Exploring relationships between playspaces, pedagogy, and preschoolers’ play-based science and engineering practices





Science education, Early childhood education, Equity, Pedagogy, Play-based learning


This manuscript reports the results of a research study exploring the ways in which physical space and teacher pedagogy are related to preschoolers’ engagement with science and engineering practices while at play. Using the Science and Engineering Practices Observation Protocol (SciEPOP), researchers captured children’s engagement with the eight science and engineering practices identified in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This study explores relationships between specific playspaces, materials, and pedagogical strategies, and children’s patterns of engagement with particular science and engineering practices during free play. There are notable differences in the spaces, materials, and pedagogies children encounter across the four participating preschools, and these differences suggest significant gaps in children’s opportunities to engage in and deepen their enactment of science and engineering practices. The authors present evidence in support of adaptive, personalized strategies for deepening children’s engagement with science through play, and raise questions about equity in early science learning environments that have implications both nationally and internationally for science education research, practice, and policy.


Download data is not yet available.


Metrics Loading ...


"Appendix F: Science and Engineering Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards". NGSS Lead States (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Akman, B., & Özgül, S. G. (2015). Role of play in teaching science in the early childhood years. In Cabe Trundle K. & M. Saçkes (Eds.), Research in early childhood science education (pp. 237-258). Springer. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9505-0_11

Barenthien, J., Lindner, M. A., Ziegler, T., & Steffensky, M. (2018). Exploring preschool teachers' science-specific knowledge. Early Years, 40(3), 1-16. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09575146.2018.1443321

Barton, A. C., & Tan, E. (2009). Funds of knowledge and discourses and hybrid space. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), 50-73. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20269

Barton, A. C., Kang, H., Tan, E., O'Neill, T. B., Bautista-Guerra, J., & Brecklin, C. (2013). Crafting a future in science: Tracing middle school girls' identity work over time and space. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 37-75. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831212458142

Bergen, D. (2002). The role of pretend play in children's cognitive development. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1). http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4n1/index.html.

Bergen, D. (2009). Play as the learning medium for future scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. American Journal of Play, 1(4), 413-428.

Berland, L. K., & Reiser, B. J. (2009). Making sense of argumentation and explanation. Science Education, 93(1), 26-55. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.20286

Bonawitz, E., Shafto, P., Gweon, H., Goodman, N. D., Spelke, E., & Schulz, L. (2011). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition, 120(3), 322-330. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.10.001

Brandon, P. R., Taum, A. K. H., Young, D. B., & Pottenger, F. M. (2008). The de elopement and validation of The Inquiry Science Observation Coding Sheet. Evaluation and Program Planning, 31(3), 247-258. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2008.03.007

Bulunuz, M. (2013). Teaching science through play in kindergarten: Does integrated play and science instruction build understanding?. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 21(2), 226-249. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2013.789195

Cook, C., Goodman, N. D., & Schulz, L. E. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers' exploratory play. Cognition, 120(3), 341-349. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

Creswell, J. W., Plano Clark, V. L., Gutmann, M., & Hanson, W. (2003). Advanced mixed methods research designs. In A. Tashakkori & C. Teddlie (Eds.), Handbook of mixed methods in social and behavioral research (pp. 209-240). Sage.

Cunningham, C. E. (2017). Engineering practices. In C.V. Schwarz, C. Passmore, & B. J. Reiser (Eds.), Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 283-307). NSTA Press.

Cunningham, C.E. & Carlsen, W.S. (2014). Teaching engineering practices. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(2), 197-210. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10972-014-9380-5

Duschl, R. A., & Bybee, R. W. (2014). Planning and carrying out investigations: An entry to learning and to teacher professional development around NGSS science and engineering practices. International Journal of STEM Education, 1(1), 1-9. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-014-0012-6

Early, D. M., Iruka, I. U., Ritchie, S., Barbarin, O. A., Winn, D. M. C., Crawford, G. M., Frome, P. M., Clifford, R. M., Burchinal, M., Howes, C., Bryant, D. M., & Pianta, R. C. (2010). How do pre-kindergarteners spend their time? Gender, ethnicity, and income as predictors of experiences in pre-kindergarten classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25(2), 177-193. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2009.10.003

