About our research

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Conceptual PlayLab

About our research

Fleer’s Conceptual PlayLab aims to test ground-breaking play-based models for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics to young children.

We aim to create significant shifts in the ways STEM concepts are taught in early childhood in Australia, and around the world.

We want to know:

  • Does a play-based model of teaching STEM support the creative cognition of infants, toddlers and preschoolers?
  • Would this model encourage more teaching of STEM concepts in the early years?
  • How can families build the foundations of STEM thought at home?
  • Under what conditions can all children be supported into a lifetime of curiosity, wonder and imagination in STEM?
  • What are the impacts of gender, geography, socio-economic status and background?

Three pillars of investigation

We have divided our work into three pillars:

  1. How infants, toddlers and preschoolers form concepts in STEM
  2. Investigate STEM learning in family homes
  3. Develop national, evidence-based model
The three stages of investigation
National programmatic study of conceptual play - three stages of investigation

Our approach

Foundational research into concept formation in STEM across age periods

We will follow 130 infants from diverse early childhood settings over five years. This will give us insights into the unique role of imagination in STEM. We will be able to see how it changes according to the age of the children, and their learning environments.

Through this, we will be able to deepen our understanding about what conceptual play is for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, and how it can be supported in diverse play-based settings.

Generate scholarly knowledge about how families create the conditions for creative cognition

We will follow 100 children and their families from different CALD context and geographic areas for 12 months.

We will use our app to document children’s play and everyday interactions related to STEM at home –  for example cooking, building or washing. We will investigate what STEM concepts are important for families, and study the nature of children’s cultural development of STEM concepts in the home.

Develop a national evidenced-based model of intentional teaching of STEM for play-based settings

We will study the impact of our Conceptual PlayWorld intervention with 3000 diploma and degree-qualified early childhood teachers across Australia.

A further 150 teachers and their children in three age brackets – infants (under 18 months), toddlers (under three years) and preschoolers (between three and five years) will also be followed.

These studies will collectively contribute to understanding how teachers create the conditions for creative cognition using the STEM PlayWorlds model for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.


This is a five-year project funded through a Laureate Fellowship from the Australian Research Council.

Year 1

Researching the emotional engagement of infants and toddlers as they take part in Conceptual PlayWorlds – our model of intentional play-based teaching – with their educators.

  • Assemble a world-class research team.
  • Develop and refine PlayWorlds model for infant and toddlers.

Year 2

Document and analyse how 3-5 year olds participate in Conceptual PlayWorlds with educators. We will be particularly looking at culturally diverse environments.

  • Develop a set of video and app resources for a range of Conceptual PlayWorlds.

Years 3-5

Continue to follow our group of 3-5 year old children as they develop concepts in STEM.

  • Based on the results of our research, develop an assessment tool that captures imagination in play and imagination in STEM.

Year 5

Bring together research findings.

  • Develop a national evidence-based model of intentional STEM teaching for play-based settings.

Our rationale

In Australia and internationally, there is a strong drive to generate a culture of innovation, particularly within the sciences. It is fundamental to successfully transitioning to a new era of economic growth.

Scientific reasoning and imagination needs to be taught early and create a pipeline into innovative professions. However, the early childhood field does do not yet have an evidence-based model of teaching STEM to infants, toddlers and preschoolers, and knows little about the conditions families create at home to foster curiosity.

Existing models of teaching STEM draw upon research from schools – sometime secondary schools –  and do not engage early childhood educators to intentionally teach STEM concepts in their play-based settings.

We are very proud to work closely with early childhood educators and to take a strength-based approach to investigate and produce an evidence-based model that works.

Why the early years are vital?

Longstanding evidence has shown the first three years of life are a vital cognitive developmental period of the human brain. Cognitive stimulation – especially through imaginative play –  is known to influence lifelong capacity for learning and inquiry.

Despite the evidence showing the contribution of play to childhood learning and development, little is known about how STEM reasoning in guided imaginative play can be designed into play-based teaching programs.

Why preschools are the future of STEM?

Many eminent scientists have revealed that their childhoods featured thought experiments and visualisation during imaginative play.

These are scientists who changed the course of research in their respective scientific fields, share an exceptional cognitive capacity to visualise, imagine, model, and explore theoretical contradictions for certain features of the physical world.

  • Cognitive capabilities employed by such eminent scientists include thought experiments and mental models giving fundamentally different theoretical insights. Think about Michael Faraday and his work in electricity and magnetism and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
  • Visualisation of big ideas have paved the way for new lines of scientific inquiry. Steven Hawking’s work on origins of the universe is one example.
  • Simultaneously imagining the relations between molecular and observable contexts changing the course of genetics research. Barbara McClintock imagined travelling down the microscope and examined genetic structures whilst simultaneously imagining the living ecosystem of corn fields.
  • Engaging in theoretical contradictions creating conditions for new scientific thought. Albert Einstein did this as he reconciled Newton’s laws with relativity mechanics.