Wisdom Begins with Wonder

Play with a purpose

play with a purpose

play with a purpose

During last week’s scichat (#scichat) on Twitter, I mentioned, “play with a purpose.”  Play with a purpose is a saying that I often use with students.  It means checking out something new in a systematic way; having fun in an organized fashion; discovery with a goal.

Play with a purpose activities are opportunities for students to discover and explore something that you hope will inspire inquiry.  It is a way to guide inquiry while still doing open-ended inquiry.  It is also a good way to assess inquiry skills.

The idea of play with a purpose is that you give students something – an object, a set of chemicals, an organism, a system – and ask them to see what they can find out about it.  I usually ask them to record their findings in a t-chart of observations vs. questions.  Of course, you must clearly identify any safety hazards prior to this activity.

After play with a purpose, students should have a lot of questions and thoughts generated that they can use to create a scientific question that they want to answer.

Some examples of play with a purpose activities I’ve done with students:

  • combine cornstarch with water and see what happens [fluid dynamics, macromolecules, polymers, non-Newtonian fluids]
  • observe stoneflies (they do pushups when the dissolved oxygen level in their water gets low) [homeostasis, gas exchange, physiology, respiration, etc.]
  • mix Alka-Seltzer with water in a closed film canister and observe the resulting explosion [reaction kinetics, acid/ base chemistry]
  • make whirligigs [gravity, aerodynamics]
  • vinegar and baking soda [acid/ base chemistry, gas production, reaction kinetics, etc.]
  • dilute HCl and various materials [metals, wood, plastics, etc.]
  • bromothymol blue, calcium chloride, and baking soda [endothermic/ exothermic reactions, reaction kinetics, etc.]

Let’s pick one and see where it goes, shall we?

Prior to an inquiry investigation into the effects of different parameters on reaction rates, I have students play with alka seltzer and film canisters.  I demonstrate one and require all to wear safety goggles.  I then give them the materials and step back and observe.  I answer no questions, except those related to safety.  They play with the stuff, manipulating variables haphazardly to see what happens.  They jot down observations and questions.  After a period of this, they are ready to generate a scientific question and design experiments.

The learning target that is posted on the board during these activities: “I can play with a purpose”

Photo credit: Keven Law http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevenlaw/2961840972/ used under cc license


  • #   Frank Noschese on 08.15.10 at 12:57 pm     

    This is the best way to start any new topic. I’ve struggled with how to let them “play with a purpose” without giving too much structure. Your T-chart is a great solution! I will definitely be using it this year. Thanks for sharing!

  • #   Mr. Rice on 08.15.10 at 4:44 pm     

    Another way to help the students organize their notes is a 3 column form with “what we did”, “observations” & “questions”. That gives them a little reminder that the goal of their “play” is to get some preliminary data about the object/system and to inspire inquiry.

  • #   Frank Noschese on 08.15.10 at 9:34 pm     

    Even better! Thanks!


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