In essence, discovery learning is about allowing children to explore and learn through their environment instead of direct tuition.
This approach has been well researched and has even been proposed as the best learning method for areas such as science and mathematics. Klahr and Nigam (2004) stated that discovery learning is 'the best way to get deep and lasting understanding of scientific phenomena and procedures, particularly for young children'.
The beauty of discovery play for learning is that this is the most natural form a child learns about the world around them. Children are innately curious regarding their environments, from instances of repeatedly dropping items out of pushchairs to exploring textures with their hands.
So, what exactly is discovery learning, and how can you support this either at home or in an educational setting? This article will explore this topic further, advising on setting up a discovery learning area and discovery table activities for learning in both an indoor and outdoor environment.
Let's get discovering!
What exactly is discovery learning?
The principle of discovery learning was devised by 'developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and educational philosopher John Dewey' (Adelson, 2004). Jean Piaget believed that allowing children to learn through experimentation and 'discovery' of the environment around them created a firmer understanding of what they learned.
It is not only proposed that the concepts and knowledge learned through discovery play are firmer embedded, but that children will be more likely to apply and advance on what they have discovered in comparison to direct instruction.
As opposed to discovery play, direct instruction creates a method of learning where children remain a passive recipient. Approaches of direct instruction can include the following:
- Teacher or adult-led learning
- Instructions or sequenced approach
- Presentation of information
- Demonstration of concept or activity
Discovery play is about getting children always to ask why and then explore the topic further through their environment to answer the question for themselves. This is in opposition to direct tuition that would instead list the facts, not allowing children to become active participants in their own learning.
The use of discovery play is valuable across the curriculum. However, maths and science have a significant benefit of being taught in this way. Taking gravity and balance as an example, children will soon discover how to maintain a steady structure and what happens to objects when they fall from height by offering a range of construction items.
What are the benefits of discovery play?
The benefits to children of learning through discovery play include the following:
- Increases persistence and creativity
- Embeds the topics being taught
- Creates an active learning environment
- Offers children a firm foundation to build on what they learn
- Supports independence and problem-solving skills
How to set up a discovery learning area
A discovery play area aims to establish a dedicated zone, allowing children the freedom to investigate. These could be areas set up indoors, such as a corner to a classroom or a playroom. This could also be an area set up outside, ready for children to participate in discovery play whenever you're ready to get outdoors.
The key to creating an engaging discovery play zone is to ensure a broad array of equipment and items to be used. Offering children a varied selection of articles will help keep them engaged in learning and connect different aspects of play.
Setting up a discovery zone, you may wish to consider the following:
- Supplying adequate storage to keep a range of resources available
- An area dedicated to messy, explorative play, such as tuff trays
- Space for movement between the different areas for children
- Easy to clean surfaces and containers for messy play and storage
- Engaging equipment such as tubes and pipes for water play
- Natural materials and plants where setting up areas outdoors
- In keeping objects, materials and resources with the seasons
Using a discovery table
One thing discovery play areas have in common is a table that is easily accessible for children. Here, relevant objects can be presented ready for the children to explore. Conversely, when completing an outdoor discovery session, the table could be kept clear, prepared for children to sort and examine the items they gathered themselves whilst out.
Activities can be themed by subject and range from science and messy play to nature and the arts. When using a tabletop for nature activities, think about how the items might be used. By providing water, children can experiment with the classic sink or swim experiment. By providing crayons and paper, children could opt to draw or take rubbings.
It is also worth considering the use of light, which can allow for the transparency of objects to be discovered and offer an additional sensory experience to the play session. Another interesting idea is having a chalk surface for children to draw on to interact with the environment around them.
Check out this short video showing some great ideas of tuff tray activities.
A good idea is to think of the activity as a scientific investigation and supply children with a way to test and record their findings from the environment. This could mean having clipboards, pencils and binoculars to hand. Having dividers on the table is also a useful way to allow children to sort through the objects they have found and see how they classify different items.
For more ideas on resources that you could use for different curriculum discovery table activities, download our free discovery table check sheet below.
The opportunities for children to learn through discovery play are endless. With only a few simple items, such as tables and storage, a discovery play area can be regularly updated with new resources to engage children through active learning. Sessions can be themed around any subject and can be representative of the seasons. With adult supervision and the imagination and wonder of child-led exploration, discovery play is sure to enjoyed by all!
A reference list is included in the footer of this post. However, we want to note a couple of great books and educational resources for further reading.
- Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors by Rachelle Doorley (2014)
- Taylor, Barbara J. Early Childhood Program Management. Macmillan Publishing (1993)
We'd love to hear about your ideas on learning through discovery for children. If you have an engaging activity or a question, please share it by leaving a comment below.
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- WIREs Cognitive Science. The role of guidance in children’s discovery learning (2012). By Ryan D. Honomichl and Zhe Chen.
- Psychological Science. The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: effects of direct instruction and discovery learning (2004). By David Klahr & Milena Nigam.
- American Psychological Association. Instruction versus exploration in science learning: Recent psychological research calls "discovery learning" into question (2004). By Rachel Adelson.