Use STEM concepts to enhance preschoolers’ outdoor learning

Incorporating concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math into the daily outdoor activities of young children will provide them with greater opportunities for exploration, observation, and wonder, experts say. By educating and engaging children in outdoor experiences, you can boost STEM learning in children of all abilities.

“We’re hearing about STEM all the time, so the earlier we start, the better,” said Maria Hitt, project manager for the Orange County Partnership for Young Children in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Particularly in early childhood, play is important because that’s how children learn.”

Hitt noted that children are a captive audience for many hours of the day, and providers are among their greatest influencers. “Try to ensure that children have the chance to explore and observe,” Hitt said. “Beyond the play space, you can take children on a walking field trip to a wooded area to create opportunities to experience the natural environment.”

Hitt provided the following tips to infuse outdoor STEM learning in early childhood:

• Create outdoor spaces for exploration. Inside the classroom, children routinely ask questions and build things with blocks. “They’re already engaging in problem-solving and exploring the environment,” Hitt said. “When we move that outdoors, all of that engagement can continue. For example, in North Carolina we’re doing a lot of work to convert playgrounds into outdoor learning spaces by adding trees, gardens, and play areas for children to build and design.”

• Develop outdoor STEM concepts. Hitt noted that botany can bring science in outdoor environments to life. Teachers and students can examine life cycles in plants and animals. Planting a garden near the play space, will bring birds and butterflies. In addition, teachers can hang thermometers and rain gauges to study weather patterns and seasonal shifts.

“One of the things I tell teachers is to remember that any tool is technology,” Hitt said. “For instance, any garden tool such as a shovel or rake can be technology. Scales and tape measures can be used to weigh and measure items from the garden.”

Also, engineering concepts can be explained with the use of rain barrels. Children can see that rain can be captured to reuse and water plants, Hitt said. “Children can use hoses to move water around and create dams, which is engineering on a simple scale,” she said. “There are many opportunities to infuse math in outdoor environments through counting items and shapes. For instance, you can determine how many seeds were planted and how much the items from the garden weighed.”

• Engage parents. “I think any early learning director will say that parent engagement is one of the greatest challenges because families are so busy,” Hitt said. Start by focusing on opportunities to encourage and remind parents about STEM concepts. For instance, you can hold parent nights at the learning center. Also, invite parents to help when the outdoor spaces are being designed. Encourage parents to bring plants and materials to create the new elements for their children. “That helps engage parents because they become invested in the space,” Hitt said. “Parents can see how the children enjoy the new environment.”

At pick-up time, consider displays where parents can try new foods from the garden with their child. Give out recipes to parents to further encourage their engagement. “This can be as simple as parents taking a walk with the child to see the world and investigate,” Hitt said. “Ensure children can engage in verbal dialogue and ask questions to parents. Parents may assume that STEM in early childhood requires workbooks, but we need to allow children the chance to explore their world and learn through play.”

• Sidestep pitfalls. Allow children to attempt to figure out the answers on their own. “I’m guilty myself when I start naming the birds that I see, but it’s important to let the children figure it out,” Hitt said. “Also, some teachers may be afraid of the outdoor environment with insects and dirt. Teachers should remember how it was during their own childhood when they explored their world without guidance.”

Larry Graff covers school superintendents, curriculum, and athletics for LRP Publications.

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