Christmas STEM Activity & Invitation to Play
While maybe less common, one of my favorite ways to teach preschoolers is with a simple invitation to play.
An invitation to play offers preschoolers a set of materials and no rules on how to use them as they play. It is an arrangement of materials, random or collected, that invites preschoolers to explore. Like process art, there is no intention of what the outcome should be because the value in activities like an invitation to play is in what happens while the preschoolers are playing, not after they are done.
It is one of the truest forms of play-based learning.
Any invitation to play should meet the following:
- Allow children to explore.
- Allow children to investigate and question.
- Allow children to examine the materials with various senses.
- Allow for the participation of all preschoolers.
- Allow for the children to touch, feel, and manipulate the materials.
An invitation to play should also complete the following:
- Pique curiosity
- Be arranged in an organized and inviting way
- Be intentional in design and purpose
- Be age and developmentally appreciate
- Include materials that the children can freely touch and explore
An invitation to play may not have a specific set of objectives. At least, not necessarily a concrete “Students will be able to name all letters” kind of objective. The objective of an invitation to play might sound more like this,
Students will be able to explore and manipulate the materials in various creative ways to dictate their own play.
That objective is a big deal!…and not nearly as specific, either. Not all children know how to creatively use materials outside their obvious intended purpose. Some children do not know how to even play with materials that are not obvious toys. They don’t know how to manipulate an object to make it do something different, or they do not know how to “wonder” and try something new with the materials.
Now, what I loved about this specific invitation to play, other than it’s Christmas theme with the cutest Christmas holly buttons ever, is that is naturally turned into a STEM activity for my preschoolers.
How a Christmas Invitation to Play Turned into a STEM Activity
This is actually not as uncommon as you might think.
Many invitations to play, when designed with purpose and intention will be thought-provoking and invoke a natural process that leads itself to STEM activity.
Now, when I say “designed with intention and purpose” I do not mean that preschoolers are required to play a specific way with the materials. When I choose materials, I ask myself,
How might I use these materials if I were to enjoy my own invitation to play?
Sometimes, I gather materials with ideas in mind on how they could be used. But I do not tell my preschoolers that is my intention. And honestly, preschoolers typically are a h*ll of a lot more creative than their teachers and parents.
Which is exactly why this invitation to play turned into a Christmas STEM activity for preschoolers.
While these materials are very specific, you can substitute the holly buttons for any Christmas-like buttons. I got my buttons from a local craft store, but below are some other options that would work just as well. The mini plastic cups could be replaced by small jewelry boxes, for example.
The Set Up
Arrange the materials in an inviting way that is organized and will pique your preschooler’s interest. For this, I arranged the buttons in a series of narrow rows and placed the cups on either end in a stack.
You could also set up these same materials in small melamine bowls like these. (I actually own two set of these bowls and use them for all sorts of preschool activities.
What Preschoolers do in an Invitation to Play
Sometimes, when you invite some preschoolers to join you in an invitation to play, they might not know what exactly they are “supposed to do”. In that case, I ask, “What can you do with these materials?”
First, my preschoolers scattered the buttons. They listened to the button skitter across the formica tabletop. They watch as they glided and bumped into one another. They worked their pincer grasps as they picked up the buttons and dropped them into the cups.
Then one preschooler tipped over a cup and watched it roll across the table and then off the end. “It bounced!” she said delightedly. Meanwhile, another preschooler filled the cups to the brim, listening as they made a “tck, tck, tck” sound.
This all sounds very basic, and maybe not even surprising, but while it just looks like play, my preschoolers were thinking:
- How can I make this happen again?
- Will this happen every time?
- What if I try it with this instead?
- I wonder what happens if I use more?
And so on and so on…Do you see how an invitation to play can turn into a Christmas STEM activity? All these questions that preschoolers naturally ask as they play lend themselves to the first thing every scientist does.
And in answering one of these questions a preschooler thought, “Can I make a musical instrument with these buttons and cups?”
And then he did. And he shook and shook and shook the cups listening as the buttons clattered about inside. Science in play. And not to mention physical motor work that went into hanging onto the cups the keep them together.
Meanwhile, another preschooler is wondering how he can make a tower with the cups. He starts with four cups, and then builds on. His tower tumbles, and he is disappointed, but then another preschooler joins in and together they figure out how to build a pyramid.
But there was a huge amount of math and fine motor play as well. Preschoolers lined up the buttons and arranged them in shapes of their choosing. There was a dispute among two preschoolers about if the shape was a circle or oval. And that single Christmas tree button didn’t belong in the middle of all those red buttons. “It’s the link thing that put it together,” the one preschoolers said, referring to the clasp of a necklace.
But there was no disputing how many buttons were used, and as a teacher I found this a very authentic (yet informal) assessment of how well my preschoolers could count and if they had mastered one to one correspondence in counting.
If you haven’t tried invitations to play with your preschooler, you must. They are loaded with natural and authentic learning, and that’s the kind that really sticks with preschoolers.
Which might lead you to the next question…
What does teaching look like in an invitation to play?
There are no lesson plans for this.
Gasp! I know.
Me without a lesson plan? Inconceivable!
But here’s the thing.
The teaching involved in an invitation to play is led by the children. I cannot plan for it in advance. There is no order or sequence for what concepts the children might explore. I can predict some things, but not all. I like to ask myself questions. What are they doing in their play that I can build off of and take to deeper meaning? How can I challenge their line of thinking without derailing their play?
And when activities like this turn into STEM activities, then I ask myself, “How do I build upon this concept they are already exploring?” Sometimes I will sit next to a child and play along side them. Other times I make a mental note to add another STEM activity to my lesson plans.
Most often, in the preschooler years, STEM activities don’t happen by setting up an experience that has a predictable outcome where the preschoolers will get a specific set of results every time. The best STEM activities are those that are led by the preschoolers and where the variables are changed based on what the preschoolers see fit to change.
What are your favorite Christmas STEM activities for preschoolers? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Looking for More STEM Activities for Preschoolers?
Some of these STEM activities are Christmas themed, others can be used all year round!
LOOKING FOR MORE CHRISTMAS ACTIVITIES?
I’ve made an entire page that contains all of the best Christmas activities for preschoolers. You can check them out in the link below.
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I’m Sarah, an educator turned stay-at-home-mama of five! I’m the owner and creator of Stay At Home Educator, a website about intentional teaching and purposeful learning in the early childhood years. I’ve taught a range of levels, from preschool to college and a little bit of everything in between. Right now my focus is teaching my children and running a preschool from my home. Credentials include: Bachelors in Art, Masters in Curriculum and Instruction.