Americans. Prepapring students to be part of the larger society has always been and should be an important part of their education. Good teachers always included things like responsibility, integrity, service, civic-mindedness in our classrooms. Unfortunately, much of that has been forced out by various well-meaning, but misdirected initiatives. Thanks for the reminder of what really matters.

Anthony Cody, Oakland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for making that explicit link. I have worked in Oakland schools for the past 21 years, and have sen this first-hand. Students who are told that test scores are the mot important thing are systematically devalued, especially when their test scores are low for whatever reason. Then activities in which they might excel are removed or curtailed, and school becomes a relentless reminder of their deficits, rather than an opportunity to build on and expand their strengths. The high dropout rate is the symptom of this in our schools, and the incarceration rates are right there as well.

Catherine Laguna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have had some success this year with respect to teaching students to become responsible for their own knowledge. With the help of Robin Ellis (see Open Professional Development 3/14/08) I have incorporated Web 2.0 tools in my middle school science classroom. Students use wikis, Voice Thread, podcasting, and the RSS agregator Page Flakes to gather, manage, and share their knowledge.

The students know that they are helping me to learn this new technology and that our wiki is helping other teachers around the world learn to use the technology as well. They have learned to use the online resources independently to extend their learning, review lessons, access documents and links, and to share their thoughts and ideas. It is a very exciting year in Room 1!

In addition, I find that simulations, like Energy Skate Park, allow students to comfortable play with science concepts, changing variables, testing ideas, and just having fun. Big kid free play!
Catherine Laguna,
Quakertown, PA

Sue Fleming's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the district where I have worked for the past 11 years, our curriculum has changed dramatically. This has been because of a couple different reasons. The first was a change in our administration. We got a new Superintendent a few years ago who only cared about test scores, Then of course come NCLB. What is interesting is in my district; our old L.A. program did allow fun, and creativity. And our test score were about average. But the Superintendent didn't like average, he wanted above average, so we had to abandoned what we were doing and switch to a state approved program. We now have several schools with low-test scores. Maybe just memorizing facts is not enough.
I don't feel today's students are prepared to face the world. I feel like we are behind other countries, and high test scores are not to change that.

jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


State mandates have put too much pressure on test scores. As a result, students are involved in more schooling than they are involved in acutal learning. State tests are making students spit back memorized information. Students are doing less actual learning. They are not able to solve problems and are not able to express themselves.

I feel that standarized tests take away from the learning experience and encourage less critical thinking.

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I started teaching Kindergarten in a new school district this year the other Kindergarten teacher and I sat down to discuss schedules. She mentioned that we needed to allow 45-60 minutes for playtime. Then she made it clear that playtime is in the classroom with their peers and is held daily in addition to their recess time. As I looked around my room at the kitchen center, blocks, art center, and dress-up clothes I marveled at the idea these tools would be used. Play time? To be honest it was a difficult idea to wrap my head around. How would I find the time.

Recently I read that "experience shapes the brain" and that learning is done through the connections that children make (Wolfe, 2003). While this particular article focused on how neuroscience can be utilized more effectively in teaching I felt that it can also be used to point out that play a way to make these connections. After some research I found that I wasn't alone in my belief. Play has important role in cognition, language development, socialization, as well as emotional and physical development.

While there are times when I worry about covering everything I need to in Kindergarten and feel I could use that extra 40 minutes to teacher. Then I see how my students are learning to work together, to listen and believe that school can be fun. Now I join in the fun as well because after all who is a better model of play then their own teacher?

Frost, J. (1998, June 1). Neuroscience, Play, and Child Development. . (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED427845) Retrieved March 22, 2008, from ERIC database.
Wolfe, P. (2003, Fall). Brain-compatible learning: Fad or foundation? Retrieved May 24, 2007, from
Reprinted with permission. From the December 2006 issue of The School Administrator.

Kev Murray's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anthony, I have taught now for four years as a science educator. My experience is divided between urban and rural schools within the state of Colorado. Being a new teacher, inquiry based science instruction is an exciting approach for me to take when educating students. While I taught in Greeley, CO at a high school with a 50% hispanic/50 white populations I performed some action research.

Knowing that my school district was on watch by the state due to low standardized test scores I was careful at letting people into my "free for all" of a classroom but anxious to overcome the idea that inquiry based classrooms may lead yo lower standardized test scores.

During the first semester I taught 2 classes through student-initiated inquiry instruction and 2 classes (of the same subject) through a traditional style (lecture, demonstration and teacher-initiated experimentation). After teaching the same content in two very different ways there was not a significant difference in test scores of the 4 classes. Although no evidence in numerical data was found, convincing proof was discovered that the inquiry process increased students' ability to think creatively, solve problems, test solutions and respond to their findings.

Danielle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Learning should be fun for students at any age. And I have tried to make lessons as enjoyable as possible regarless of the age group I have worked with. When I was in college I visited a school where they had built a mini town. The town had a bank, a pizza restaurant, store, and a couple other buildings. Each grade used this throughout the year to help learn real life exerpiences. Although I didn't get to see how well this worked I thought it was a great opportunity for students to understand the concept of money. The students were given a set amount at the beginning of the school year and there were ways to earn money and they were able to buy supplies at the school store, pizza for lunch, etc. The bank showed students how to deposit money to help save or for safe keeping. Each teacher kept track of the students money, however if a student was running low on money and wanted to buy something and didn't have enough they weren't allowed to buy anything until they earned money back. I think this form of play is very beneficial for children of any age. It helps teach responsibility as well as mathematical concepts.

After reading Kimberly's response about play and how "experience shapes the brain," this was the first thing I thought of. How this school was using real life experiences to help these students understand situations they would eventually encounter.

Luke A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a rual, small school system in northwest Ohio. I have been teaching for six years. My job is interesting in the fact that I teach mostly k-6 visual art, but also have a jr. high and high school class.

I really liked the point you made about the growth of a child beginning at kindergarten and up through high school. I can see the effects of teaching to the test. I know what you mean by saying, "...our high school students simply walk away because they no longer care what is on the test, having become disengaged years before". I completely agree. I feel part of my job is to let the students be creative in their own ways. I do have guidelines, but these students do too much memorizing and preparing for a test that they do not have time to let their minds work in creative ways. Teaching art has been great in the fact that I allow them to do that. I do not think I would call it play time, but a time to let the students take part in the process of education. They all have so many creative ideas. Movement and expression is good for them throughout the day. School should be a place that elementary students enjoy and not dread. No matter the subject: Science, Math, Language, Art, etc., students need the chance to learn from their creative inquiries.

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like Kimberly, I recently read how "experience shapes the brain" (Wolfe, 2003). This reminded me about a full-day kindergarten classroom that I am a guest teacher in frequently. This teacher has incorporated a free choice activity into her daily classroom schedule. It is amazing to see the mimicry and social/cognitive learning that takes place when students are playing in the house, art center, book den, computer center, etc. The students have the opportunity to choose what activity they participate in and, to some extent, the peers whom which they interact. From the house activity alone, I have seen the learning that takes place among the students. I have also seen the many things they have brought to the classroom from their observations outside of school.

Wolfe, P. (2003, Fall). Brain research and education: Fad or foundation? Retrieved March 17, 2008, from

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.