Research Summary

Designing for Family Science Explorations Anytime, Anywhere

Designing a Playful and Collaborative Family Science Activity

Science Education

Fostering family learning through meaningful adult/ child interaction is often a central goal of informal science education. Although previous family-learning research has focused on designed settings such as science centers and museums, recent research has expanded to include a broader array of unstructured, everyday-life settings, including homes, parks, and community spaces. In this study, researchers developed and field-tested an outdoor family science activity that aimed to promote science learning during family beach trips.

The activity, called Anytime, Anywhere, centered on the topic of coastal beaches and targeted young children (age 4 to 10) and their parents. It consisted of prompts and conversation starters that sought to promote open-ended, collaborative, and playful explorations with natural and scientific phenomena. Anytime, Anywhere used place-based learning principles to encourage participants to explore local natural phenomena on the beach, such as bluff layers, cliffs and dunes, sand patterns, and ocean waves. Instead of emphasizing science facts and “correct answers,” the activity focused on scientific reasoning and exploration through social interaction, collaboration, and play.

In what ways does Anytime, Anywhere support family science learning in everyday settings, and how can the program’s design be improved? To address these questions, researchers examined three families’ use of Anytime, Anywhere prompts during their beach trips. All three families were middle-class families with two college educated parents and two or three young children ages 2 to 9. The families were recruited at a local science center, through e-mail list-servs and informal networks. Each family was given 20 Anytime, Anywhere prompt cards to use during their beach trip, and researchers asked them to use whichever cards they found interesting. The researchers were not present during the beach trip; instead, the researchers gave one child and one adult from each family wearable GoPro cameras to video record their family/ beach activities. Between 45 and 90 minutes of video recording was obtained from each camera. Researchers also interviewed families after their beach trips regarding their activities and ideas about science.

The researchers used qualitative methods to analyze data from videos and interviews. Analysis showed that children and adults used the prompts to engage in exploring natural phenomena at the beach. Three common themes of science learning and exploration emerged across the case studies: Families used the activity prompts to engage in (1) asking questions and generating ideas about natural processes, (2) generating hypotheses about unknown and surprising phenomena, and (3) spontaneous experimentation to test ideas. Different families used different prompts, and they used those prompts to varying degrees and frequencies. All families engaged in collaborative science learning about a range of natural, local phenomena, within the context of everyday family time.

Based on their data analysis, the researchers made several design recommendations for improving the activity. First, they urged that the activity prompts be situated in specific, local phenomena, rather than abstract generalized phenomena or principles. This specificity will help participants make specific observations, draw on their prior knowledge, and seek evidence relevant to the local context. Second, they suggested using prompts for which no one knows the correct answer, as it tends to encourage more talk and collaboration, and reduces the potential for any single person with the “correct answer” to discount others’ ideas. Third, they called for prompts that encourage participants to ponder multiple competing ideas, thus creating space for communication and collaboration during family time.

The Bottom Line

Everyday and leisure activities are great contexts for engaging families with young children in science learning. Rather than family science activities that emphasize fact-based knowledge and “correct” answers, those that encourage adults and children to engage with scientific processes and practices—through asking questions, exploring phenomena, testing hypothesis, and spontaneous experimentation—can be substantially more engaging. Activities should draw on families’ everyday experiences, support open-ended explorations of scientific phenomena, and encourage playful interaction. In addition, situating the activity in specific local and natural phenomena, encouraging communication, and supporting collaboration can lead to more meaningful family engagement with science.