Early Childhood STEM power: creating the scientists of the future

Marilyn Fleer with a future scientist. Photo: Supplied.

A new model aims to shift how science is taught in early childhood settings, giving educators the right tools to introduce STEM concepts through imaginative play.

STEM: it’s one of the buzzwords of education in the 21st century. And with the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute recently reporting a 20-year low in the percentage of Year 12 students studying advanced mathematics, the consensus is clear: we need to engage students in STEM – the earlier, the better.

Professor Marilyn Fleer, Foundation Chair in Early Childhood Education and Development at Monash University, has developed the Conceptual PlayWorld model, which aims to change the way STEM is taught in early childhood settings. Part of a five-year, $3.2 million study, it is the first evidence-based model for teaching STEM to preschool students.

“Traditionally, early childhood education has been undervalued and under-resourced,” says Fleer. “Educators [in the sector] haven’t had the right tools for the STEM area. Through our research, we’ve been able to look at what a play- based setting actually means for the teaching of STEM.”

“We use our knowledge of children’s engagement in play to create imaginary situations where drama happens and problems arise. The children need STEM concepts to help them solve these problems.”

A former teacher, Fleer is passionate about the importance of early years education in shaping and stretching young minds. Her Conceptual PlayWorld is a model of intentional teaching that uses the power of story to create engaging, imaginary problem-solving scenarios for young children. Often inspired by a children’s book or fairytale, the students are invited to go on journeys, meet characters and solve challenges – all while learning STEM concepts.

“We use our knowledge of children’s engagement in play to create imaginary situations,” says Fleer. “In these situations, drama happens and problems arise that need to be solved in the story plot. The children need STEM concepts to help them solve these problems.”

One such example trialled by the research team used a chapter-book version of Robin Hood, involving a Conceptual PlayWorld of Sherwood Forest for a class of preschoolers, where the children were tasked with helping the villagers rescue treasure from a castle. The children went back in time to visit the castle engineer – role-played by the teacher – then worked with the educators to prepare an escape plan, build a model of a simple machine and project-manage a rescue.

“Every week, another chapter was read and they got deeper and deeper into the story problem,” says Fleer. “The children got so excited and wanted to go back in time and visit Robin Hood and see the castle. The story keeps the science learning and engineering alive.”

Marilyn Fleer with students. Photo: Supplied.

Fleer’s model provides an alternative to the traditional methods of teaching STEM in preschools, which have often been based on methods from the primary and secondary area. “The challenge that we’ve had in early childhood education is that they’re play-based settings involving infants, toddlers and preschoolers. There’s a very small pool of international research on the best way to teach STEM to very young children. Consequently, the models developed and the research that has been done over the years has mainly focused on children eight years and older.”

As a result, Fleer says, activities such as science experiments and discovery tables have typically been used to explore STEM in early childhood settings, handed down from the primary school setting. While these activities can be effective and engaging, they may not always be the most appropriate tool for an early childhood environment.

“What’s limiting about these [traditional methods] is that they’re more like one-off activities and so there’s not a model to say: How do you make this deeper?” Fleer says. “Play-based settings are very much about the teacher with the children, as opposed to children all doing the same thing at the same time. It’s quite a different context to a classroom.”

“To imagine a science concept, a child is thinking in the abstract. Like pretending they are a mystical animal or that a pebble they’re holding is a gemstone. Play should be valued because it’s fun and a motivating way to learn.”

Preschool teacher and educational consultant Rebecca Lewis agrees. “Often the traditional methods of teaching STEM have been for teachers to use songs or story, or to set up inviting hands-on, open-ended play spaces where children are supported to explore and discover. In my experience, ad hoc opportunities don’t develop a child’s level of understanding in the same way a planned ‘PlayWorld’ does, where teachers are prepared with the scientific knowledge to use with children.”

Using this approach in a preschool setting, with teachers actively entering children’s play in a role or character, allows them to teach STEM concepts with more purpose and meaning, Rebecca says. “It’s a shared experience of going on imaginary adventures and solving problems together, which is more engaging and complex than a spontaneous exploration.”

Rebecca believes imaginary play is inherently linked to STEM thinking. “To imagine a science concept – that Earth’s axis is on a tilt, for example – a child is thinking in the abstract. In a similar way to when a child pretends they are a mystical animal or that a pebble they’re holding is a gemstone. But, most importantly, play should be valued because it’s fun and a motivating way to learn.”

And while Fleer’s work primarily focuses on preschool to early primary, the concept could have wider applications. “Why not use ‘PlayWorlds’ to transform [secondary school] laboratories into interesting spaces to learn about STEM concepts?” suggests Fleer. “For example, visiting another planet; researching atmosphere; revisiting the moon landing?”

For now, though, the concept will be tested within early childhood and primary school settings as part of the five-year Conceptual PlayLab project, funded by the Australian Research Council. Fleer’s research will also include longitudinal studies to investigate how children form concepts in STEM, from infancy to early primary years.

“That will give us really strong foundational knowledge on what aspects of STEM are of most interest to young children, and how it deepens and changes over time. We also want to look at how families can create engaging situations for children to learn STEM at home and to develop some virtual tools.”

Marilyn Fleer. Photo: Supplied.

Fleer says her study comes at a time when the formalisation of early childhood education is of increasing concern. “Internationally, there’s been concern about this push-down curriculum [from the primary school sector] and about trying to make early years education more formal. This works completely against the development of children in that period.”

Conceptual Playworlds, on the other hand, fits within a play-based setting, and has the potential to be used for a variety of different subject areas and scenarios in an early childhood environment – from a Scientific PlayWorld to an Engineering PlayWorld, or even a ‘Respectful Relationships’ PlayWorld that supports a child’s social and emotional development.

At the end of the five years, Fleer is hoping to have developed a tapestry of ways for early childhood educators to implement the model. “Conceptual Playworlds will give educators the means to explore scientific, engineering and technologies concepts in more intentional ways. We should see them with the right tools, creating richer concepts in STEM.

“Once the children have experienced this educational setting – being creative and imaginative and solving lots of interesting problems – we’re hoping these excited little people will see a career in engineering, or even wind up being the chief scientists of the future.”

Find out more about Conceptual Playworlds

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