The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and the STEM Research Center at Oregon State University (OSU) are collaborating on an applied research project that focuses on a better understanding of playful engagement with STEM exhibits for children three to eight years old with the aim of developing a tool for practitioners that can be used for reflection and evaluation of exhibit design, with an eye on broadening participation in early STEM engagement given playful engagement with STEM exhibits. The four-phase “Research in Service to Practice” study has received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program.

The first year of the project allowed ACM and OSU to tap into practitioner knowledge through a series of focus groups. From the developing understanding of playful STEM engagement, the OSU Research team has moved forward with observations at six geographic locations across the US at both science centers and children’s museums. Observations will provide further insight in order to create design principles that support playful STEM engagement at exhibits in children’s museums and science centers for young children and caregivers. Design principles will connect play with the engagement of STEM phenomena, STEM practices, and the development of early STEM skills in support of quality, age-appropriate early STEM learning. The project pursues the following research questions:

  1. What is a framework for play in early STEM learning that is inclusive of children’s cultural influences? 
  2. In what ways do STEM exhibits for early learners support play in children’s museums and science centers, and what forms of play support STEM learning by early learners, and to what degree? 
  3. To what extent do interactions between early learners and caregivers or peers as part of exhibits influence the structure and effectiveness of play for supporting STEM skill development?
  4. How do practitioners link play to STEM skill development, and to what extent does a framework for play in early STEM learning assist in identifying types of play that supports early STEM skill development?
  5. What do practitioners identify as best practices in exhibit design that support the development of STEM skills for early childhood audiences, and conversely, to what extent do practitioners perceive specific aspects of the design as influential to play?


The four year project involves an iterative process where OSU is co-developing a framework and leading the research efforts of the project.  R & D activities during the project include:

  1. Developing and testing a tool for practitioners and associated observation tools;
  2. Refining the practitioner tool and associated observation tool through applying the tool at children’s museums and science centers throughout the country;
  3. Incorporating feedback collected from practitioners to further refine the framework;
  4. Co-developing strategies with practitioners to engage professionals in informal early learning around effective ways to leverage the power of play for appropriate STEM learning.


This project is focused on early childhood learners at a time when they are just beginning to develop their self-identity through play and social interactions in conjunction with early STEM skill development. interPLAY is charged to create a tool that will ultimately support early learners and their families on their journey of STEM literacy, learning, and identity. This project will provide valuable insights into the interplay between play, exhibit design, and STEM exhibit engagement and will provide practitioners with a framework for effectively bridging the self-motivating power of play with evidence-based practices for supporting free-choice learning. By supporting professionals in children’s museums and science centers, the project will enrich the experience of children 3 to 8 years of age and their caregivers during their visits to these important institutions for early STEM learning.


The project team consists of Kelly Hoke (as lead), Kelly Riedinger, and Martin Storksdieck. Kelly Hoke brings expertise in early childhood development and play while Kelly Riedinger and Martin Storksdieck are experts in informal STEM learning.