Researchers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) are partnering with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to conduct a study at the new Children’s Adventure Trails exhibit. The study, “Exploring Adventure Play Spaces,” began this summer and examines how visitor interactions with other Zoo and Aquarium guests, materials, nature and animals promote cognitive, physical and social-emotional development.
Leaders of the project, Anne Karabon, assistant professor of Early Childhood, and Amanda Steiner, instructor in Teacher Education in the College of Education, chose Omaha’s Zoo and Aquarium’s Children Adventure Trails for the study because of its open area, non-directive paths, nature exploration and climbing structures intended to promote children to self-select where and how to play.
“To understand the visitors’ experience, we must spend significant time with them in the space,” Karabon said. Over the course of five months, Drs. Karabon and Steiner will collect field notes through three hour observation sessions in the Children’s Adventure Trails area. Additionally, interviews will be conducted with adult visitors about their experiences and how their children engage in the space. The study will conclude in November with a report that details evidence of learning being enhanced and extended through exploration, meaning play, interactions and facilitation.
“We often start by watching the flow of children, what interests them and where they are going. Then we always end up playing with them. Play is the way children use their imagination and intelligence to develop language, social skills and motor abilities.” Steiner added, “Everyone learns through play. We notice many school-aged children leading informal learning opportunities with younger children and even adults through our observations.” Drs. Karabon and Steiner intend to disseminate research findings at conferences in 2018 and publications.
The focus of this research project aligns directly with two of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s five priorities, early childhood education and welfare and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As a community-engaged university, UNO is committed to working with and sharing information about young learners and STEM.