Playing around with learning stimulates young brains

Researchers at Monash University in Victoria recently launched Australia’s largest study into play-based education, aimed at inspiring teachers and parents to develop the next generation of thinkers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The Australian Research Council funded the $3.2 million project, which will be led by Professor Marilyn Fleer as part of a new model of teaching entitled Conceptual PlayWorld.

As part of the study, researchers will follow 130 infants across the first five years of their life and investigate how play-based education can deliver essential cognitive and learning outcomes for infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers.

Professor Fleer has spent more than 30 years researching play-based education, and she says internationally, the school-style curriculum is making its way into preschools, which she describes as being less than ideal.

“This has the potential to deprive young children of vital play-based, imaginative and creative learning opportunities,” she said. 

“Early childhood education is at a point in history where the teaching and learning of STEM concepts are needed, but where large-scale research of how to teach these concepts in Australian play-based settings has not yet been undertaken.

“Without an evidence-based model of how to teach STEM concepts in play-based settings, the preschool and childcare sector will continue to use a model of teaching designed for much older children. These fail to inspire young children to develop scientific lenses and inquiring minds about their everyday world.”

The study is expected to position Australia as a research leader in this field and has been welcomed by educators, including Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle employees Kim Moroney and Kerri Armstrong.

Kim is an award-winning researcher and education officer for early learning at the Catholic Schools Office. Kerri is the general operations manager of St Nicholas Early Education, one of the Hunter region’s preeminent early education and care providers.

Combined, Kerri and Kim have more than half a century of experience in early education settings and a shared view that infusing STEM play into the early years lays the foundation on which a child’s learning journey should be built. 

The two educators in their respective roles deeply value and promote the importance of play and understand its relevance in developing STEM learning opportunities across the Diocese’s early education and school settings. 

Kim said a progressive and united approach to imagining children as capable, curious, creative and competent learners and citizens from the moment of birth means a “push down” approach to educating children is not in the best interest of the child, and educators will benefit from insight gained from Professor Fleer’s study.

“Research already tells us that the early childhood years are the most crucial period for brain development,” Kim said. “It’s also during this time that children naturally approach the world with a STEM perspective, hence the endless ‘why?’ questions. But what Early Learning Australia, among other sources tells us, is that STEM activities during this period are most valuable for expanding the neurological pathways in young brains.

“By combining this knowledge with Professor Fleer’s study into teaching STEM based-play, we will be better able to appreciate its potential to assist children in achieving success in learning and wellbeing.”

The St Nicholas Early Education curriculum reflects the vision of the Early Years Framework and National Quality Standards and is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, which encourages play-based learning and centres on the principle idea of using the environment as the third teacher.

Kerri said allowing children to investigate, practise and then master skills through a STEM-inspired, play-based curriculum including science experiments, mathematical provocations and loose parts play, ensured St Nicholas educators were scaffolding all the elements of children’s pre-literacy and pre-numeracy.

“We create stimulating and challenging learning environments that encourage children’s investigation from a young age. We value all children as capable and confident learners and our educators nourish this enquiry and build programs to extend learning, assisting with their transition to school,” Kerri said.

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