Kia Rapua: Otago Museum’s science playground

By Kate Oktay, Otago Museum

Otago Museum was thrilled to win Most Innovative Education Project at the 2019 Service IQ New Zealand Museum awards during the Museums Aotearoa Conference in May. We would like to extend our congratulations to Otago Museum Science Engagement Manager Nathalie Wierdak and Outreach Project Coordinator Claire Concannon, the creators of the winning entry, Kia Rapua.

Kia Rapua is a wonderful example of the difference that Museum outreach programmes can make to educators, children’s educational experiences, and the community. Supported by MBIE’s Curious Minds fund, the Otago Museum team saw the lack of science outreach available for children under seven, and decided to address this need with a travelling science-themed playground.

Kia Rapua science playground in action. Photo courtesy of Otago Museum

Kia Rapua was inspired by research that showed that people’s preconceptions towards science were formed by their first experience of it; Nathalie and Claire wanted to create a positive experience, shaping children’s attitudes towards their future learning and science in general.

As you would expect from science educators, this intention sparked extensive research to ensure that the project would meet this desired outcome. They found that children’s learning closely follows the scientific method: they ask questions, they trial things to see what works and what doesn’t, and they adjust their methods based on this. With this knowledge they decided that the interactives would follow this concept.

The team then approached early learning centres to collaborate and to provide expertise. This partnership so early in the project was key to its success; as the educators helped influence the design of the activities and ensure that interactives aligned with early learning best practise.

The team discovered that children needed to be able to discover the interactives on their own, before being guided through by an adult, and that for learning to occur, the children had to have access to similar materials as those used in the teaching aids.

With these parameters in mind, Nathalie and Claire developed five themes; seeing, hearing, touching, moving and building. These themes aligned to scientific principles that they wanted the children to explore; light and optics, sound, textures, friction and forces, and engineering.

Exploring sound in Kia Rapua. Photo courtesy of Otago Museum

 Next the Otago Museum facilities department were bought on board to provide engineering know-how, and the interactives were designed in partnership with the early education partners. The designs kept front-of-mind health and safety requirements, such as a maximum interactive height of 1.2 metres. They also ensured that they used materials that were commonly found in children’s home environments. Four of the five designs were built in-house by our fantastic facilities team, and for a more complex structure an external local supplier, Play Gear was contracted.

The interactives were all simple ideas; slides, water pumps, sound pipes, texture pads and coloured Perspex tiles, that would allow children to explore the scientific themes.

Once the building process was complete, Nathalie and Claire launched the pop-up with a pilot event on the Museum Reserve. The launch was successful, but an issue became obvious; the playground was suited to children under five, rather than under seven. This necessitated a slight adjustment, and the team decided to target early childhood centres exclusively.

Nathalie and Claire ran training for all of the participating early education teachers on how to guide the children through the interactives. Each of the centres had the pop-up exhibition for a month at a time. First the children were allowed to explore them through free play, then the teachers directed further learning and exploration.

Surveys were filled out by the centres before the training took place and after the pop-up was taken down; this was when Nathalie and Claire began to understand the true success of the project.

In initial surveys, teachers said that they had no science-based learning activities in their classrooms. They also said that they were not confident teaching a science-focused lesson. After the centres had utilised the interactives, their attitudes towards science education were transformed. Teachers said that as a result of the pop-up they could see that they actually had many resources available in their classrooms and they were more comfortable teaching scientific principles to students. Making educators aware that science is integral to daily life was an unexpected and positive outcome of the project.

Exploring touch at Kia Rapua. Photo courtesy of Otago Museum

Feedback also showed that the children had benefited immensely from being able to access the interactives. Not only did children enjoy learning about science through the lessons that were provided, but that they came up with their own exploration activities to extend their learning.

Some children used the ‘see’ interactive to play ‘guess the colour’ by putting two colours of Perspex together. Some took the texture mats to play games of hopscotch and created rules about which textures they could step on. Teachers also noticed a huge difference in the way children began to engage in free play as a result of the exhibit. Children began incorporating investigative science-based games in child directed play; this was an unimagined outcome which exceeded the team’s expectations.

The Kia Rapua playground is currently being used at different community events, and the team are now looking at ways to ensure that more children will be able to benefit from this fantastic educational asset.

There is a real need for science education within the early childhood community, which is not well served by current outreach programmes, and Kia Rapua shows the tremendous impact it can have.

Find out more about the Kia Rapua science playground on the Otago Museum website