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“I love sitting in the space watching the littlest natural-born scientists at work. They are developing and testing theories about the world.”
– Experience Developer, Murphy Peoples

A quirky corner of Scienceworks beckons children in to explore. What looks to be a large car wash cleaner swivels around. The kids happily run their fingers over the squishy textures. Florescent blocks and interesting shaped magnets warrant upmost attention, as do the suction tubes that send foam shapes flying up into the air. This is a land of sensory intrigue. Designed for children aged 0-5, the basic structures of this exhibition form the building blocks of life, matter and connection. Here at Scienceworks, curiosity is sparked and great learning ensues.

Murphy Peoples is the Experience Developer at Scienceworks. She had a chat to us about this cleverly designed space.

To begin, Murphy said:

“Children’s curiosity and creativity can thrive as they intuitively use design skills, collaboration (where age appropriate) as well as scientific processes (hypothesise, test, and draw conclusions). We wanted to provide young children with a sense of agency in the space. There are no instructions or text anywhere in the gallery (a big leap for a science and technology museum!) so children have complete creative control over what they make and create as well as avoiding literacy barriers for our youngest visitors –

there is no one way to do things in Ground Up.”

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What was the initial concept behind Ground Up?

Scienceworks has a role to play in preparing children for a science and technology-led future. We can’t know what kind of jobs our children will be doing when they join the workforce in a couple of decades, but what we do know is that for jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) there are common skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and communication, that are required.  This exhibition was developed with developing these skills in mind. Having a positive interaction with science and maths in the early years and encouraging children to develop ‘STEM skills’ has been shown to have a positive effect on their school success and later, choice of career.

Of the STEM qualified population in Australia, only 28% of these are women. Research tells us that girls disengage from STEM fields from a young age, as early as four they may consider ‘science’ as being gendered, and not for them.

This is a gender gap that we want to influence, by creating an inclusive exhibition that considers the play preferences of boys and girls as well as having a female role model (look out for Dot who appears in the space!).

Overall, the Scienceworks team wanted to create a construction-play space in which adults can ask children ‘How will you solve this problem?’ and support them in their explorations without giving them the answers, and children can respond with ‘I did it!’ and ‘I want to do it again!'

How vital is curiosity and imagination for children, not only as a source of enjoyment but further still as we try to best look after and discover more about the world?

Parenting is a hard job, but thankfully when it comes to learning about the world, children do this naturally. Allow them to lead by example and take pleasure in the things they wonder about – you don’t have to know all the answers and some of the enjoyment will come by learning things together. Take the opportunity to spot those STEM skills that your child uses and encourage them.

We are hoping that a visit to Ground Up will be inspiring for both you and your child and that you can find ways to continue construction-play at home. Supersize your block play by using boxes, give them a collection of unusual shapes and objects with little challenges (e.g. can you build something to help your toys climb into the toy box?), or better yet find real problems in your home and allow them to utilise their problem-solving skills to create a solution, you may be surprised by the things your little engineer creates!

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What features of the exhibition do the kids enjoy the most?  

Through the use of the different zones, age and developmentally appropriate experiences provide children with different tasks and problems to solve.

In the Tinkering Zone children play in parallel without having to share or wait turns all the time. Here you will see three-year-olds creating flying contraptions with foam pieces which can be designed, tested and reiterated to test again in wind tubes – a joyful experiences which has proved immensely popular and very successful in terms of developing STEM skills.

In the central Collaborative Zone, pre-schoolers need to use their communication and collaboration skills to successfully build a large foam brick structure through team work and manipulation of simple machines. This has been working beautifully with very little need for adults to guide or interrupt the process.

The Baby Landscape is surrounded by a soft form to allow our youngest visitors to explore safely, comfortably, and utilise their developing senses and motor skills.

Some people may walk through the exhibition and overlook just how powerful each facet is. Why are the subtleties so important for young learners?

Our goal was to create an imaginative and highly sensory space. As part of our community consultation in the early stages of design we talked to representatives from AMAZE to see how we can be inclusive of children on the spectrum. A direct result of this was to create a materials wall with different shapes using the textures from around the space so that children who are sensory seeking could touch and explore the sensations. In the coming months we will be publishing social scripts specifically for Ground Up as part of our Autism Friendly Museum Project. There are lots of children for whom this materials wall will be appealing, and it is also a chance to develop their verbal skills by describing (or asking them to describe) sensations, e.g. prickly, smooth, rough. You can also name the shapes they can see and feel, which is a foundational math skill.

Part of our sensory goals also included having things children can’t usually touch or play with. The giant blue brushes in the middle of the gallery are fruit washing brushes like those used in industry. They are brightly coloured and feel amazing! They are mounted on gears which activate neighbouring brushes – this allows little children to do big things as well as explore how gears work (gears are a ‘simple machine’). After visiting Scienceworks you may like to look out for other things that have gears in them.

