STEM learning through nature play

STEM learning through nature play

In our webinar, Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles and Dr Maia Osborn from Southern Cross University, Australia explain their research about play-based pedagogies, and particularly nature-play pedagogies, and consider how nature play supports the learning of scientific concepts and STEM more broadly in early childhood education.

The key insights from the webinar are summarised here:

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) refers to transdisciplinary modes for problem-solving and learning.  While STEM in early childhood is commonly thought of as high-tech digital play involving computers and robotics, Amy and Maia draw upon research to demonstrate the significant opportunities nature play presents to enrich STEM learning. Rather than STEM being initiated by technological play with robots or iPads, environmental science is an organic and highly engaging entry point to STEM. These nature play experiences afford limitless opportunities to explore scientific concepts, engineering skills, high- and low-tech technologies, and mathematical concepts through practical, hands-on experiences.

A variety of different play types were found to support STEM learning. Originally, these were conceived as open-ended play, in which teachers set up materials but offer minimal engagement, giving children time to explore; modelled play, in which teachers illustrate, explain, or demonstrate. For example, teachers might show children how to create a water filter with a bottle filled with sand and gravel; and purposefully-framed intentional play, which combines open-ended and modelled play. However, these three play types were found to be too limited and limiting for understanding the pedagogy of nature play and the STEM concepts most afforded in nature play. Through a sustained, multi-site empirical study with 20 early childcare settings, nine predominant play types were identified including place/Country-responsive play, nonhuman play, slow play, sensorial play, risky play, imaginative play, creative play, discovery play, and death play.

Open-ended play is often the precursor to the introduction of other play types. Children’s emerging interests can lead to deeper exploration using different play types, and to trans-disciplinary STEM. STEM play can be created with any combination of play types, and doesn’t need to be unstructured. It can include very intentional moments that are highly structured (although these might be provided later as part of revisiting learning, rather than as an interruption to the play). In fact, the research in nature play settings showed that intentional experiences, and teachers’ efforts facilitating children’s nature play through questioning and providing provocations, both enriched children’s scientific understandings.

In these studies, environmental concepts were found to both inspire and extend STEM learning opportunities in early childhood settings. Science learning through nature play may explore lifecycles, gardening, seasons, biodiversity, water, ecosystems, Indigenous knowledge, properties of substances, and chemical changes through cooking. Engineering might involve experimenting, construction play, sand play, water play, building cubbies and treehouses, using pulleys, and designing and making boats. Technology might include use of tools, art materials, pulleys, levers, magnifying glasses, and digital technologies. Mathematics might include counting, estimation, measuring, solving number problems, sorting, and noticing patterns.

When considering nature play as a foundation for STEM learning, teachers might find it helpful to develop a critical awareness of their perspectives on nature play and how it is influenced by their beliefs about nature. Nature can be conceptualised in different ways. One perspective views the natural environment as existing outside the cultural and social world of humans. However, this view creates a human-nature divide, and a human/nonhuman binary. Instead, Amy and Maia draw on a childhoodnature theorising of nature informed by posthumanist philosophy and Indigenous philosophies. From these perspectives, humanity is restored to one of many natural species as a collective rather than as a superior or exceptional species, and humans are seen to be inextricably entangled, rather than separate to, the natural world. In teaching, these perspectives can be seen in the differences between teachers using nature as a resource (going out into nature or using natural materials as resources for play, art, or counting), and teachers who focus more on sustained attunement to and engagement with nature, and deepening our interconnections with nature. Foundational to this relational view is deep engagement with Indigenous cultures, histories, and perspectives. Beliefs about what nature is and how it is valued can also be fascinating to discuss with young children, and offer an insight into family and community perspectives (this may even reveal a conflict between perspectives).

Nature play need not involve a long walk to a distant location, or an excursion to a ‘wilderness’ location. Nature is within us, and all around us – from the bacteria found all over us, to the weeds emerging between the cracks in the path, to the spiders making homes in corners of learning settings. Teaching teams in the early stages of engaging deeply with nature might choose to embark slowly on their nature play journeys, and begin by exploring the nature within their own site. It can take time, but it is crucial to develop high levels of trust in children’s agency and capabilities, enabling teachers to extend the parameters and boundaries of nature play.

Nature play and STEM are also inextricably linked with culture, which in Australia and New Zealand means engaging with indigenous knowledges and beliefs about the land, and the ways in which people demonstrate respect for the land. These beliefs and practices should not be tokenistic, but respectfully embedded in the play and learning, and drawn on as appropriate and meaningful to the children’s activity. For example, it might be important to consider cultural perspectives about kaitiakitanga of the land during play, or to draw on tikanga Māori when children want to take natural materials from the land. Children in this research showed deep interest in learning about, honouring, and embedding respect for culture and history within their play.

Teachers take roles as co-learners, co-researchers, co-scientists, and co-engineers. This means they don’t need a strong grounding in content knowledge, but instead focus on exploring and inquiring with children. Indeed, most of the STEM learning encountered through the research was child-led – originating from the children’s interests, curiosities, fascinations, and wonderings. Deep, sustained, and engaging STEM learning is afforded when teachers resist the temptation to share their own prior knowledge or immediately answer children’s questions, and instead embark on processes of discovery, observation, classification, hypothesising, experimentation, problem-solving, and analysis alongside the children. Realising a child-led approach to STEM demands relinquishing control, noticing what the children notice, and facilitating their interest. Teachers should try to be responsive to children’s play, without stepping in unnecessarily or asking meaningless questions in order to have a presence in children’s play. They might offer provocations or ‘sabotage’ children’s play (for example, by removing particular tools) in order to provoke problem solving, and critical and creative thinking.

Long-term and deep engagements with STEM and nature can be supported when teachers slow down and give children time to notice, wonder, and stay with these moments. Visiting the same spaces over time allows time for children to notice seasonal changes, and for a complex understanding of nature to develop. For example, in one setting, a dead kookaburra noticed on a walk that children made every day created an opportunity for children to watch the process of decay over many months.

Amy’s slides can be accessed by downloading the PDF on this page, and further information can be accessed at which includes resources such as THE MUDBOOK Nature Play Framework.

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