Why Play and Exploration are Key for Young Students to Learn

Posted by Pine Crest School on February 27, 2023 at 1:53 PM

By Debra Jacoby, J.D.
Pine Crest Lower School Computer Science/Educational Technology

What is the importance of allowing students time to tinker? As Diane Ackerman, a contemporary American author states, “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”  

At Pine Crest School, purposeful learning goes beyond project based learning and extends to learning opportunities where students can analyze technology tools with which they are familiar.

K Comp Sci Clear Touch

We give Lower School students the opportunity to tinker during Exploration Hours. During this dedicated time, students explore other uses of the same tool and utilize a tool in a way that was not originally instructed. Students choose any tool that is available and see what they can do differently with it.


As an instructor, it ignites my passion when students have designed a use that never occurred to me or was not what I initially intended. Students may come in during the first visit and feel concerned they might break a tool. However, after a few visits, that same student will begin to ask how to merge two different tools together or how a tool may be repurposed.


It is the freedom and ability to “play” that allows our students an opportunity to think independently and outside of the box.


Exploration Hours is not completely unstructured. Students understand that there are expectations and they must be actively involved and engaged with a tool. This idea is similar to when a student looks through shelves in a library.  They may not read every book, but the act of skimming allows for gaining new ideas.



Things to consider when setting time for student exploration and play. 

  • Independence - Evaluate the appropriateness of your student tools. Consider questions such as, “What age does a student need to be to utilize this tool?”, “How much adult assistance is required?”, or “Can the students remove a tool from storage, explore by themselves, and put away the tool properly?”  We find that the ability to do this sequence starts about half way through second grade. Are there exceptions? Of course!

  • Size and Space - How many students and variety of tools can you manage?  Robotics and technology tools require space for movement. Spaces can be reimagined for students to freely explore and reconfigure for Exploration Hours.

  • Safety - What kinds of tools are you allowing during your Exploration Hours?  There is a variety of options for safe play such as: OsmoOzobotsLEGOⓇ RoboticsDash Robots, and more. Alternatively, allow yourself time to plan for the handling of tools; some may require additional time to maintain safety standards and practices.

  • Set Clear Expectations - Guide families and teachers who are unfamiliar with this type of learning. As the instructor, you are guiding students toward making good choices and allowing themselves to freely explore and be creative while taking their learning in a new, less traditional direction.

How can I incorporate student exploration and play in my school?

  1. Before and After School Hours - Look for opportunities to supplement the standard school day with exploration time for students. This can take place during transitional periods before or after school.
  2. Recess Programs - Do you offer students options to visit the library or media center during free periods? Look to balance the needs of outdoor play with other options. Schedule times when students can explore one or more days a week.
  3. Genius Hour or Maker Tables in the Classroom - Offering a few tools for students to explore during a rotation. Tools such as Snap Circuits have pictured instructional booklets which allow younger explorers to build on their own.


Mr. Rogers famously said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”  



Benefits of student exploration and play  

  • Exploration and play highlights both your high and low achievers in technology. It gives students the opportunity to choose their learning and the forum that works best for them. As a teacher, it has enabled me to mentor students and show them other areas they might be interested in on a more individual basis.  

  • This type of inquiry is more relaxed in nature. It is very different than a problem solving lesson. The very nature of technology exploration and play as a lesson has an element of personal interpretation for students and a range of how tools and the technology can be utilized.  

  • All students are able to work collaboratively with peers who may have similar interests but have not previously had the opportunity to work together.

Many inventions have taken place by accident because the inventor was exploring and tinkering. This is what happens when you allow and encourage students to explore. As the American biologist, Mark Bekoff, once said, “Play is training for the unexpected.”

Topics: Lower School, Innovation, Design Thinking