Fleer, M., Gomes, J., & March, S. (2014). Science learning affordances in preschool environments. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(1), 38-48. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/183693911403900106

Forbes, C., Biggers, M., & Zangori, L. (2013). Investigating essential characteristics of scientific practices in elementary science learning environments: The Practices of Science Observation Protocol (P-SOP). School Science and Mathematics, 113(4), 180-190. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/ssm.12014

French, L. (2004). Science as the center of a coherent, integrated early childhood curriculum. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19(1), 138-149. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2004.01.004

Gerde, H. K., Pierce, S. J., Lee, K., & Van Egeren, L. A. (2018). Early childhood educators' self-efficacy in science, math, and literacy instruction and science practice in the classroom. Early Education and Development, 29(1), 70-90. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2017.1360127

Gomes, J., & Fleer, M. (2019). The development of a scientific motive: How preschool science and home play reciprocally contribute to science learning. Research in Science Education, 49(2), 613-634. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-017-9631-5

Gopnik, A. (2012). Scientific thinking in young children: Theoretical advances, empirical research, and policy implications. Science, 337(6102), 1623-1627. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1223416

Gotwals, A. W., & Songer, N. B. (2013). Validity evidence for learning progression‐based assessment items that fuse core disciplinary ideas and science practices. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(5), 597-626. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21083

Greenfield, D. B., Alexander, A., & Frechette, E. (2017). Unleashing the power of science in early childhood: A foundation for high-quality interactions and learning. Zero to Three, 37(5), 13-21.

Greenfield, D. B., Jirout, J., Dominguez, X., Greenberg, A., Maier, M., & Fuccillo, J. (2009). Science in the preschool classroom: A programmatic research agenda to improve science readiness. Early Education and Development, 20(2), 238-264. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10409280802595441

Howes, C., & Smith, E. W. (1995). Relations among child care quality, teacher behavior, children's play activities, emotional security, and cognitive activity in child care. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 10(4), 381-404. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/0885-2006(95)90013-6

Kaderavek, J. & North, T. & Rotshtein, R. & Dao, H. & Liber, N. & Milewski, G. & Molitor, S. & Czerniak, C. (2015). SCIIENCE: The creation and pilot implementation of an NGSS-based instrument to evaluate early childhood science teaching. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 45(10), 27-36. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.stueduc.2015.03.003

Lachapelle, C. P., Sargianis, K., & Cunningham, C. M. (2013). Engineer it, learn it: Science and engineering practices in action. Science and Children, 51(3), 70-76. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2505/4/sc13_051_03_70

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X035007003

Ladson-Billings, G. (2011). Boyz to men? Teaching to restore Black boys' childhood. Race Ethnicity and Education, 14(1), 7-15. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2011.531977

Larimore, R. A. (2020). Preschool science education: A vision for the future. Early Childhood Education Journal, 48(5), 1-12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-020-01033-9

Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2015). The development of scientific thinking. In R. M. Lerner, P. Molenaar, & W. F. Overton (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (pp. 1-44). Wiley. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118963418.childpsy216

Miller, A. & Saenz, L. (2019, April 5-9). Developing the Preschool Scientific and Engineering Practices Instrument to explore STEM in children's play. [Conference presentation]. American Educational Research Association.

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., & Maczuga, S. (2016). Science achievement gaps begin very early, persist, and are largely explained by modifiable factors. Educational Researcher, 45(1), 18-35. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X16633182

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2021). Science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades: The brilliance of children and the strengths of educators. The National Academies Press.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2005). NAEYC code of Ethical conduct and statement of commitment. National Association for the Education of Young Children. http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PSETH05.pdf

National Research Council. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. National Academies Press.

Nayfeld, I., Brenneman, K., & Gelman, R. (2011). Science in the classroom: Finding a balance between autonomous exploration and teacher-led instruction in preschool settings. Early Education & Development, 22(6), 970-988. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2010.507496

Next Generation Science Standards Lead States (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. The National Academies Press.

