It all STEMs from early childhood

Teaching science, technology, engineering and maths in early childhood is one challenge. Then there are gender issues. Professor Marilyn Fleer tells journalist Monica Crouch how she’s solving both with one unique concept.

When Marilyn Fleer – Professor (Research) Early Childhood at Monash University – started school, she couldn’t speak English. “I come from a migrant family and we had no children’s books in the house,” she said. She struggled to learn to read, and to read as fast as her peers. She found herself drawn to science text, as it was shorter and she could catch the meaning faster. Consequently, “my personal experience of STEM was a great joy, while reading was sheer pain”.

No one is more aware than Professor Fleer (pictured, left) that too few women pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics – and that this issue reaches right back into their early childhoods. “A love of STEM is important, but early childhood teachers have had the wrong tools for years,” she said. “I wanted to change this so that teachers could draw on a model they can enjoy, that’s relevant, and so they can experience the joy of STEM with their children.”

Professor Fleer is a big fan of early childhood teachers. “I wanted to change the discourse of blaming early childhood educators for not teaching enough STEM,” she said. And she’s doing this through an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship – the first ever awarded for early childhood research.

By following infants as they become toddlers and preschoolers and on into school, Professor Fleer hopes to find out how their interest in STEM changes over time, and to measure the impact of her unique PlayWorld concept. And she is keeping a close eye on the girls.

Creating a PlayWorld

The model involves five characteristics: choosing a story; developing an imaginary situation; entering and exiting the PlayWorld; a problem arises; and the role of the teacher in introducing STEM concepts.

Professor Fleer has worked with groups using all kinds of stories, from Rosie’s Walk to Alice in Wonderland, Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden. For a group working with Alice in Wonderland, the first challenge was to create a “rabbit hole” to go down.

The children built a tall tower with blocks, then discovered they couldn’t climb into it. This presented their first engineering challenge: create a workable means of entering their PlayWorld. The students came up with a hoop and a tunnel to simulate the idea of a rabbit hole. And they learned concepts of vertical and horizontal in the process.

Once they’d entered their ‘Wonderland’, the teachers and children assumed characters, and were free to create more characters so everyone had a role. Professor Fleer noticed an interesting effect here. “The relationship between the teacher and the children changes,” she said.

“The teacher now plays a role, so there is a change in the way the children interact with the teacher. And when there are two teachers, together they can create a lot of excitement and drama.”

It’s not as traditional as the block corner, the construction area or the science table activities – and we’re finding that the girls are just as engaged as the boys.

In this new imaginary world, the STEM possibilities are endless. For example, going down the rabbit hole requires “imagining yourself shrinking”, which introduces concepts of the microscopic. So ‘Wonderland’ becomes ‘Microbeland’. “These are big concepts for young children,” Professor Fleer said. “And very, very relevant in COVID-19 times.”

Back in the real world

When emerging from the PlayWorld, the teachers and children bring the scientific concepts with them. “They can start to do little experiments,” Professor Fleer said. “Like going out and collecting some pond water and putting it under the microscope. So they’re starting to consider things you can’t see with the naked eye by using some sort of technology.”

Inspired by Microbeland, one class used an iPad to take time lapse photography of bread going mouldy. “They could see how it changed over time,” Professor Fleer said. “Then they can talk about good microbes and dangerous microbes. It means that rather than seeing it all as magic, the children are exploring sophisticated scientific concepts.”

Girls take their place

Professor Fleer has also noticed a curious difference about the way girls and boys interact in the PlayWorlds. In free play situations, the two tend to separate, and boys are often more adept at monopolising resources. “Boys just assume they have the right to take the blocks,” Professor Fleer said. She has also noticed a “wall of boys” forming around anything science oriented, and the girls are inclined to drift away.

But this is all transformed in the PlayWorld. “It’s not as traditional as the block corner, the construction area or the science table activities,” Professor Fleer said. “Suddenly all those spaces are a bit mixed up, and we’re finding that the girls are just as engaged as the boys. Both girls and boys are imagining the situation, so while the blocks may have afforded a particular way of interacting before, now they don’t – they’re resources to make the rabbit hole.” What she notices is that boys and girls become much better at working together.

The PlayWorlds afford teachers a way of seeing if the children adopt a gendered way of playing that they may not spot during free play. “In a Robin Hood PlayWorld, if the boys say, ‘oh, Maid Marian can’t do that, she can’t be an engineer’ the teachers can say ‘of course she can, Maid Marian’s our lead engineer, today she’s going to take you through the castle and we’re going to look at simple drawbridges’. Like a spot fire, the teachers can put it out as soon as it starts.”

So the PlayWorlds can address social issues along with STEM concepts. “They can give a very strong agentic role to girls. And similarly, if the boys are exhibiting an inability to be nurturing, for instance, then they can be assigned the caring Friar Tuck role and look after everyone.”

It’s a new world, and everyone wins.

Professor Fleer invites teachers to take part in free PD (via Zoom) on how to set up a Conceptual PlayWorld in your centre.
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Professor Fleer and her team will tailor the session for you – just select a few of your favourite books so the workshop reflects the stories your children love.
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