Combining Play & STEM Learning
Playing with figurines and learning science is a perfect match. Science & Play & Learning simply go hand in hand. Science toys can entertain children, spark imagination, and teach about scientific phenomena and living things. In this blog post, I share with you how to use an inexpensive toy to teach children about life cycles in a relax, Chillax Science way.
Science Behind Life Cycles
Life cycle is a term many scientists use to describe the phases a living organism undergoes while alive. All living organisms go through some sort of cycle whether is a process that takes minutes or years.
Most plants for example, go through five stages of life. That is, seed, germination, growth, reproduction, and seed spreading. These stages, of course, have specific nuances to each plant phylum and species. Nonetheless, the changes that occur in that plant organism are macroscopic (i.e., visible) at some point and to some degree.
Other kingdoms, such as animals, also undergo a life cycle. In this group however, we typically reduce the cycle to four major stages. These are: birth, growth, reproduction, and death. We can then find common life cycle characteristics for animals within phyla, class, order, family, genus, and species. For example, most insects go through four specific life stages, within those four major phases. We can say that an insects’ cycle is: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Where as an amphibian, goes through more stages: egg, tadpole, tadpole with legs, froglet, and then adult frog. Again, regardless of the specificities of the organisms’ cycle the fact is that it experiences changes while alive.
Although the concept of an organism changing over time may seem trivial to some, it is not. On the contrary, it is core to understanding many organic and inorganic activities around us. As children become more aware of their surroundings, we can help them notice these changes. We can also guide them to research, notice similarities and differences, and describe how human’s cycle compares to other living things. Regardless of the depth we choose to do as teachers and/or parents we can use science to explain and normalize how living things change overtime.
Teaching About Life Cycles
I strongly believe that helping children learn about life cycles is foundational in the study and practice of science. Specifically, to understand the “big” scientific claim that all living things go through a series of changes and transformations whether visible or not. Learning about life cycles also grounds ideas of biodiversity, characteristics of living things, classification and taxonomy. So, given the importance of life cycles in science, I wanted to share with you four easy STEM activities you can do at home or with students in your classroom or homeschool.
In order to do these STEM activities you will need a few materials:
- 2 sets of ladybug life cycle plastic figurines
- 8 cardboard boxes with lids
- recyclable materials
- laminating machine
- laminating sheets
We can use figurines to teach about life cycles and other foundational skills such as sequencing and visual recognition. Find free pictures on the internet about the life cycle of the lady bug. Then, print and laminate the pictures.
How to play? This is how I did it.
Once I had those ready, my youngest daughter and I played by matching the real insect picture and the figurine. We also used them to put the life cycle sequentially. That simple!
We talked about what she already knew about this life cycle, what are some observable differences between the real image and the figurine. And, we even went outside to find ladybugs. We found none, sadly.
Did I mentioned that this game makes a great “on the go” activity to places that require some wait time. Like those doctor’s appointments. You can thank me later.
You can repeat this activity with other living organisms. Use my affiliate link to get an amazing beginners set that includes many animals’ life cycles.
A second STEM activity is memory. Memory games are great for stimulating the hippocampus of the brain. And, they can be a fun game regardless of the age. The example here is intended for younger children but it can be easily adapted for older children.
How to Set up and Play
I purchased two sets of the lady bug life cycle and some cardboard boxes. Then, I placed a single figurine of the ladybug life cycle in each box. My daughters and I organized them neatly, covered each box after peaking, and played memory. Easy? Yes! As you play, you can introduce proper labels and share facts about the life cycle. I call this “learning in disguise.” I also played this game with preschool children and they were equally engaged.
You can extend this game by including other animals’ life cycles. It makes the game more challenging and fun. If this game peaks enough interest, you can invite children to use non-fiction text to learn more about ladybugs and animals.
A third STEM game you can do with these figurines is storytelling. For decades, researchers have documented the benefits of telling stories. Stories can educate, influence, inspire, teach, convince, unite, and even divide people. Consequently, incorporating such powerful tool at home and in classrooms is highly desirable.
I did this by creating ladybug life cycle “puppets”. Glue the figurines to popsicle sticks. I recommend using a strong glue (not hot glue) to attach the plastic figurines to the top of a wide popsicle. Once these dry encourage children to create (and tell) a story using the “puppets”.
Engineering a Prosthesis
The fourth STEM activity requires breaking one of the figurines. It can be seen as wasteful but it is such a “hit” with older children. In this engineering activity, intentionally break a leg of the adult lady bug. Then instruct children to construct (i.e., engineer) a prosthesis using common household and recyclable materials. This activity is always fun for the children. Honestly, I am always impressed with the creativity that is highlighted through problem solving how to give the ladybug a prosthetic leg.
Not ready to break a new toy? Take any old plastic insect and cut off a leg and give the same challenge.
Other STEM Activities
You can always repeat the activities described in this blog post with other organisms. Thanks to learning/teaching stores we have a ton of different plastic figurines available at our disposal. I have used figurines for the frog, chicken, honeybee, earthworm, butterfly, ants, and bean plant.
What other games can you play with children with these figurines? You can do the M in STEM. Have children measure the ladybug in each stage and determine the rate of growth in these plastic figurines. Then, using books, determine if the growth proportion of the figurines is scientifically accurate.
I hope the activities suggested here are useful to you as a parent and/or teacher.
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