How to use play to support young children’s learning in STEM

How to use play to support young children’s learning in STEM

Research shows that play is one of the most effective ways for young children to learn, so how can we harness this to teach STEM? A new podcast from the Monash PlayLab explores emerging findings.

Monash PlayLab Director Marilyn Fleer has brought together a team of experts to produce a four-part podcast to support early childhood leaders and educators.

The Monash PlayLab has produced a new podcast that breaks down the latest research in early childhood education in easy-to-understand episodes.

The conversations are centred around our play-based model for teaching STEM called a Conceptual PlayWorld. It’s a model that has been found to be transformative, particularly for young girls.

Four-part podcast to get you started

Episode 1: Welcome to the PlayLab Podcast

In episode one, we go back to where it all started, and bring you all the way forward to where we are today. We share what we are learning from our research and deep dive into our evidence-based model called Conceptual PlayWorlds, which teaches STEM concepts in the early years of childhood, both in the home and at the school.

We start with our first initial question: how do you bring STEM concepts into children's play through intentional teaching?

Rebecca Lewis, a PlayLab researcher and teacher explains,

“Most of the time when we say to educators this is a play-based approach, they will say they’ve been doing it for many years. But in fact we find the role of the educator in the Conceptual PlayWorld is quite different.”

Episode 2: Conceptual PlayWorlds for Families

In this episode we talk about research in family homes with researcher Prabhat Rai, and teacher Oriana Ramunno.

Prabhat has been leading research in STEM with families at the Conceptual PlayLab and Oriana is a teacher and digital storyteller who has been working with us to co-design new PlayWorlds.

We also heard from Stacey and her amazing daughter about their experiences of participating in our Conceptual PlayWorld@Home sessions during COVID lockdown.

Stacey explained she thought incorporating STEM concepts into play for her daughter Clara might have been out of her comfort level, but she found that it wasn't.

“We had a lot of fun together, and it was a really good opportunity for Clara to learn some new skills and for me to really think about what I was trying to teach her, and what was really important for her learning,” she said.

Episode 3: How educators can create opportunities for girls in STEM

For many early childhood educators, one aspect of our research is particularly disturbing – that girls as young as three are showing signs of disengaging from STEM. What we found out is that an educator’s role is really powerful.

In this episode we look at Conceptual PlayWorlds in terms of the changed role of the educator and what this means for children’s engagement with STEM, particularly for young girls.

PlayWorld researcher Tanya Stephenson explains,

“There have been been ongoing concerns about girls' early disengagement with STEM and an achievement gap appears by the time the children reach kindergarten, which places girls at a much higher risk for their STEM skill development.”

Episode 4: Infants and toddlers, and how they experience STEM

In the final episode we focus on what we are learning about infants and toddlers, and how they experience STEM in childcare. This is a really under researched area, and an interesting one – children are so young, it’s not as if they can fill in surveys or do interviews.

Kulsum Chishti-Yonzon is a PhD student in the Conceptual PlayLab, focusing on how infants and toddlers learn and develop STEM concepts and how a Conceptual PlayWorld supports them.

She says it will be interesting to see the infants and toddlers we are working with as four and five year olds, and how their rich imagination develops. We all talk about how learning is interwoven. PlayWorlds are showing us that you just weave it all together and it works.

Kulsum worked with an educator, Kerrie, in implementing a Conceptual PlayWorld. Kerrie shared that she initially found it daunting to do a PlayWorld with the children.

“I don’t have the great imagination that young children have. I think as adults we’ve lost our imagination. But they haven't, they are right there with their imagination. Once you let go of all the ‘adulty’ stuff in your head, and you step into their world, it is easy to do. But it did feel a bit overwhelming at first. You’re worried, ‘What if it doesn't work or what if the children don’t get it?’, but then they take it where they want it to go.”

Our Conceptual PlayWorld in action

Through the Conceptual PlayWorld teachers offer children a purpose to use STEM related concepts and an environment where girls are motivated to get involved.

As Tanya Stephenson explains, there's a big focus on literacy, social and emotional intelligence for young children, but research shows that the amount of time teachers spend on these areas, often means there's less time to spend on areas like STEM.

“What's lovely about the Conceptual PlayWorld model is that because it is play-based in nature, it engages children with STEM concepts through a story narrative and creates the possibilities for teachers to continue working on children's social and emotional intelligence,” Tanya says.

“Being able to combine these areas of learning gives the teacher more time to engage in STEM concepts while also working on social and emotional skills, which is really important.”

Download the entire PlayLab Podcast series for free.