Nicholson, S. (1971). The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62(1), 30-34.

Norðdahl, K., & Jóhannesson, I. Á. (2016). 'Let's go outside': Icelandic teachers' views of using the outdoors. Education 3-13, 44(4), 391-406. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03004279.2014.961946

Olsen, H., & Smith, B. (2017). Sandboxes, loose parts, and playground equipment: A descriptive exploration of outdoor play environments. Early Child Development and Care, 187(5-6), 1055-1068. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2017.1282928

Pellegrini, A. D., & Nathan, P. E. (Eds.). (2011). The Oxford handbook of the development of play. Oxford Library of Psychology.

Piasta, S. B., Pelatti, C. Y., & Miller, H. L. (2014). Mathematics and science learning opportunities in preschool classrooms. Early Education and Development, 25(4), 445-468. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2013.817753

Piburn, M., & Sawada, D. (2000). Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) Reference Manual. Technical Report.

Ross, D. (2013). Ambiguity and possibility: Cognitive and educational grounds for play. International Journal of Play, 2(1), 22-31. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2013.771604

Saçkes, M. (2014). How often do early childhood teachers teach science concepts? Determinants of the frequency of science teaching in kindergarten. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 22(2), 169-184. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2012.704305

Saenz, L. P. & Miller, A. R. (in process). The validation of the Science and Engineering Practices Observation Protocol (SciEPOP).

Sawada, D., Piburn, M.D., Judson, E., Turley, J., Falconer, K., Benford, R. and Bloom, I. (2002), Measuring reform practices in science and mathematics classrooms: The reformed teaching observation protocol. School Science and Mathematics, 102(6), 245-253. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1949-8594.2002.tb17883.x

Schwarz, C. V., Passmore, C., & Reiser, B. J. (2017). Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices. NSTA Press.

Schwarz, C. V., Reiser, B. J., Davis, E. A., Kenyon, L., Achér, A., Fortus, D., Schwatrz, Y., Hug, B., & Krajcik, J. (2009). Developing a learning progression for scientific modeling: Making scientific modeling accessible and meaningful for learners. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(6), 632-654. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20311

Sobel, D. (2015). Nature preschools and forest kindergartens: The handbook for outdoor learning. Redleaf Press.

Souto-Manning, M. (2017). Is play a privilege or a right? And what's our responsibility? On the role of play for equity in early childhood education. Early Child Development and Care, 187(5-6), 785-787. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2016.1266588

Sutton, M. J. (2011). In the hand and mind: The intersection of loose parts and imagination in evocative settings for young children. Children Youth and Environments, 21(2), 408-424.

Trundle, K. C. (2015). The inclusion of science in early childhood classrooms. In K. Trundle & M. Sackes (Eds.), Research in early childhood science education (pp. 1-6). Springer. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9505-0_1

Trundle, K. C., & Saçkes, M. (2012). Science and early education. In R. C. Pianta, W. S. Barnett, L. M. Justice, & S. M. Sheridan (Eds.), Handbook of early childhood education (240-258). Guilford Press.

Tu, T. (2006). Preschool science environment: What is available in a preschool classroom?. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(4), 245-251. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-005-0049-8

Tu, T., & Hsiao, W. (2008). Preschool teacher-child verbal interactions in science teaching. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 12(2), 1-23.

United Nations. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/crc.pdf

Vitiello, V. E., Whittaker, J. V, Mulcahy, C., Kinzie, M. B., & Helferstay, L. (2019). Reliability and validity of the preschool science observation measure. Early Education and Development, 30(2), 196-215. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2018.1544814

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Weldemariam, K. T. (2014). Cautionary tales on interrupting children's play: A study from Sweden. Childhood Education, 90(4), 265-271. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2014.935692




How to Cite

Miller, A. R., & Saenz, L. P. (2021). Exploring relationships between playspaces, pedagogy, and preschoolers’ play-based science and engineering practices. Journal of Childhood, Education & Society, 2(3), 314–337. https://doi.org/10.37291/2717638X.202123121