Playing with Electricity


During one of our educator seminars, Play: Engaging Children in Object Rich Environments, participants observed a museum or community visit with our classes, who were all exploring electricity.  But how do you make electricity playful?  And how can educators make the same topic developmentally appropriate for infants, all the way up through five-year-olds?  Below are examples from our classes, ranging in age, across downtown DC, all engaging in playful learning about electricity.


Our youngest class, the Cottontails, love water play so the class chose to explore watermills . Before their visit, their teachers gave them laminated prints of paintings and images of watermills to look at, while describing their shapes and how they move.  Next they visited the Haupt Garden to play with watermill toys in a fountain to see for themselves how water, when poured onto the watermill, makes the wheel turn.  Through their play the children practiced fine motor skills, witnessed cause and effect, and heard new vocabulary.


The older infant class, the Ducklings, went to National Gallery of Art to see MultiVerse by Leo Villareal.  On their way to the museum their teachers talked about lights, and the Ducklings began pointing to lights along the way in hallways and elevators.  Once at the piece, a tunnel with a moving walkway covered in flashing lights, the children were given glow sticks and flashlights to explore on their own.  They used their fine motor skills to turn the lights on and off, waved them around to see their effect, and watched the flashing lights as they practiced new vocabulary.



One of our toddler classes, the Toucans, has been studying the Olympics, so they worked this lesson into their unit by learning about crowd energy.  They talked about why people cheer, and how encouragement and support can make someone feel.  They ventured to the Hirshhorn Museum and cheered on the fountain, which gradually gets higher.  While cheering for the fountain the Toucans practiced their social-emotional skills and also developed literacy skills through the use of songs and chants (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “We Will Rock You”).


The older toddler class, the Dragonflies, focused on light versus dark, and how light gets its energy from different sources.  To illustrate this, the class experimented turning a lamp on and off when it was unplugged versus plugged in.  After their experiment they too went to MultiVerse by Leo Villareal at National Gallery of Art to see the small circular lights go on and off while they played with flashlights and glow sticks. They used their fine motor skills to control their lights and sang, “This Little Light of Mine”, which reinforced the concept while also practicing new vocabulary.



One of our two’s classroom, the Penguins, also focused on the “on and off” functions of objects that use electricity.  In the classroom they looked at light bulbs, and turned the lights on and off.  The class played musical chairs, which meant paying extra attention to when the radio was on versus off, while also engaging in gross motor play and practicing social-emotional skills.  To extend their learning they went to Lighting a Revolution at the National Museum of American History where they looked at a timeline of light bulbs and made observations about how they have changed in size and shape over the years.



The three-year-old class, the Wallabies, had been learning about trees, so they merged this with electricity and learned about the impact of lightning on trees.  The group went to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden to see Needle Tower by Kenneth Snelson .  The class discussed how storms and lightning can be very damaging to trees and buildings, but they can be protected by lightning rods, like the tall metal sculpture. They built a tower using connector toys, practicing their fine motor and problem solving skills.  Lastly, they played “Rain, Rain, Lightning” (just like “Duck, Duck, Goose”) to reinforce that lighting can be unpredictable, while also working on their turn-taking and gross motor skills.



The four-year-olds learned about renewable energy, specifically wind energy.  They went to the US Botanic Garden to see wind turbines, but found that the turbines had recently been removed.  When the teachers explained to the class that the turbines had been removed they made connections to their past study of animals and conservation, theorizing that they had most likely been taken down due to their potential harm to birds.

After learning about the parts of a wind turbine, the class split up into groups and used their bodies to create their own wind turbines with each child acting out a key role of either the wind, blade, generator, tower, or electron.  Through their play the children were actively engaged in scientific thinking about the different parts of a wind turbine, how they work together, and their effect. Working in groups to bring their wind turbine to life also gave the students a chance to practice teamwork.



Through their observations the Play seminar participants reflected that the play they witnessed not only engaged young children in the concept of electricity, but also strengthened developmental and learning skills.  One participant was struck by the amount of learning the infants were engaged in through their water play, including their careful concentration on pouring water and making the watermills spin.  Participants also  noticed how the play and content of the lessons carried over into the walks back from their visit, for example, pointing out lights in elevators or talking about lightening.

This day of playful electricity lessons also proved useful for our team. The experience of exploring the same topic on the same day helped us to reflect on the way we use play in the classroom, as well as how topics can be explored in a meaningful and developmentally appropriate way across ages.  We found we were inspired by each other’s unique and creative ideas about how to use the museums and community for playful, object-based, electricity lessons.  We also discussed the standard challenges of taking our students into the communities and museums, such as objects being removed right before our visit, and how we can be flexible to still achieve a successful and engaging lesson in spite of these logistical challenges. We’re already thinking about another all school project to reflect on our practice further, so be sure to keep an eye out for a future blog.