As children, we follow the ants, wondering where they are going and why? What is there home like? Lets make them a home! A maze to pass through! A bridge they need to cross! Wow look how they work together!
This play and creativity is what we as experimental ecologists do everyday. Designing experiments to try find answers to these questions. Designing a “Y maze” to test if ants use visual or olfactory (smell) cues to find food- well that involves crafting something up that the ants will actually walk through, figuring out how to stop them from escaping, thinking about materials and shape and pattern and colour and cutting and gluing (or 3D printing)… that's pure creativity, crafting, playfulness. Experimentation is playfulness.
And this playfulness is something that children are so wonderfully brilliant at. How often are we stumped at the raw, honest questions asked by our five year old friends? And the imaginary worlds they take us to when we play together? The beautiful creatures they make from mud and twigs? The mazes they make with chalk on the ground? We have much to learn from our five year old friends as scientists.
Not only is the playfulness important to our practice as ecologists, but I think the more we share science in a playful way in non-conventional ‘educational’ contexts, the more we can communicate our research, and learn from others what questions they wish to know. It creates conversations around research questions and design, pathways to encourage folk to practice their own experimentation which links local and scientific knowledge.
I was beautifully reminded of the power of this playfulness at the town festival as I embodied my character of ‘insect entomologist’ (an insect studying insects). Playing ‘Bee, fly, wasp’, a very simple game of guess who is who based on large images of insect pollinators which all look similar, as a way of learning basic taxonomical differences between them, was such a joyous way to share my passion for pollinators with folk who are so interested to learn! And it opened up fantastic conversations about native bee conservation, the threat of Varroa mite, ethics of honey consumption, the role of non-bee pollinators, and the different plants folk are trying out in their homes and community spaces ‘for the bees’. Together we learned, shared, questioned- and it all began with a simple game.
And its not just children! When we as adults are in a playful space (a festival being a pretty ideal setting) our minds are open- yearning for creative fun. I wonder how much more ‘science’ we could create together if we allowed the time and space for this play in our busy lives?
To this festival , I also brought my old dissection microscope to the grassy field on the rim of main stage. I invited folk to bring objects that they always wanted to see up close. From leaves, flowers and crystals, to their lunch, beards and beer- folk had some fun items to discover! We skill-shared how to change the magnification and focus, and folk passed these learnings onto each other. Someone even donated a resin preserved locust for others to look at (the best gift in this nerdy entomologist’s opinion). The joy of sharing amongst the music, outdoors in the sunshine as people danced and played and laughed and science-ed was so powerful for me. And the feedback and cute letters in my town mailbox suggested folk felt that joy too.
The practice of science is playful. And sharing our science in playful ways has the power to not only communicate and further inform our science, but to allow folk to be inspired as the citizen scientists that we all are.
So here's to playfulness in science!