Rethinking adult learning in family engagement programs

“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice:
First, on the social level, and later, on the individual level,
First between people and then inside the child.”

– Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Laughter, bewilderment, amazement, and revelation erupted amongst children and their families as they engagingly played with various tools, from the simple, low-tech measuring cups to high-tech gadgets like an iPad to learn about science inquiry and the engineering design process. Playing with their children, adults joyously shared they found themselves reverting to their childhood. Many of them walked up to me at the end of the workshop and expressed comments like, “this is the first time I’ve felt creative!” and “I felt like a child,” “I got to be a kid today” and “this [workshop] was so much fun!”.

Playful learning experiences such as the one described above can be effective, yet elusive to many early childhood and family engagement practitioners. This is true especially for practitioners seeking to develop STEM family engagement programs. Further, many of the family engagement curricula appear to be behaviorally based (Bunting, 2004; Samuelson, 2010). In her research, Bunting (2004) provides a comprehensive breakdown of the different parent or caregiver programs—behavioral, cognitive, relationship-based, rational emotive therapy, and multi-modal—most used among family engagement practitioners. Research also shows the curricula often offered to families is structured with theoretical approaches that include discussion, role play, videos, and homework (NREPP Learning Center Literature Review: Parent Training Programs, 2015; Maynard, Littell, Shlonsky, Barlow, & Coren, 2018; Samuelson, 2010).

Although there is a consensus amongst the curricula and design of family engagement programs, it is important to note that practitioners and caregivers are often unsure of what role they can play to support children’s STEM learning and development in schools, in the community, and digital settings (National PTA, 2016). Because of this many organizations and individuals working in the field of parent engagement are eager to find solutions on how to engage families in STEM. There is a need and opportunity to create responsive, meaningful and culturally appropriate programs to empower caregivers to feel comfortable in helping their children develop STEM skills.

One of several effective elements in family engagement programs is to engage families in a social learning environment design to foster playful learning experiences. Family engagement practitioners and program designers should also consider the role of the adult in children’s playful learning with social learning principles. According to Barnett (1990), play should not be considered what the child does but as an individual characteristic. The same can be applied to families and adults. Principals relating to playful pedagogies should also be integrated into family engagement curricula. Research shows through play children learned to seek knowledge, test their abilities, and promote motivation to learn (Barnett, 1990; Erikson, 1985; Hurwitz, 2003; Hirsch-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003).

Just as playful learning creates a community of learners in young children, it can also foster family engagement to make sense of complex concepts like science inquiry and the engineering design process, just like the caregivers in describe at the beginning of this post. By fostering engagement and stimulating learning through playful experiences, adults learn to provide a meaningful context for children to learn STEM concepts and skills. STEM concepts can be complex to understand, especially for families who believe math and science are “hard” subjects for children. Therefore, practitioners need to convey implicit play messages to families when designing STEM family engagement curricula. The curricula might have simple instructions for teaching families a concept, but it is essential for families to understand the principles of play and how to play with curricula tools and resources. For practitioners to learn how to integrate playful learning in STEM family programs may be through playful pedagogies and engaging in more discussions regarding decisions about playful pedagogies.

We must explore the need to broadening STEM family engagement through playful pedagogies and align both play in the classroom and with at-home learning. Creating authentic and meaningful STEM playful experiences for families can enable them to be creative and contribute to their children’s learning without feeling challenged or inadequate. Modeling to families that learning can be fun they will, in turn, pass the same behavior to their children.

We role modeled the engineering designed process to the group of moms in this video. They learned basic concepts of design for musical instruments. We instructed them to be curious, have fun, and play. As evidence of this video, these moms’ playful learning experiences acquired the knowledge and skills but most importantly, they felt comfortable learning complex STEM concepts through play. We conducted follow up phone call interviews, and the qualitative data demonstrated that moms brought their playful learning experience at home and continued to introduce math and science concepts through play.


Barnett, L. (1990). Playfulness: Definition, design, and measurement. Play and Culture, 3, 319-336.

Bunting, L. (2004). Parenting Programmes: The Best Available Evidence. Child Care in Practice 10, 4, 327-343. Retrieved from

Erickson, R. J. (1985). Play contributes to the full emotional development of the child. Education, 105(3), 261-263. Retrieved from

Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2003). Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children REALLY Learn–And Why They Need To Play More and Memorize Less (Book). Library Journal, 128, 15.) Retrieved from

Hurwitz, S. C. (2003). To Be Successful—Let Them Play! For Parents Particularly. Childhood Education, 79, 2, 101-2. Retrieved from

National PTA (2016). STEM + Families. Increasing students’ access to opportunities in STEM by effectively engaging families. [White paper]. Retrieved from

NREPP Learning Center Literature Review: Parent Training Programs (2015). Prepared by Development Services Group, Inc., under contract no. HHSS 2832 0120 0037i/HHSS 2834 2002T, ref. no. 283– 12–3702. Retrieved from

Maynard, B. R., Littell, J. H., Shlonsky, A., Barlow, J., & Coren, E. (2018). The Effectiveness of Parenting Programs: A Review of Campbell Reviews. Research on Social Work Practice, 28, 1, 99-102. Retrieved from

Samuelson, A. (2010). Best practices for parent education and support programs. What Works, Wisconsin – Research to Practice Series, 10, 1-8. Retrieved from


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