Engineering Play: Exploring Associations with Executive Function, Mathematical Ability, and Spatial Ability in Preschool

Zachary Samuel Gold, Purdue University


Engineering play is a new perspective on preschool education that views constructive play as an engineering design process that parallels the way engineers think and work when they develop engineered solutions to human problems (Bairaktarova, Evangelou, Bagiati, & Brophy, 2011). Early research from this perspective supports its use in framing play as a key learning context. However, no research to date has examined associations between engineering play and other factors linked with early school success, such as executive function, mathematical ability, and spatial ability. Additionally, more research is needed to further validate a new engineering play observational measure. This study had two main goals: (1) to gather early validity data on the engineering play measure as a potentially useful instrument for documenting the occurrence of children's engineering play behaviors in educational contexts, such as block play. This was done by testing the factor structure of the engineering play behaviors in this sample and their association with preschoolers' planning, a key aspect of the engineering design process; (2) to explore associations between preschoolers' engineering play and executive function, mathematical ability, and spatial ability. Participants included 110 preschoolers (62 girls; 48 boys; M = 58.47 months) from 10 classrooms in the Midwest United States coded for their frequency of engagement in each of the nine engineering play behaviors. A confirmatory factor analysis resulted in one engineering play factor including six of the engineering play behaviors. A series of marginal regression models revealed that the engineering play factor was significantly and positively associated with the spatial horizontal rotation transformation. However, engineering play was not significantly related to planning ability, executive function, informal mathematical abilities, or other spatial transformation skills. Follow-up analyses revealed significant positive associations between engineering play and planning, executive function, and geometry for only a subgroup of children (n = 27) who had individualized education program (IEP) status. This was the first of a series of studies planned to evaluate the potential of the engineering play perspective as a tool for understanding young children's development and learning across multiple developmental domains. Although most hypotheses regarding engineering play and cognitive skills were not supported, the study provided partial evidence for the reliability and validity of the engineering play observation measure. Future research should include larger sample sizes with more statistical power, continued refinement of the engineering play observation measure, examination of potential associations with specific early learning domains, including spatial ability and language, and more comparisons of engineering play between typically developing children and children with disabilities.




Schmitt, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Early childhood education|Science education

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