Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, together known as STEM, represent an integrated approach to exploring and investigating the world, where problems can be identified and solved in creative and imaginative ways. This kind of integrated approach is how the real-world operates –acknowledging the interconnections between disciplines rather than separating and in that way restricting them. In its essence, the term ‘STEM’ should be interpreted as ‘integration’. The acronym could actually be dropped altogether given that it confuses and worries educators. To capture the true spirit of STEM, early childhood educators can use an integrated approach to support young children’s thinking and learning and provide a range of hands-on experiences for them to explore their world. This is something that many educators are already doing.
STEM (integrated) thinking includes a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, observing, sorting, classifying, experimenting with materials, analysing, predicting, theorising, communicating, collaborating and applying knowledge or experiences across contexts. This higher-order thinking helps to develop young children’s understandings. The focus should be on the process of thinking and learning, rather than on the product or the knowledge acquired. For this reason, a right answer is not necessary or even considered. What is valued is the range of ideas explored, presented and trialled.
Importantly, young children continuously think in an integrated fashion as they make sense of their world. Through play and a range of real-world experiences, they naturally engage in STEM (integrated) thinking and learning. Young children were playing in an integrated fashion before adults came up with the acronym! The role of the educator is to: provide time, space and open-ended resources; model enthusiasm; mentor and guide; encourage risk-taking; acknowledge mistakes as learning opportunities; ask questions and listen to what children say; and follow children’s leads.
What does STEM (integration) look like in play? The answer is endless. Some examples include sand play, water play, gardening, cooking, using a variety of tools for different purposes, recording observations, using digital cameras or microscopes, creating small worlds, building cubbies or bridges, designing zoos (see photo above), engaging in loose parts play, sorting and classifying, counting and measuring.
Embrace the integration and find out just how creative young children can be.
Christine Howitt is an Associate Professor in early childhood and primary science education at the Graduate School of Education, The University of Western Australia
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