When devising learning experiences, the most interesting conversations often revolve around the children’s immediate environments. The outdoors and natural environment can foster children’s curiosity and imagination as well as encouraging observation, experimentation, manipulating of materials, and testing skills.
Outdoor play and explorations in open spaces (natural and built environments such as schools’ playgrounds, parks, gardens, pathways) are ideal settings for exploring and learning scientific and artistic ideas through active play and exploration (Pellegrini, 2009). Play allows children to engage in problem-solving by observing how things work, considering other possibilities and trying things out. Play therefore can develop children’s lifelong skills such as taking initiative and problem-solving. Formal structured and informal unstructured play activities have the potential to contribute to the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of children (Loebach, 2004). All the above-mentioned skills and experiences are also involved in the scientific and artistic processes of exploration and inquiry carried out by any scientists, artists, engineers or mathematicians. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) education allows children to see an experimental world where everything they encounter can be subject to scientific exploration, extending the children’s innate curiosity and the natural urge to explore their immediate environment.
In STEAM-based early childhood education, it is suggested to make maximum use of the natural environment for exploration (Halton & Treveton, 2017). Developing STEAM concepts with children through their interactions in nature happens daily and without any interference from adults! Children’s explorations are as diverse and unique as the children themselves; observing and collecting fallen leaves, exploring the form, texture and colours of trees, the effects of ripples in splashing water, stones assembled to create or defend a den, drawing with twigs, creating ladders for spiders out of brambles, crumbling soil in your hands, – the list of activities are boundless!
STEAM activities in open spaces should encourage natural play where children are making sense of the world around them, developing an understanding of how things change over time, observing a variety of different structures (natural and manmade), patterns and behaviours. For example observing how the slide in the local park is made, looking at what it is made of (rough or smooth materials etc.), how high and steep it is (slope and incline) or splashing in muddy puddles, exploring light reflection, dispersion of light (rainbows over the puddle on a sunny day), how mud forms a suspension in the water and how the materials in their boots keep them dry.
When children are engaged with STEAM concepts through exploratory play in nature, the learning promotes children to use a diverse viewpoint (scientific, artistic) that prods different perspectives and encourages children to view the world with fresh eyes. With a sense of curiosity and wonder the simplest of ideas enriched with creative methodologies provide the context for a child-centred and holistic learning experience.
Children’s innate sense of curiosity and constant pursuit to make sense of their world are characteristics every child needs to hold onto as they navigate their way through a complex and ever-changing world. Carl Sagan once said, ‘every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist’ The education system needs our ECE settings to keep tickling our children’s sense of wonder as we anticipate future possibilities that they have yet to experience. Here’s hoping it is not too long more before all children are back in their settings to experience curiosity and wonder!
STEAM Education projects involving Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, local schools and artists collaborating together.
Anne Marie Morrin is a lecturer in Visual Art Education in the Dept. of Arts Education and Physical Education in the Mary Immaculate College.
Visual art practice directly influences my practice as a teacher – and vice versa. Within this binary role, Anne Marie places the role of practice and enquiry central to the acquisition of knowledge. As a researcher and teacher, she is interested in interdisciplinary approaches to visual art education and art-based research. Recent research projects include; Dyslexia and visual literacy, Participatory art practice and the hidden curriculum.
Dr Maeve Liston is Director of Enterprise & Community Engagement, Senior Lecturer in Science Education, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Halton, N., Treveton, N. (2017). Bringing STEM to Life. Understanding and Recognising Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in Play. TEACHING SOLUTIONS
Loebach, J. (2004). Designing learning environments for children: An affordance-based approach to providing developmentally appropriate settings, (Unpublished master dissertation). Environmental Design Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Pellegrini, A. D. (2009). Research and policy on children’s play. Child Development Perspectives, 3(2), 131–136.