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The Future of STEM Lies in Play

Dr. Rebecca Lewis

Education Consultant and Play Expert, Makedo Pty Ltd

The power of play as an educational tool has never been more apparent. But could it also be the key to unlocking the next generation of scientists, engineers, innovators, and inventors?

At any given moment, early learning classrooms all across the country are elbow deep in glitter, crafting paper, and glue.

There’s no doubt that the classroom tradition of making and doing is still going strong but could teachers be missing out on an opportunity to use it as a way to introduce the concept of STEM?

Early learning STEM concepts

STEM may seem like a big concept to introduce to young children. But if our next generation of innovators are to be encouraged to think big, we need to be bold and introduce new ways of learning, starting with the concept of play.

Play is the great motivator for learning. When incorporated with classroom projects to design, craft, and build, even the simplest cardboard box can bring a child’s imaginary stories to life.

This process of going from the imagined to something physically tangible is fundamental to children’s development of their conceptual thinking ability. Generating solutions requires readily available materials, safe and intuitive tools, and a willingness to problem-solve, like measuring, cutting, connecting, and adapting. Student access to Makedo cardboard construction tools within a learning space empowers this exploration of the imagination. 

Imaginative play

Though the classroom tradition of “making” plays a large role in capturing a child’s imagination, the process of imaginative play takes just as much credit. And the ease in which a child uses their imagination allows them to be open to STEM thinking — abstract concepts require imagination to conceptualize.

For example, a child can have an everyday understanding of levers when exploring their everyday world (a seesaw, a light switch, a wheelbarrow, or a broom) but the scientific understanding of how levers, fulcrums, loads, and forces are components of a simple machine used to lift heavy loads requires the teaching of conceptual knowledge.

Bringing STEM thinking into the classroom

The key to the success of play for STEM learning is for teachers to be involved. In the classroom setting, teachers enter into the “play arena” in order to introduce the problem. They then work with their students to define and support the problem-solving process. An example would be to ask the class to create an engineering solution to rescue a character in a play.

Does the rescue storyline sound a touch dramatic? Well, emotionally-charged scenarios and relationship-based learning have been theoretically proven to be engaging for young children. 

Hands-on, simple ways to bring STEM to life

Teaching today’s 21st century thinking skills and creativity, including solving problems with STEM knowledge, is essential for a child’s future success.

Making and constructing with hands-on tools and materials brings the child’s ideas to life. With the guidance of teachers, they are able to build a prototype, try it out, test and evaluate. And at the end of the process, they are able to see the physical interpretation of their imagination. They are finally able to make the world they want to see.

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