Over the past few months in our Scéalta blog posts, we have focused on outdoor play. In planning this series, we wanted to demonstrate the possibilities for outdoor play, even in small spaces. We have had great contributions from some of our member settings in this regard, showing how imaginative and playful use of space matters more in many ways than the size of the space available. The start of this series on Scéalta coincided with the last episodes of the STEAM series of Early Childhood Ireland’s podcast. As I reflect on both series, I am reminded of all the affordances the outdoor areas provide for STEAM learning, for children of all ages.
These are a few thoughts that come to mind, and you will have many more ideas.
Science: There are so many aspects to science that can be explored outside. All growing things (plants and animals) fascinate children. Some adults may not be as accepting of some creatures, but all fascinate and delight children! It can be the fast-growing cress on a windowsill, it can be the small woodlice that scurry away when a stone or small log is upturned, it can be how buttercups and daisies flower again so quickly even after the grass is mowed. There are so many kinds of beetles and spiders that we can spot outside. Drawing children’s attention to leaves on trees; how each week colours, shapes and textures change, can make them aware of seasons and climate. Have some magnifying glasses accessible so that interested children can look at and examine the detail of all these plants and creatures. Snail shells are just beautiful.
Baking, making playdough or creating volcanos with baking soda can be seen as an early introduction to chemistry, while also being creative, interesting and fun.
Have you ever overheard children at a water table discussing sinking and floating, or do you have short planks, blocks and cylinders to explore balance, gradient, gravity and momentum? Do you provide suitable loose parts that children can throw, or roll, to explore velocity and speed? All aspects of physics!
Technology: Sandra O’Neill and Eilish Balfe both mentioned digital microscopes in our podcasts. If you have the budget for these, they are worth investing in, but even using a phone or tablet device to look up facts that interest children shows them how technology works. There are so many apps available that can help us identify plants by their leaves, and birds by their songs and help us find out about hibernation, where animals live, evolution and ecology. YouTube is a treasure trove for videos to find out more about all kinds of topics. Sit with children as they view these videos and see where the conversations go.
Engineering: Having all kinds of blocks outdoors encourages children to explore engineering concepts. How high can the tower go? What happens if a big block is placed on a small block? A giant Jenga set is a wonderful way to explore these ideas, especially with older children. The tension of wondering which block, when removed, will bring the whole tower crashing down is so much fun and wonderful engineering learning! (Make sure you have a wide space around giant Jenga as the falling blocks can cover quite a large area). Watch children making a bridge with blocks, or with logs and planks. Have some small balls or toy cars at hand and investigate if the bridge is level enough that the ball doesn’t roll, or see what weight it can take before it collapses.
Arts: Arts, to me, can be seen as the pursuit of creativity. All aspects of STEM exploration, especially with loose parts, and outdoors are creative and can and should be child-led. Paper can be made, by using old newspapers, cut or torn into strips, soaked in water, smoothened out and dried and then used for drawing or painting. Art materials in the outdoor spaces can allow children to draw what they see in nature. Have a selection of paper of different textures, sizes and colours (all the better if this is recycled from correspondence received) with chalk, markers, paint, crayons and charcoal. Have you tried making brushes with lollipop sticks and leaves or feathers, held on with an elastic band perhaps? Make these materials available to children and watch the ideas they come up with. School age children will love this!
Mathematics: So many possibilities here! Weighing, measuring, counting, and exploring shapes can provide children with endless opportunities to explore maths. Have measuring tapes, scales, baskets and buckets available. If you have old-style scales and digital scales do items weigh differently? (Technology and maths in synergy here!) Using your hands can you predict which item might be heavier? Is the biggest item always heavier? So many questions than can be posed and explored. Older children might like to document what they are finding out and come back to some investigations at a later date. Pencils, notepads, diaries and tablets as well as cameras and digital voice recorders can help with this documentation and enquiry.
The school age children in your setting might be introduced to some of these ideas in school. Ask them what they’ve been doing and encourage them to share their ideas and explorations with younger children. This mixed-age approach will be inspirational for all and will provide rich conversations and deep learning for everyone.