Full STEAM Ahead in The Outdoor Classroom (Part 2)

Education in STEAM subjects, through routes of either abstract-to-concrete (A to C) learning, or concrete-to-abstract (C to A) learning, can take place indoors or out. In A to C learning the concepts are reviewed before the activities illustrating them are performed. In C to A learning the activities come before discovering the academic concepts behind them. The beauty of STEAM learning through either route is its use of hands-on activities.

STEAM learning is rooted in projects that often integrate many subject areas. Model building, electronics assembly, design, art, and many other tributaries may be joined together in a project. Many schools have “STEAM labs.” The learning comes with the doing. This form of STEAM education, which can have elements of both A to C and C to A routes of learning, is usually part of predesigned curricula.

Our Nature Explore Classrooms are used imaginatively by schools in combination with a variety of teaching curricula. Yet our Nature Explore Classrooms are also ideal environments for spontaneous STEAM education that is not pre-planned. The adult scaffolds the learning inherent in children’s self-directed play. The direction and development of the play and learning is more the making of the child, with the adult observing, reflecting, commenting, questioning and joining in as appropriate. When the child’s play shifts, so will the activity of the adult. In this relationship, the adult is more consultant than teacher.

This kind of STEAM learning is not systematic, and could be less robust than when the same subject is taught as part of a curriculum. But these bits of learning are internalized for their usefulness to the child’s desired activity. The child gets an understanding of the concept that she can use and extend in play.

For these concrete-to-abstract learning experiences in the outdoor classroom to be most effective, the adult may “go with the (children’s) flow.” She would be open to exploring less than the whole concept from that same material covered in the indoor curriculum. “Useable, immediate, fun and motivating” are the guiding principles. And as the child sees the immediate value to her play of the “concept” she’s learning, she could be more likely to ask questions to learn more.

Outdoors, children will involve you in their explorations. You are the teacher inside, their consultant outside. This simple role reversal has profound implications for STEAM learning, especially during preschool and primary years.

Teachers who have mastered this kind of educational relationship with children speak of true excitement and joy, both in themselves and their students, when these connections are made. Many of the education professionals I’ve interviewed over the years, from child care operators to teachers, often interact with children through this concrete to abstract model.

The well-supplied Nature Explore classroom offers a limitless range of play and learning opportunities for the young child. Most of what a child does in an outdoor classroom involves elements of STEAM leaning. When the adult reorients from the curricular form of instruction to seeing the STEAM concepts directly in children’s play, the stage is set. For the adult sensitive to this relationship, seeing play that does not involve STEAM concepts is rare.

Scaffolding involved in this concrete-to-abstract learning model is a bit different than traditional methods. In this case the child is not involved in a lesson, and is already engaged in the learning intrinsic to his play. Scaffolding in this model is more like facilitating a shift to a conscious level of the learning that’s already happening.

How best to “make the learning visible” to the child is dependent on the child himself, on his learning style. Whether asking questions about the child’s activity, making observations, or joining in, the style of scaffolding can fit in with the ongoing play, and become a part of it. The outcome might be that the child’s activity adjusts to new insights, but this change comes from the child, rather than from the adult’s need to illustrate the learning. Fortunately, most children will repeatedly offer opportunities to scaffold the same or similar concepts.

Whenever possible, the child’s existing store of information can be accessed to enable new insights. One of my favorite stories of this process is “Falling Feathers,” from the Nature Explore book, “Growing With Nature.”

Hailey, aged three, has just found a feather under a tree. She tells her teacher that she wants to make a gift of it to her mother. Hailey’s teacher asked her if she knew where the feather came from. “A feather tree,” is the logical response. After not finding any more feathers under nearby trees, Hailey’s teacher points at a pigeon on a building, and asks her what is on its body. “Feathers.  To keep them comfy,” said Hailey. When asked if her feather could have come from a bird, Hailey agrees, then seeks out a nearby friend to say, “This feather came from a white and black pigeon.”

This skilled teacher assisted Hailey in assembling bits of information she already knew in order to provoke a new insight. ‘Cause and effect’ is a heady concept for a three year old to master. But Hailey gained an early experience with it in this exchange.

And this is STEAM learning of the highest order. Using observations of cause and effect to replace how we hypothesize how the world works with how it actually works, is a fundamental of scientific inquiry. For Hailey, this learning began in her play; she owned it. No wonder she is so excited that she goes to tell a friend.

Outdoors, children are naturally using STEAM concepts, and can be brought to see the learning inherent in whatever they’re already doing. This learning might first seem to them as byproducts of their play. Yet with skilled teacher scaffolding, the learning becomes woven into the play. Children take pride in their deepening competencies; learning numbers, how plants turn sunlight into nutrition, why and how natural materials and blocks fit together and balance in constructions. STEAM concepts come to life, and are eagerly integrated into play in the outdoor classroom.  This is not just learning by doing, but learning by doing what is meaningful and motivating to the child.

Making a construction or a fort in the Messy Materials Area = physics, engineering. Collecting leaves changing into fall colors = science, math. Taking care of plants = science, botany. Gathering and transporting materials for a construction = physics, engineering. Collecting and sorting anything = math. Developing a stage performance = arts. Almost anything children do in the outdoor classroom has a component of STEAM learning.

At heart, STEAM learning is discovering how the world works. Whether through abstract-to-concrete curriculum-based lessons, or through concrete-to-abstract scaffolding of play experiences, nature is our timeless partner for STEAM learning.