When I was eight years old I couldn’t speak English. I’d been born in another country and came to the U.S. because my father’s postdoctoral medical research brought us here. Frustrated with my inability to communicate with others, I stopped trying. I didn’t want to play with the other kids anyway – at least that’s what I told myself.

Fortunately, my father helped turn things around with a game he invented. Every time I mispronounced a word or used a sentence incorrectly, he made me repeat it three times and gave himself a point. Whenever I caught him making a grammatical error, I would in turn receive a point. Upon accumulating 10 points, I received a small prize. I won often, although I suspect my father helped me along a bit. This game nurtured a sense of competition that encouraged me to keep studying and improving my English.

This went on for months and slowly but surely, my dad’s method helped me master the language. He let me play with words, and the words in turn let me play with and make new friends. Through constant trial and error, I became adept at recognizing patterns and understanding the best approach to problem-solving – in this case, the proper order and combination of words.

My father wasn’t the only one with the wonderful idea of putting this kind of informal learning into practice. Professor Jordan Ellenberg of the University of Wisconsin created a game he calls “the mystery number” that helped his son learn, and ultimately love, another type of language: math. He describes how he would ask his son questions like, “What is the mystery number that totals 29 if one multiplies it by two and adds seven?” When we were eight, his son and I shared more than an age; we shared an unquenchable desire to play and, by playing, to learn.

A visitor learns to solder and connect a circuit in a workshop at the New York Hall of Science's Maker Space.

There are other ways that kids can be exposed to informal learning. Ellenberg points to new avenues such as smartphone apps that kids can play with, but which demand critical thinking.

Informal learning is powerful enough that it’s the centerpiece of some educational programs. At the New York Hall of Science, the late director, Alan J. Friedman, said he wanted to get children out of the classroom and venture into the unknown, without instruction, without help. (Full disclosure: I work for a communications firm that does pro bono work for the Hall of Science.) In helping children understand science by experiencing it firsthand, Dr. Friedman made the subject come to life for thousands of them.

“Design, Make, Play,” a book edited by Dr. Margaret Honey and Dr. David Kanter, delves into the hard science that underlies hands-on and informal learning. It concludes that there are strong correlations between a child’s penchant for playing, inventing and exploring, and learning science. “Play encourages… different engagement strategies, from kinetic to contemplative, from experiential to instructional,” they write. “The thread through all of these strategies is unpressured explorations and invention, the very characteristics that can lead to creative thought and innovation for science learning.”

The National Research Council of the National Academies undertook research, published in 2009, that supports these claims. It found that informal science learning had a significant impact on the success of science learning in a formal school environment among historically underserved groups.

Building on this, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called for greater integration of informal and formal science education. The council’s 2010 report, Prepare and Inspire: K-12 STEM Education for America’s Future, suggested that every middle school and high school ought to have an informal education partner, such as a museum, zoo, aquarium or company that could bring science, technology, engineering and mathematics into students’ lives.

Rubber bands and popsicle sticks help inspire a solution to a design challenge during an engineering workshop at NYSCI.

One of the most pertinent examples of how to integrate informal learning and formal education is in Elizabeth Green’s book, Building a Better Teacher. Green recounts how two math teachers, Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert, collaborated in the 1980s and 1990s at Michigan State University’s College of Education.

In a teaching experiment, Ball hosted a “Conference on the Number Zero,” inviting third and fourth-graders to investigate and debate whether the number zero is odd, even or something else. It gave the children an opportunity to engage in critical and creative thinking. The discussion continued for hours; indeed, Ball had a difficult time bringing the session to a close. Some even constructed mathematical proofs to support their arguments. “The children had been ignited,” Green writes.

The power of this experiment was that it forced the students to look to and rely on each other to find the answers. Dependence on the teacher to provide solutions quickly faded. In a review of Green’s book, Sebastian Stockman, a lecturer in English at Northeastern University, eloquently wrote, “In fact, those rabbit holes are where we learn; we begin to understand through trial and error, dead ends and towers of reasoning that collapse because of their faulty assumptions. Allowing students to make these errors, then identify and correct them, is one of the best things a teacher can do.”

The power of personal interest and play cannot be understated. An analysis in 2007 led by John Falk, director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University, discovered that stimulating, attractive learning environments can foster interest that leads to participation. Personally, I vividly recall the negative associations I had with English. Because of my father’s creation of a positive learning environment, I no longer cared about making mistakes; I was going to win the game he created.

The process of trial and error, overcoming frustrations and making repeated attempts can be the same for mastering a language or understanding science. When you’re driven by curiosity, you’ll be surprised at your ability to come up with unimagined and perhaps unimaginable ways to solve a complex problem.

There are few feelings as satisfying as solving a problem that requires intense thinking and concentration. I learned that from my dad. There is a lot of trying and failing and trying again until you get it right. When you finally do, it makes all the effort worth it.

Images by Andrew Kelly, Insider Images, courtesy of the New York Hall of Science.