Play experience case study: Investigating with flowers

Hayley Fuller
Friday, September 16, 2022

In this month's case study, we explore an open-ended science invitation inspired by fresh cut flowers and the children's own intent and interest, then enhanced by the non-fiction book ‘Roots, Stems, Leaves and Flowers - all about plants’ by Ruth Owen

Hayley Fuller

Early Years teacher, educator and writer


You often find that children in the early years are natural explorers, they have an innate sense of curiosity about the world around them. They are not afraid to communicate questions, use their inbuilt senses of touch, sight, smell and taste, (even when not always appropriate!) in order to make sense of and understand the environments that surround them.

One of my favourite invitations to explore stemmed from the children's enthusiasm for growing and planting. It was pure, accidental coincidence that I happened to have brought into the classroom a variety of fresh cut flowers one day, with my intent to use them for observational art and painting purposes, however the children had ideas of their own!

The setup

This invitation to learn grew solidly from the children's own interests and curiosity. They naturally gravitated towards the flowers. Open-ended discussions then took place surrounding them. The children wanted to touch, smell and study them. Some children had the idea to bring magnifying glasses over and another child made a comment; ‘Look, we are scientists’, which then inspired me to change my intent for the learning all together and focus solidly on theirs.

I realised that this was an area the children naturally wanted to explore further, so I then read to them a non-fiction book called ‘Roots, Stems, Leaves and Flowers - all about plants’ by Ruth Owen, which in turn, harnessed their growing interest in becoming scientific, flower investigators. Alongside the fresh cut flowers, on a nearby table, I added more magnifying glasses, small chopping boards, scissors, some safety glasses and white lab coats (since they mentioned about being ‘scientists’) as well as the ‘Roots, Stems, Leaves and Flowers’ book and some simple, scientific diagrams, which I found online and printed off, alongside clipboards, paper, notebooks and pencils.


The play idea (the intent)

This investigation has been provided for children in reception. I feel it could also be suitable for children aged three-to-four as well. However, it is important to check for any pollen allergies and ensuring the flowers chosen are child-friendly and non-toxic before setting this play experience up and encouraging children to wash their hands before and after the investigation.

After the invitation was set up, the children were busy ‘donning’ their safety goggles, white lab coats and magnifying glasses! They soon ‘got to work’ at dissecting the different types of flowers, looking out for features they had observed from the book, but also making their own, exciting discoveries. Children are often told to not touch or pick flowers so they very rarely get to openly investigate the inner parts of a flower. They were fascinated to discover the sticky, yellow, pollen at the very bottom of a rose, for example, or the strong scent of the flowers up close. The way the petals feel ‘soft’ and some stems feel ‘spiky.’ This play experience was brilliant to not only observe understanding, but the children's communication and language development too.

They often made their own references to the scientific diagrams which had been provided and they were keen to find all the different flower parts for themselves. The invitation naturally encouraged the exploration of a wide range of concepts, such as: making their observational diagrams of the flowers themselves and using their gross motor and literacy skills to independently label the different features on their clipboards or notebooks. The freedom to do this without it being ‘forced’ or ‘too guided’ encouraged even the most reluctant writer/drawer to explore as they were in their role as ‘scientist’ which in turn, provided them with the confidence to try. As well as this, the children also applied their creativity and imagination to the activity, wanting to use the cut-up petals to make ‘perfume/potions’ later in the day.


The play in action (how is it implemented?)

Alongside providing the opportunity to explore and the resources to enhance the learning further, my role as the educator was to gently guide the children's understanding and develop it further. For example, this could be through open-ended questioning or using the scientific vocabulary explored previously from the book or diagrams, then repeating the language back to them in a sentence, therefore modelling the use of it and its meaning.

The role of the adult could also be to demonstrate through firsthand play how to use the resources provided in addition to developing a child's fine motor skills such as providing support when using scissors or with letter formation when mark-making. The adult could also provide guidance on increasing phonological awareness and basic reading skills when labelling their own diagrams or reading the labels provided. I feel that letter formation should not be pushed too strongly though in this invitation as the play intent is ‘to investigate’ rather than write, however a gentle reminder when needed if the opportunity arises could be helpful. Some children may be as yet, unable to form recognisable letters and instead choose to make their marks through shapes/lines or using emergent writing and this should be encouraged and valued too. With these children I provided some questioning as to what the writing says and allow them to use their vocabulary to explain and apply their own meaning to their mark making-you may be amazed at how much they have learned and truly understand by giving them the chance to talk and discuss. When the children discuss with you what they have written, it might be appropriate for you to model letter formation by writing their words down as they watch.

A reflection of play (the impact)

As the educator you can make brilliant observations of the children's natural learning and progression during this invitation, as it will not only support your understanding of a child's knowledge related to ‘understanding the world’ but also their motor development, communication and language development in addition to their literacy development too. Having an ‘open invitation’ to learn creates a far more holistic environment and multiple opportunities for the children to develop their progression and skills.

What I was reminded of when reflecting upon this play experience, is that sometimes your ‘best planned intentions’ as an educator for your children will not always go to plan. Children will take the learning to where they feel it is of most interest and curiosity for themselves. As an educator, you will gain far more quality of learning from the children if you can allow them to take an invitation to learn and explore it openly through their own play/discovery. As the educator, you are a facilitator of the children's own investment to learn. You can support, guide and scaff old the learning far better within the child's own intention rather than with your own objective implementation for a lesson. A child's engagement is often deeper and the learning more impactful if it is meaningful to them.

This allows for more multi-curricular opportunities across the invitation, enhancing engagement and natural discoveries for the children. It will also guide yourself as an educator with your own assessments and observations. If you use ‘in the moment planning’, open-ended invitations to learn through play, such as this one, will provide you with so much more fantastic knowledge on what the children truly know, when they are in ‘flow’ with their activities.

The engagement the children displayed during this play experience was high, they were focused and wanted to take the learning even further than the practical experience of dissecting the flowers and investigating them physically. I was amazed at the detail of some of the children's own scientific diagrams and the phonetically plausible attempts of the scientific vocabulary some children made independently.

After, I could hear the children use this vocabulary again when provided with the opportunities within continuous provision, such as planting, growing and role-play in the indoor and outdoor classroom. This demonstrated to me that they have a full understanding of the outcomes of the investigation and the learning was successfully implemented.


My Observations…

Characteristics of effective learning; This activity allowed for all characteristics of effective learning to be use throughout.

Playing and exploring: The children engaged and investigated the flowers, demonstrating their natural curiosity. They wanted to find out more about the names of the flower parts and progressed on to drawing their own labelled diagrams of flower parts.

Active Learning: The children were highly involved and concentrated well, using the scissors and their hands to dissect and explore the different parts of the flowers. They showed high levels of enjoyment when making new discoveries and role-played being a scientist.

Creating and thinking critically: The children made links from their previous knowledge about growing and planting, and also modelled the scientific vocabulary used from the book and the diagrams.

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