Twigs, Trees and STEM

Early years professionals have always known that separating young children’s learning into curriculum areas is an artificial construct. Likewise, outdoor educators have always been advocates of environmental, cross-curricular and interdisciplinary learning. Thus, the growth interest of STEM as a concept works particularly well within early years outdoor provision. 

If you observe a three-year old playing in a wood, then this is a good opportunity to reflect upon the STEM concepts which are happening. For example, a child may enjoy climbing a tree. In order to do this, several things are happening simultaneously:

The child will have chosen which tree to climb. This involves recognising that there are differences between trees that affect their climb-ability. This is the beginnings of biodiversity and recognising there are different species of tree and that even within a species each tree is different. Observation is a key science skill. Children have to be able to tune into recognising and closely observing trees in order to identify and remember which trees are best for climbing. 

Understanding the concepts of equivalence (what is the same) and transformation (what is different) underpin all mathematical thinking. By recognising similarities and differences, sorting, classifying and comparing items, children are learning about attributes of a tree and how these impact upon how easy or how hard a tree is to climb. 

As a child becomes proficient at climbing, he or she will rapidly realise that the properties of the tree impact upon how easy it is to climb. A useful tip to for children to use the size of their wrist as a rough guide as to whether a branch is able to take their weight. This is the beginnings of understanding about the load-bearing properties of structures. 

The art of tree climbing involves children recognising the changes occurring in structure of a tree. Sticks that fall off trees are dead wood. You will hear the brittle snap or crack of a stick as it is broken. It lacks the flexible strength of a living, growing branch. Technology relies on knowledge of materials and how they cope when used in different ways, under different conditions and what uses such materials have. So, the next time you are outside observing children play, look at their learning through a STEM lens and you may be surprised at the breadth and depth of possibilities. Our job is to make these learning opportunities visible to children and what better way than through their own self-chosen interests.

Juliet Robertson Creative STAR Learning Ltd

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