Representing Language Learning | Exploratorium

We’ve been focusing on the role of language development for young learners as an important part of our STEAM Starters project. In collaboration with the teachers at our partner sites, we’ve observed just how important the process of introducing new words then reinforcing their use through meaningful interaction can be. At one site, the first activity we engaged in was Light Play. After a few weeks of gaining an understanding of the materials through play and observation, we decided it was time to introduce concept words to describe the phenomena we were observing.

We talked about the fact that some materials can bounce the light, like mirrors, and others can bend the light, like lenses, and some can do both, like Mylar. We tested these ideas and noticed how you can look through a big fresnel lens and it will distort your face for others looking at you (bending the light), that a regular mirror’s reflection looks normal, but a rumpled Mylar mirror will make you look different (both bounce and bend). The last concept was that objects can block light to create a shadow. We used our bodies and objects we found around the classroom to block light and make shadows of different sizes.

Creating posters has been helpful for documenting the language and specific words we use with concepts and phenomena. It’s also been an interactive way to capture kids’ ideas and descriptions for what they’re building.

Several weeks later we switched activities to Marble Machines at this site. Again after a few weeks of exploring the basic set of materials, we wanted to introduce some new materials for building and revisit the concept of a brainstorm. We placed the four new materials on a board in a way where they weren’t really connected to each other and asked the group what they noticed about each one. We started with the large white funnel and introduced “funnel” as a new word. From there, we could describe them by size (big or small), color (black or white) or length (short or long). The clear tube garnered some interesting descriptors including slide, plastic, glass, tube, and even cucumber! Once we had names for all these parts, we brainstormed as a group how we might use them in our designs and sketched the ideas out on a poster. They came up with different ways of combining materials such as small funnel to long funnel, large funnel to tube, and tube to track. This is my favorite part of the process because it re-centers the process on practical applications of how the materials can be used. As we continue to introduce new language to describe the concepts and materials the youth are exploring, it’s important for us to make sure this language development is in service of their ideas and understanding.

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