24 January 2020

Early childhood is a time of intense learning, at time when the framework is set in place for the learning that will follow—and because of that it is perhaps the most important period in a child’s education.

The Conceptual PlayLab, based at Monash University, is a five-year research project investigating the best way to teach and support young children to form concepts in science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM). 

Researchers know that quality early childhood experiences can impact positively on life choices and career pathways, but there is still much that is not known about how a child learns scientific concepts in childhood.

Supported by the ARC through the Australian Laureate Fellowship of Professor Marilyn Fleer, with $3.3 million funding over five years, the Conceptual PlayLab is filling the void in this evidence base, helping researchers to understand how children learn through play in early years, and to inform curriculum development and the teaching of Science, Engineering and Technology for play-based settings.

"The Conceptual PlayLab is a living laboratory,” says Professor Fleer, whose vision has brought the PlayLab to reality.

“We know from previous research that early childhood educators do not always feel confident or competent to teach STEM to young children. We also know that the previous models for teaching STEM were primarily developed from research in school settings. Yet early childhood educators work in play-based settings.

Professor Fleer’s team have developed an model of intentional teaching called a Conceptual PlayWorld, based on research from play-based settings, which takes young children on imaginative journeys where they solve challenges and learn STEM concepts while playing.

“In the first year, we recruited early childhood educators and children interested in participating in an educational experiment designed to increase infant, toddlers and pre-schoolers experience of STEM.

“To get a better understanding of how the educators and infants engaged in STEM, we digitally recorded a series of STEM-focussed Conceptual PlayWorlds. These were developed as part of an educational experiment, recording imagination in play and imagination in STEM moments, all in collaboration between researchers and educators.  

“We have now developed an app which supports this process. It records in 30 second segments, can be tagged with text (before, during and after the event), and downloaded directly and used for building evidence of how imagination in play supports the development of imagination in STEM in play-based settings".

Professor Fleer says that the research team is working closely with Playgroups Victoria, and is designing and implementing a professional program focussed on STEM, that can be used by families.

“We are super excited to also be working towards developing Virtual Reality STEM PlayWorlds to support educators and families. We see this as a new way of delivering our professional learning experience of STEM PlayWorlds".

As the STEM PlayWorld model begins to be rolled out across Australia this year, the researchers expect to change the quality and quantity of STEM taught in early childhood settings.

“We also expect that starting at the beginning of the pipeline will contribute towards generating a new generation of STEM engaged young people. As our 4 year olds turn 14, and then 24—ultimately we will graduate more STEM qualified professionals,” says Professor Fleer, who adds that a personal goal is to increase the interest and participation in STEM for women and girls in Australia.

"My other equally important goal is to develop a structure and pathway for early childhood educators to engage in research and be the future laureates in education in Australia.

“Early childhood educators are mostly women. This is a huge agenda. But without a vision, change is not possible. We need more women in research, and we need more early childhood educators building evidence. We need their contribution now and in the future for creating STEM education in Australia—in research, in practice and in policy.

“At the moment Australia is missing out because they are not involved in creating change and a new future for STEM," says Professor Fleer.

Images (from top): Professor Marilyn Fleer. Credit: Lara McKinley.
Professor Fleer reading a story as part of a Conceptual Playworld trial. Credit Lara McKinley. 
Researchers are developing Virtual Reality STEM PlayWorlds to support educators and families. Credit: Sue March.

Video: Marilyn Fleer leads ground-breaking research into early childhood education and STEM.

Credit: Monash University Faculty of Education.