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Game-Based Learning, STEM, and Young Learners

A toddler stacking blocks, a preschooler mixing colors, a kindergartener examining a caterpillar on the sidewalk. What do these activities have in common? They’re all early explorations in STEM! Young children are natural scientists, engineers, and problem-solvers. They’re constantly observing the world around them, asking questions, and experimenting with their environment.  From the moment children start interacting with the world around them, they’re laying the foundation for future STEM learning and discovery.

As adults (whether parents, caretakers, educators, or educational game developers!), it’s our job to nurture this natural curiosity and provide opportunities for children to deepen their understanding of STEM concepts. One of the most effective ways to do this is through game-based learning!

via Giphy

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The Importance of Play in Child Development

Firstly, it’s important to note that play is not just a frivolous activity – it’s an essential part of a child’s development. As NewPath Learning, “an award-winning publisher of research-based, hands-on print and interactive digital learning resources,” points out, denying children the opportunity to play can have serious consequences, such as impeding brain development and hindering the acquisition of proper social behavior.

During the critical period of early childhood, play helps children form cortical maps, develop emotional connections, and construct their own conscious reality. Unstructured play provides a solid foundation for growth, while play deprivation can lead to behavioral instability, neurological dysfunctions, and dissatisfaction.

Play is crucial for teaching children appropriate social behavior. Without these opportunities, NewPath Learning warns, children may struggle with social awkwardness, lack of engagement, and emotional dysregulation. Through game-based learning, children can practice social engagement, learn to control their emotions, and develop important skills like cooperation and communication

Research has shown that game-based learning can have numerous benefits for young children’s academic and developmental outcomes. According to NewPath Learning, high-quality game-based kindergarten programs, in which children are exposed to learning and problem-solving through self-initiated activities and teacher instruction, have long-term benefits.

In fact, children’s learning outcomes in game-based programs are proven to be higher than those in direct-instruction techniques. Game-based learning encourages children’s desire to explore and discover new things, improves focus and concentration, and allows them to engage in flexible and higher-level cognitive processes such as problem-solving, analysis, evaluation, and creative inquiry.

Additionally, NewPath Learning found that game-based learning can foster a positive attitude toward learning, including imagination, curiosity, enthusiasm, and perseverance. The social interactions between teachers and children in game-based environments also support the development of crucial skills like collaboration, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

The Power of Play and STEM Learning

Not only is game-based learning a powerful tool for early childhood education, but it’s a great resource for STEM learning too. By tapping into children’s natural inclination to play and explore, games allow for learning experiences that are not only effective but also joyful and rewarding. Games provide a safe, low-stakes environment for children to experiment, make mistakes, and learn through trial and error – all of which happen to be critical components of the scientific process.

When asked about game-based learning, STEM expert and NC State College of Education Professor Emeritus Eric Wiebe notes, “From the affective side, we see the immediate benefits of having students more interested in learning, because they feel they are having a positive experience, but also developing positive attitudes towards future learning.” Wiebe also says that games provide students with relatable challenges that often align with their personal interests

The inherent joy and excitement that children experience when exploring STEM concepts through play lay the foundation for a positive relationship with learning, setting them up for success in their future educational endeavors.

Coding for Kids: Never Too Early to Start

One area of STEM that’s gaining increasing attention in education is coding and computational thinking. While the idea of teaching coding to young children might seem daunting, there are numerous age-appropriate tools and resources available that make it accessible and fun.

Our game Learn to Code, which we created in collaboration with our client Publications International, is a prime example. This innovative hybrid of physical books and a mobile app introduces coding concepts to young learners through hands-on activities and playful animations. Children learn the basics of game development – from character creation to simple coding sequences – all while developing important skills like logical thinking, sequencing, and problem-solving.

By introducing coding concepts early and in a way that’s engaging and developmentally appropriate, we can set children up for success in an increasingly digital world. Games like Learn to Code not only help children develop valuable STEM skills but also foster creativity and resilience – all essential qualities for 21st-century learners.

Inspiring Young Scientists Through Gameplay

Of course, coding is just one piece of the early childhood STEM puzzle! Science education is yet another area where game-based learning can have a profound impact. By allowing young learners to interact with scientific concepts in a playful, immersive way, we can help them develop a deep, lasting understanding of the world around them.

For example, we developed six digital learning games for the Smithsonian Science Education Center, each designed to teach young learners about a variety of domains within the sciences. Covering topics like physics, adaptation, and water conservation, the SSEC games library serves the instructional needs of a formal education environment while also supporting the engagement needs of informal learning environments like homes and libraries.

In one of these games, Shutterbugs: Wiggle and Stomp, players practice describing motion while photographing rare animals at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. By snapping pictures of animals on the move, players learn fundamental reading comprehension skills, practicing reading and verb identification while also gaining exposure to various animal behaviors and characteristics

Another game in the suite, Showbiz Safari, has players help a movie director pick actors based on the traits that best fit a film’s role. By casting furry mammals in the blockbuster “Paws” or water-loving actors in “Swimmin’ in the Rain,” players learn about the diversity of plants and animals in different habitats

Children gain a deeper appreciation for different science topics when engaging with these types of games. By harnessing children’s natural curiosity and love of exploration, we can create STEM learning experiences that are not only effective but also joyful and inspiring. And that’s an investment that pays off for a lifetime. The future of STEM starts now – and it all begins with a child’s boundless imagination!

Interested in creating an educational STEM game for a young audience? We have the expertise you need to succeed! Contact us today for a free consultation.

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