Parents exert a strong influence on the development of foundational science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) skills in early childhood. This influence occurs, in large part, through playful parent-child interactions and conversations that expose children to mathematical and spatial concepts in interesting and useful ways. Prior research suggests that guided play is effective in building the STEM knowledge, reasoning, and interests of preschool children. Guided play requires adults to strategically present and scaffold STEM play in ways that support child initiative and discovery. This project applied human-centered design thinking (HCD) methods to optimize parents’ capacities to guide the discovery learning of their preschool children during STEM play. A key design goal was to create guided home learning activity kits that were feasible and acceptable for use in under-resourced and sparsely populated rural communities where access to children's museums and other informal learning institutions was limited. The project included three phases of activity. During phase 1, HCD processes were applied to develop and refine play guides and parent scaffolds to promote productive discovery learning during STEM play using home activity kits. During phase 2, the guided home activity kits were evaluated for their feasibility and acceptability in a formal evaluation trial that compared the use of guided building kits (50 families) with the use of standard building kits (25 families). In phase 3, data collected during the evaluation trial was analyzed to estimate impact of the guided kits (relative to the standard kits) on parent attitudes, capacity to scaffold discovery learning, and child executive function and STEM (math and spatial skill) learning. Phase 3 also included the exploration of the guided play kit use in the context of a children’s science museum.
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