One of the walls is covered in over 1,300 light up switches – not only can they play with something they aren’t usually allowed to play with (even though they really love turning switches on and off and on and off at home), this is a great ‘cause and effect’ experience allowing children to really explore what effect their actions can create, or more deeply as they get older how the switches work or maybe ask why they light up, or transfer their knowledge and compare them to what switches do at home. They can also be more intentional in their play and create shapes and patterns.

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How does Ground Up aid children’s development?

There are many places in Ground Up for your child to develop their physical skills – both full-body, big movement and small, detailed actions that require control. The more children practice physical actions, the more it becomes hard-wired in their brain.

With communication skills being important there are some places, like our Build structure, where children need to communicate with and collaborate with other children (or with you!) to operate conveyor belts to move foam bricks, or to help each other build really big things.

Development of problem solving skills really does begin at birth.

I love sitting in the space watching the littlest natural-born scientists at work. They are developing and testing theories about the world – you can see this when they repeat the same action again and again. For example, to us a nine month old baby sitting in a high chair dropping food or a toy over and over may seem like they are testing our patience, but perhaps their internal monologue is more along the lines of noticing with surprise the cause and effect of their actions:

Will it hit the floor every time? How can I test this? Does it still hit the floor if I throw it? Will my grown-up pick it up every time? Is my grown-up part of this system too or will it drop every time even when my grown-up doesn’t pick it up?

OK so maybe they are also testing our patience, but in a good way! The important thing is that they are testing their ideas!

Testing ideas and theories about how the world works soon leads to trial and error (think of a solution and try things until I get there), imitating other’s solutions (how did my grown up open that door?) and finally to purposeful problem solving and overcoming obstacles where their actions are planned and intended.

When visiting Ground Up at Scienceworks there are lots of opportunities for young children to test ideas, practice skills and then use them at home as well. As adults the task is to support them by resisting coming to the rescue immediately. Give them time to try their solution. Using the phrase ‘How are you going to solve this problem?’ can be a good way to stop you jumping in to do it for them!

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It is Messy Play May at Playgroup Vic. What role does messy, exploratory, experimental play have at Scienceworks?

Scienceworks is a great venue to explore with young children. Ground Up which is all about experimentation, however the other exhibitions and outdoor spaces provides ample opportunity to discover all sorts of things.

I’d encourage everyone to come along to one of our Little Kids Day In sessions which sometimes includes messy play  – our next one on 4 June is in partnership with Playgroup Victoria so will be an extra special one!

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What kind of things are the kids learning at Ground Up?  

Ground Up is not about learning facts, it is about developing skills. Behaviour you might see that indicates they are learning:

·         Repeating actions to improve their mastery of the skill

·         Repeating activities to see the same actions have the same effect

·         Trying the same action with different materials to test their ideas

·         They may seek your attention to show you a new discovery

You can encourage children to be curious and aid them in their learning. You don’t need special training to be your child’s first teacher and you are probably doing this intuitively. Some tips to support your early learner:

·         Describe their experience, giving objects, feelings and actions names (even for young babies). “The yellow block is going up, up, up” “Look at the building you made, you are being an engineer!” “There’s a gear helping you spin the brushes”

·         When problem solving try to find a way to help a child to be the one to finish/solve/create. Empower them to say “I did it!”

·         “How do you think that works?” (Remember, you don’t need to know the answer!)

·         “What do you notice about…”

·         “What could you try next?”

·         “Tell me about what you’re doing/what you’ve made” (being careful not to name it first before they tell you what it is)

·         We learn from our ‘failures’ much more than our successes. “How about we try again?” “What could you do differently this time?” “Why don’t we work together?”

In terms of the areas and skills children are learning in Ground Up, these include:

·         Scientific method – observe, ask questions, hypothesise, predict, test, develop theory

·         Physics – use of simple machines to make work easier, this includes incline planes/ramps, wheels and axels, gears and levers (e.g. a wheelbarrow)

·         Engineering – solving problems by creating a constructed solution that is designed, tested and redesigned

·         Foundational (early) Maths – describing shapes (2D and 3D), matching, sorting, categorising using numbers, counting, measuring

·         Foundational Coding – cause and effect, pattern making, sequencing

·         Physical – What can my body do? How do I get my body to do what I need it to do?

·         Spatial – How big or small are objects? What shape fits where? How can my body move through the space?

·         Social – learning to communicate and collaborate with my peers and adults


Enjoy the Ground Up exhibition for real as part of Little Kids Day In on June 4 in collaboration with Playgroup Victoria. This year, the theme is Curious Earth and features messy play activities, performances from Kinderling Kids Radio and more! Visit this address to learn more and purchase tickets:


Article by Sinead Halliday