Playful Learning Landscapes: Promoting Informal STEM Learning in Public Spaces

September 1st, 2020 - August 31st, 2024 | PROJECT

A long history of research suggests that early informal STEM learning experiences such as block play, puzzles, visiting zoos and science museums can build a strong foundation for STEM learning and which leads to later STEM success. Yet, children from low-income and historically underserved communities have less access to these opportunities due to scarce resources and barriers to access such as transportation and cost. To address these challenges, this project will endeavor to infuse public urban spaces such as local parks, bus-stops, and grocery stores with playful and engaging informal STEM learning opportunities in low-income Latinx neighborhoods as a strategy for understanding how public spaces, when co-designed with community partners and informed by the science of learning, can foster rich, informal STEM learning experiences for young children in neighborhood places where families naturally spend time. This project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants.

Using techniques of Community-Based, Participatory Design Research, researchers will collaborate closely with community families and partners in Santa Ana, California to achieve three aims: 1) Co-design a series of outdoor Playful Learning Landscape (PLL) exhibit installations with community partners that reflect the goals, values, and cultural capital of the Latino community. 2) Explore how caregivers and their children experience PLL exhibit installations and examine the development and changes in: a) caregiver-child STEM conversation and interactions, and b) caregiver attitudes about the importance of informal STEM learning and their beliefs about their role in facilitating STEM learning. 3) Leverage existing data from county partners to examine the potential effects of having multiple PLL installations within a specific neighborhood on promoting STEM learning and development across an array of cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes in early-childhood. This project will advance current knowledge on informal STEM learning by demonstrating new ways to understand the cultural assets that Latinx families bring to learning contexts, showing how the unique assets and needs of a local community can be incorporated into public infrastructure, and documenting the STEM-related learning experiences and interactions that occur in these settings. Due to a partnership with the Orange County Children and Families Commission, which collects data on child learning and development on every child in the county, researchers will examine the longitudinal impacts of a cluster of playful STEM-learning exhibit installations in a single neighborhood on children's developmental outcomes compared to matched neighborhoods without access to these installations. By leveraging everyday routines to promote playful STEM learning and caregiver-child STEM-related interactions, this project will: 1) empower caregivers to build a STEM learning foundation for children during early childhood; and 2) serve as a model for how cities can be re-designed to enhance ubiquitous STEM learning across public spaces, with the cultural capital of local families and children at the center of urban design and revitalization.

This Innovations in Development award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2021 Poster - Stimulating STEM in the City: Co-Designing with Latine Families to Promote Informal STEM Learning
2022 STEM for All Video Showcase Video: Playful Learning Landscapes: Informal STEM in Public Spaces
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 2005776

Team Members

Andres Bustamante, Principal Investigator, University of California-Irvine
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Co-Principal Investigator
June Ahn, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2005776
Funding Amount: $1,712,208


Access and Inclusion: Ethnic | Racial | Hispanic | Latinx Communities | Low Socioeconomic Status | Urban
Audience: Families | Museum | ISE Professionals | Parents | Caregivers | Pre-K Children (0-5)
Discipline: General STEM
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Parks | Outdoor | Garden Exhibits