WGBH Blends English Learning with Hands-On Science for Families
by DAPHNE NORTHROP
Once a child understands the concept of ramps — inclined planes where all sorts of things can slide and roll — suddenly they find and create them everywhere.
Just ask Mbaresa, a recent immigrant from Albania, who is learning about ramps, shadows and weather with her young daughter Daniela at a community-based organization in Roslindale. Play and Learn Science, a hands-on science exploration class for young children and their parents delivered by WGBH Education, has opened up science and language for her daughter with books, apps and play.
When Daniela returned home from the class, she was still thinking about ramps, her mother reports. “She put some books in a pile and put a ruler on them and told me, ‘I created a slide for my doll.’”
Mollie Levin, WGBH’s Senior Project Manager for Early Childhood, delivered the lessons in the adult English language learner class for parents and caregivers at Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD). Their ESL teacher and Program Director, Lisa Garrone, says science integrates perfectly with English language instruction.
“Anywhere you are, you can talk about science,” says Garrone. “In addition to making language more interesting with words like bumpy, rough, sticky and slippery, you always have visuals to support that natural language use.”
When WGBH launched the pilot program this spring, they envisioned a four-session class that included both parents and children. But soon they noted that the parent-child interaction was more productive if the adults were already equipped with concepts and language of science.
They flipped their model and instead offered three parent-only sessions before inviting the children to join the fourth one.
“That way, parents had a leg up, because they knew the language and concepts before their children were asking questions,” says Garrone.
“It was really important to adapt our program by building on what we’ve learned. That makes it better for the families,” says Levin. “We have been able to see evidence of improved language among the adults and stronger academics among the kids.”
The workshop was created by PBS KIDS as part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS Ready to Learn (RTL) Initiative. Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education.
An associated app, which plays a powerful but understated role, features 15 games that bring science concepts to life with such activities as mixing and matching clothing with different seasons, or playing with interactive models of shadows and light.
“I find it encouraging that, when presented appropriately, an app can foster love of books and science in children,” says Garrone.
“Parents loved the program,” she says. “They were surprised by the idea that science didn’t have to be in a biology lab, and that their children could learn through playing. They saw that science is everywhere—that rolling a ball down a plank of wood is science.”
A few days after the lesson about ramps, 26-year-old Khadija, from Somalia, was walking into school with her children. Her son noticed the wheelchair-accessible entryway.
“Look, there’s a ramp!”
Such an “a-ha” moment encapsulates the impact of Learn and Play: The silos of language and science fall apart, learning crosses generations, and technology enhances the entire experience.
WGBH has a grant to create materials and work with community groups using RTL programming, partnering with organizations such as English for New Bostonians, Tech Goes Home, Boston Public Library, and Boston Public School Adult Learning Center. Ready to Learn develops television and digital media for preschool and early elementary school children and their families, especially those who live in low-income communities.