We take STEM-oriented, open-ended play activities into schools to build curiosity, creativity and innovation in science, technology, engineering and maths.
We want children, teachers, and parents to: Understand the benefits of play; feel empowered to be curious and explorative in STEM subjects; connect with themselves, each other, and their natural world.
We also mentor teachers and offer leadership programmes for youth.
The importance of play is well documented. It develops personality, supports interpersonal relations, stimulates creativity, brings joy and advances learning. Play reveals what we know and what we’re curious about. It motivates us to learn. Play helps us develop problem solving and social skills, become more organised, become more empathetic, and nurture our creativity.
Play-based learning is slowly re-emerging in New Zealand primary schools. However, most ‘play’ occurs within the classroom in semi-structured environments, where specific resources are used for specific purposes (e.g. puzzles, board games, building blocks etc). ‘Play’ is also necessarily mediated by teachers, who want tamariki to meet specific learning objectives. Extra-curricular activities, such as sport and drama are also structured by adults for specific learning objectives. Yet, too many structured activities (anything organised or supervised by adults) can slow children’s development of self-directed control, as adults provide external cues and reminders about what should happen, and when.
Tamariki today have fewer opportunities to make up their own games, devise their own creations, explore their own curiosity. Instead, they are goaded into playing for some external purpose. Their time is consumed by ‘useful’ pastimes intended to build their social, physical or intellectual skills. Adults rarely engage in open ended play activities as lives get busier and more stressful.
Yet, unstructured, open ended play, enables us to “transcend” life’s pressures and pitfalls; it is a respite, an “interlude” between activities”. Unstructured, open ended play does not necessarily have to achieve anything. It can just be. It’s fun.
Global shortages in STEM-related fields are driving current educational priorities. STEM skills shortages in girls in particular, and thus women in the workforce, has been an issue for decades. In 2018, for example, only 23 per cent of New Zealanders employed in digital technology were female. Yet, STEM-based learning programmes equip students with 21st century skills and knowledge. STEM learning develops innovative mindsets and problem-solving abilities. STEM students will be creators of technology, not just passive consumers .
STEM-play builds awareness of and curiosity towards these crucial subjects. STEM Curiosity hopes to lead more tamariki, especially girls, towards a path of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In New Zealand, education must cater to tamariki with a diverse range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, as well as differing learning needs. This diversity does not suit an education system modelled on industrialisation and which struggles to be cultural responsive.
What’s more, teachers are dealing with increasing social and emotional challenges in tamariki, such as bullying, truancy, and negative attitudes towards school. Around 15% of tamariki aged 3-14 years, that’s 107,000 tamariki, have ‘concerning’ or ‘borderline’ behaviours relating to emotions, peer interactions, hyperactivity and conduct.
STEM-play promotes learning for everyone by catering for prior knowledge, language and various ways of making sense of the world. It’s play-based learning philosophy overcomes the pressurised, failure-stricken environment of much mainstream classroom learning. It enables tamariki to be themselves, to learn and grow in their own space, and to be curious.
Unstructured, open ended play with STEM-based resources provides the opportunity for tamariki and adults to be curious about science, technology engineering and maths, to explore ideas without any pressure of success, and to mindfully imagine, create, and deconstruct at will. STEM-play can be mindful, satisfying sensory experiences that can stimulate emotional well-being.
Play around the STEM subjects is particularly important, as the current and future workforce needs to develop integrated and interdisciplinary understandings, and transferable skills and competencies. Rather than focusing on specific skill development, STEM-play encourages innovation, design, creativity, and curiosity. Innovation is not simply a technical matter, but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. It involves a broader set of skills that includes creativity, communication and imagination. STEM-play enables these skills to develop in a stress-free environment that supports social interaction and emotional well-being.
Engaging with STEM-play, such as sensory play or loose-parts play, can be daunting, especially if it’s a new experience. Yet, overcoming fears around play can develop self-esteem and identity. With STEM-play, scientific 'failure' is seen as innovative, pre-conceived scientific 'recipes' are forgotten, fears of getting dirty overcome and language is extended. The children enjoy the freedom to explore and become curious, to involve themselves at their own pace, and direct their own learning needs. In this way, the programme enhances the school curriculum in terms of both knowledge and key competencies.