Last week, I was reminded why I am so enamored with hands-on explorations grounded in phenomena: the physical world has rich explorations and entry points to offer to anyone, no matter their age or prior knowledge. Take shadows as a phenomenon, for example: since the start of our tinkering work years ago, we have been inviting kids and grown ups to explore light and shodow, create art and tell stories with our light play activity.
But it wasn't until recently — over the past couple of months — that we started to work with preschoolers as young as 3 to explore light. The young kids don't engage with our materials in the same way as the older participants. They are less focused on designing and completing a light vignette and more engaged in playing with the materials. But they are equally fascinated with the phenomenon. They are delighted when they discover that they can create a shadow of a star by holding it in front of a light block, even if they are just at the very beginning of understanding the concept of light and shadow.
The same week that my teammates were exploring shadows with preschoolers, I was invited to a math conference to collaborate with grown ups — mathematicians and education researchers — and explore complex geometric structures (tensegrities). On a whim, one participant held a geometric structure made of straws and rubber bands in front of the video projector and discovered that the shadow of the complex structure was unexpected, symmetric, and beautiful. Soon the whole group flocked around, intrigued by the different shadows of their 3D structures and fascinated by how light interacts with these complex 3D objects.
Just as much as the toddlers, we were fascinated, unable to stop exploring, thrilled, confused and surprised by what light and shadows revealed.
Over and over again, I am reminded that nothing compares to direct exposure to natural phenomena and that personally meaningful moments of learning arise naturally for all of us as we tinker with them. The youngest learners might not be able to put their discoveries into words, and some of the older ones might need a reminder that it's ok to play, but tinkering with natural phenomena seems to be part of our nature — no matter our age.