STEAM in the Early Years: Creating Curious Learners Through Play.
Alistair is an award-winning early years author, blogger, product designer and advocate of play.
One of the reasons that I have spent the past 30 years working in early years education is that my days have been filled with the joy of random questions like ‘Do chickens have belly buttons?’ and (after the death of the class fish), ‘do fish have funerals?’. Although they can appear a little random – especially in the middle of a carpet session on 2D shapes – these sorts of questions typify many of the characteristics of an early years child and their innate curiosity about the world that they inhabit.
As early years practitioners, our role is to create an environment that nurtures curiosity and help it grow and flourish. This should be easy, especially when you have children who are naturally motivated to explore and discover. Unfortunately, as adults, we are often encouraged to work towards outcomes that don’t have child development (or curiosity and creativity) at their centre.
We are Not Talking About that Now
This is a phrase used far too often. We talk to the children about something planned and during the discussion, a hand goes up on the carpet and a voice says something like ’I had pancakes for my breakfast’, ‘my sister has got a scab on her knee’ or on one occasion, during an observation of practice by the Headteacher ’my dog is dead’!
What we’re compelled to do is stick to the plan, because that is what we think successful educators do. Stick to the plan and get to the desired outcome. That is where I would have definitely used the phrase ‘we are not talking about that now’, and switch the conversation back to the prescribed outcome.
What experience has taught is that it is in those questions, random comments and unrelated statements –children reveal what is really important to them –the things that make them curious. Rather than being a distraction, they are a focus serving as a reminder about our role as educators and what real engagement looks like.
Compliance and Engagement are Not the Same
True engagement can be magical as well as transformative for children.
When we are engaged we are motivated, absorbed and inspired. We are listening or joining in because we really want to. It’s at these moments of high-level engagement that we are most open to learning and that our levels of resilience and persistence are high. You are far more likely to come back and have another try at something if you are loving the experience.
Compliance, on the other hand, is doing what you feel is expected in a given situation because you feel like you have got to do it – or you are afraid of what might happen if you don’t. There are occasions when children will comply because they are afraid of getting into trouble or disappointing a significant adult. But these behaviours are dominated by negative emotions and don’t leave children feeling absorbed or inspired.
Creating a STEAM Space in Early Years
It is easy to look at the component parts that make up STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) and think they are not very ‘early years’. But the truth is, what children do through their natural play and interaction is a perfect grounding for STEAM and there are lots of things that educators can do to enhance that experience even further.
Read more about why STEAM teaching is critical in early years education
To be a scientist, technologist, engineer, artist or mathematician there are key skills, attributes and dispositions that underpin your specific knowledge about your subject and talent. These can be easily woven into the fabric of an effective early years space.
As early years professionals, we need to create places where children have the freedom to play, explore, enquire, investigate, show initiative, try, fail and try again. To build their confidence and develop their understanding by having the opportunity to apply what they know. To allow them time to talk to each other and adults (sustained shared talk), have time to think on their own and with others (sustained shared thinking) and feel a sense of accomplishment.
Children will be most successful if they can acquire ‘academic’ skills in the course of developing their dispositions for learning, not at their expense.
And of course, as children develop these skills and dispositions, they won’t limit their use to the early years’ environment; they will take them out into their wider families and communities for the rest of their lives.
Experience Versus Activity
One of the ways that we can build a STEAM approach into our thinking and environment is to focus on children’s skill development and experiences, rather than only providing them with structured activities that link to topics, themes and predetermined outcomes.
Teaching a ‘topic’ is a firm favourite, enjoying theming absolutely every activity that the children took part in whatever we were talking about. If we were talking about teddy bears we would talk about them, sing about them, write about them, draw around them, do maths about teddy bears while counting with teddy bears and even pretend to be them in our Music and Movement sessions.
If we were doing some painting (of teddy bears), the paper, paint pots, colours and brushes were inviting the children to paint a teddy, perhaps even with an example of one done earlier.
How much more engaging would it have been if I had been able to say to the children:
“If you paint today, don’t forget that you can choose any of the different sizes and textures of paper that we have got to paint on.
- If you would like to have a go at painting on fabric, card or foil, you can help yourself to that too.
- Make sure you find a space that is the right size for what you want to create.
- You can serve yourself with paint from the dispensers or mix your own powder paint and water.
- It’s up to you how thick or thin you want your paint to be.
- When it comes to what you want to use to apply your paint with, then the choice is yours. You could use everything from your fingers to any of the resources that are on the shelves. Or you could go outside and collect some natural resources and see what marks you can make with them”.
This is the approach that I see successfully in place in many of the early years settings that I work with.
STEAM is an Attitude, not just an Approach
In the example above, we might not get any teddy bears, but what we would see is a myriad of dispositions for learning underpinned by enthusiasm and engagement. As for STEAM, there is at least one example of Science, Technology. Engineering, Art and Mathematics skills in this one creative opportunity.
A more experience-based approach to teaching and the environment gives us lots of opportunities to observe what interests and engages the children. Plus, we are able to maximise their high levels of engagement which in turn enables us to support, scaffold, model and teach all of the skills and knowledge that we want them to have.
And best of all, it makes learning great fun. Not just for the children, but for adults too and that, after all, is what learning should be.
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Register for our exclusive STEAM-focussed webinar panel discussion to hear more from Alistair, alongside panellists:
- Tim Peake British ESA Astronaut
- Anne-Marie Imafidon Stemettes CEO
- Marsha Ivins NASA Astronaut
- Craig Kemp Global EdTech Consultant
- Simon Hunt Primary Teacher and Consultant