The other day I was working away in my office when I heard my daughter call out "YAY! My experiment WORKED!" I did not immediately go to investigate (our babysitter was nearby, so I doubted that explosions were imminent). But my daughter soon came to drag me downstairs to see the results of her "experiment."
She had taken a plastic basket and filled it with balls. Then she used a jump rope to tie the handle of the basket to the back of a small chair. Then she tied another jump rope between the chair and the doorknob. When I pushed open the door to the playroom, the force tipped over the chair, which in turn caused the bucket of balls to spill out onto the floor. She explained that until she tried it for the first time, she didn't know if it would work, but that she hoped it would, and that her babysitter had not helped with building the experiment. She later added a full toy shopping cart, attached with fishing line, to the ensemble, and this also spilled on command.
It just made me happy that she was so excited to experiment. To build something and try it out. To think through what might happen, and rejoice when it worked. And my first thought was, thank goodness she had the free time, and general purpose tools (ball, jump ropes), to be able to do this. I actually posted that thought to my personal Facebook right away, where it has 50 positive reactions and counting.
I found a similar (though more elaborate) example of play-based experimentation in a post yesterday at the EdWords blog by Gail Multop. A boy in a play-based Pre-K program built a toilet for birds in the hope of keeping the school picnic tables cleaner. Not a success in its goal, perhaps, but a success in learning all the same.
Kids need time to play. It's as simple as that. Well, it's not quite as simple as that - they need safe spaces in which to play, and adults nearby who can give them support if they need it. But the point is that if a child spends all her time in school and in structured activities, no matter how enriching those activities might be, she won't have time for spontaneous experiments. And we won't hear that joyful: "YAY! My experiment WORKED!"