How nature play inspires a love of science

Nature play in early childhood can act as a springboard to a lifelong interest in science, journalist Sue Osborne writes.

A research team led by Southern Cross University is working with young children and their teachers, looking at how outdoor play or nature play encourages an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) learning.

Project leader Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education at Southern Cross University, said the research aimed to improve STEM learning experiences and outcomes.

“We were seeing a lot of publications claiming that children spend significantly less time in nature,” Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles said.

“But we are also seeing more and more early childhood programs deliberately focused on nature play, bush kindy and forest schools, with the intent of building up those connections with nature, so our research is specifically about how young children aged 4–5 years old learn scientific concepts through nature play.”

Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles has led more than 40 projects in environmental education and has more than 150 papers published in this field.

“We used cartography to map children’s and educators’ existing nature play conceptions.

“The project involved 20 early childhood education settings across Queensland.”

Children as researchers

“We commenced with a foundational research phase, with children participating as genuine researchers rather than simply objects of research, which unfortunately is all too often the case.

“Children recorded their everyday nature play experiences using tablets. Then we worked with their teachers in using that data to develop nature play experiences that were evidence-based. That research led to the co-design of the Mudbook; a pedagogical nature play framework.

“The Mudbook is an entry point not only for other educators to expand their own practice, but also for parents and families as well to understand how nature play builds environmentally led STEM learning.

“The project revealed that there are nine types of nature play with the most common science concept being earth, weather, relations, materials, bodies, time and ecologies.”

Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles said during the study, children observed animals in nature, including animals that had died. One study group observed a dead kookaburra decompose over six months.

“It was a fascinating thing for these young people, whose practice involved walking in nature every day in the outdoor reserve where they would see the dead kookaburra and linked in their learning into slow decomposition – which is quite remarkable to have that opportunity at such a young age and shows how these nature-play pedagogies operate in practice,” she said.

Country-responsive play

“Several early childhood education settings were Indigenous-focused, applying pedagogies like Country-responsive play, where it wasn’t merely just about giving an Acknowledgement of Country, or paying lip service, but where the Acknowledgement was absolutely embodied in the practice itself.”

Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles observed children deciding not to remove rocks or plants from their natural setting because they “needed to stay on Country”.

One teacher at a Rockhampton preschool wrote in the Mudbook. ”A lot of our [awareness and appreciation for the natural world] comes through the Acknowledgement of Country we do daily.

There’s a sense of joy that comes with outdoor play, and science learning just happens in conjunction with that.

“Because we look at our land, our sea, our sky and ourselves, and what’s happening around us, and we spend time just to be in that. We take time to think about that, to be thankful, [to consider] ‘how are we going to care for our land, our people, our sky, our sea?’ and things like that.”

Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles spoke of one of her own observations of a boy playing in a puddle. His initial interest in the puddle was about things that float, and why they float, but this quickly evolved into a conversation about density and volume and other aspects of maths and science.

Nature to tech

“There’s a popular misconception that spending time on a screen will lead to more interest in science or technology, but our research shows the opposite is true.

“Profound experiences of nature inspire a love of environmental science which can develop a love of all aspects of science and maths, and there is a real link to career choice later in life.

“Humans are hard wired to be in nature, and this is what motivates us.

“There’s a sense of joy that comes with outdoor play, and science learning just happens in conjunction with that.

“We’ve now incorporated this type of research into our curriculum at Southern Cross University, where from 2022 our Bachelor of Education and Master of Teaching now include separate units (subjects) on environmental education and Indigenous education, as foundation subjects rather than electives,” she said.

The research was a joint project between Southern Cross University, RMIT, and Swinburne, and partners including Nature Play Qld and Early Childhood Teachers’ Association.