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Making problem solvers through hands-on play and learning

Published June 13, 2022

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In 2019-2020, the STEM program at Broadway Elementary in Broadway, NC, was brand new. And Emma Smith, Broadway’s K-5 STEM instructor, was excited to introduce her students to the hands-on STEM activities.

“That first year, students would come to me for 45 minutes once a week,” Smith explained. “There were nine centers they could choose from, including a plastic bricks wall, building blocks, puzzles, crafts, games, an investigation center, books and magazines, a magnetic marble maze, and a challenge activity.”


Smith soon discovered that an integral part of her job as STEM coordinator was going to be directing, inspiring, and harnessing their natural tendency to learn through hands-on play and discovery. “Students struggled with puzzles,” she said. “Kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students couldn’t do 60-100-piece puzzles. The third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students struggled to complete the 60-100-piece large floor puzzles. At the blocks/building center, students didn’t have any ideas.”

Even board games and card games seemed to baffle the students. “Most kids had never played a board or card game before,” recalled Smith.

So, Smith took a step back, considered what her students needed most, and got to work. She bought smaller puzzles to give students a sense of satisfaction at completing them before the class ended. She showed students pictures and gave them building challenges to get their creative juices flowing. She added random toys to encourage imaginative play.

And for the board games and card games, she got very intentional. “I laminated the instructions and gave tutorials before introducing any game to the centers. I posted instructional videos on our Google classroom and taught kids as they played. As a group of students learned the game, I instructed them to teach someone else.”

In short, Smith taught her students how to “play” – to engage in hands-on, creative, critical-thinking and social-emotional skills vital to the workplace and beyond.


Broadway Elementary’s students were just getting the hang of hands-on play and learning when COVID hit in 2020, and STEM went virtual. “That year, I taught science concepts, coding, and typing,” said Smith. “There were choice activities they could do at home, but very few students completed those projects.”

When students were finally allowed back in the classroom, Smith, like teachers around the globe, had had to do some reminding, remediation, and reenergizing. “Students still struggle with open-ended activities,” she noted but she’s committed to fostering their abilities with guided direction and task card suggestions to spark students’ ideas.

To get students excited about hands-on learning and “to encourage more creativity, I’ve taught the history of LEGO®, flight, igloos, and sports; tied activities to events (we’re currently doing Olympic-themed activities); and shown videos of people who have created things from their imaginations,” she said. “I also take a lot of pictures of students’ creations and post them outside the classroom for students to see as they walk by.”


Although Smith admits she’s put a tremendous amount of time and effort into engaging her students in hands-on STEM learning, none of that is as important as the overarching theme she has for her STEM program. “The biggest thing I do in my classroom is allow students to struggle,” she said. “When they run into a problem, I don’t solve it for them. I don’t cut their paper. I don’t tell them what mistake they are making.”

But why make them struggle? Won’t that lead to frustration and, eventually, students who give up?

Not according to Smith. “I’m trying to make them problem solvers,” she explained. “I tell them to ask a friend or try something different. I encourage them to take risks. This is not a class where there is one right answer. My students are taught that failure is part of learning. If something doesn’t work, figure out why and change something.”

Along the way, she also takes time to applaud students’ efforts. “We stop if someone has done something amazing, creative, or unique to celebrate their achievement. And, I’ve added a five-minute closing to my classes during which we discuss the successes and the learning (failure). What went well today? What discoveries did you make? What struggles did you have, and how did you improve – or how could you improve the next time?”

In Emma Smith’s classroom, STEM means so much more than just science, technology, engineering, and math. For her students, it’s embracing hands-on exploration and celebrating the struggle that leads to creative thinking and innovation!

“I would never be interested in going back. This is too good of a system. Everybody needs this system. This is how they need to test children: don’t give them a paper and pencil; give them a lab activity and see what they can do.”

– Cathy Johnson, STREAM Missions facilitator, Elmore City-Pernell Elementary School, Elmore City, Oklahoma

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