Search the internet for “Nature-based Play in Young Children” and your search will result in pages of articles, websites, and images that could take you hours to peruse. Much research has been conducted on the benefits of play in young children; even more such research is now focusing on nature-based play. Thanks to authors and advocates such as Richard Louv and his website Children and Nature Network and Claire Warden of Mindstretchers, nature-based play is continuing to make its way to the United States. Preschools and elementary schools are picking up on the theme of nature-based play and establishing outdoor classrooms thanks to Nature Explore organization, among others.
STEMMA learning (Science-Technology-Engineering–Math – Music – Art) can be enhanced not only through play, but especially through nature-based play. There is a plethora of journal articles and research to support this. Just browse the aforementioned websites above, or search the NAEYC website. Hachey and Butler correlate this learning through gardening, just one aspect of outdoor learning.
When it comes to STEMMA learning, especially the STEM portion, educators seem all too quick to emphasize and push content instead of processes. However, focusing on the process has been the main focus of early childhood education for some time, especially when “teaching” art. “Process not product” has been the long standing mantra. So why would, or should, it be any different when we talk about STEM?
What are the processes fundamental to STEMMA learning? Are they any different really than what we as ECE professionals already strive to instill in young children? Do we not already place such high value on open-ended questions? The “what do you think will happen?”The “what if we tried…?” The “how can we…?” Do we not emphasize hypothesizing, guessing, cause and effect, trial and error, reflecting, wondering, investigating, exploring, and documenting questions and results? If we are operating high quality programs that incorporate this type of hands on learning, then are we not already cultivating the fundamental processes of STEMMA learning within young children? And if the answer is a resounding “yes”, then do we not already believe that content naturally follows as a result of intentional engagement in fundamental processes?
To me it seems that the field of Early Childhood Education has been exemplifying such learning well before STEM became such a buzz word. From where I stand, the field of ECE and its professionals are in the perfect position to lead by example and “push up”, for once, a successful model of education that is suited for all levels of learners, instead of feeling pressure to dumb-down methods adopted from higher level learning. Why would we think that exploration and documentation would at some point become inadequate? After all, is this not the “scientific method” that true scientists and other professionals utilize when conducting research? Is this not the type of learning that adults prefer when placed in a new job or role at work? Is this not the method of learning in which adults engage when learning a new hobby, or skill, or interest? Is this not the method that is utilized in trade schools?
Academics and content come as a result of meaningful learning. When children, and adults for that matter, can connect the content to experiential learning, the content makes more sense and sticks with us. If we give all the answers without asking the questions and learning how to discover the answers then we have not truly taught anything. The old adage “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him forever” seems appropriate here. If we are entrusting the health of the planet to future generations, then we certainly must teach children how to ask questions and seek answers, rather than relying on others to give them the answers. Critical and creative thinking skills are at the heart of scientific method and STEMMA learning. Where better to engage in such processes than in the natural world, especially if we expect them to care for it, protect it, and live responsibly within it.
Nature-based learning is not only imperative for young children from a play standpoint but also imperative from a conservation and sustainability standpoint. This article has referenced several sources for pertinent information on incorporating nature-based play into programs. The Children and Nature Network blog contains over 1000 posts! Try searching for specific content or enjoy browsing. Nature Explores blog also provides posts on a variety of topics, including STEMMA learning through outdoor play. Start small and work up to more complex models if you must. The important factor is that we as professionals begin. It is also our responsibility to educate parents and other stakeholders on the importance of nature-based play, play in general, and how play and nature-based play naturally lay the foundational building blocks to STEMMA learning. In this manner, all stakeholders together can be the driving force behind the “push-up” movement of nature-based play learning, instead of the recipient of a “push down” mandate that emphasizes content over processes.