One more reason to get kids out of the classroom
It’s a chilly Thursday morning in Broadmeadows, with the Bureau of Meteorology forecasting possible showers throughout Melbourne.
A group of sixteen kindergarteners from Gowrie Broadmeadows Valley are ready to brave the elements with their gumboots, backpacks and an array of purple, blue and red parkas.
Read more: Government reviewing women in STEM initiatives.
Together with their educators, groups of children leave the warmth and predictability of the early learning centre and head out into nature — to learn, explore and play in an outdoor classroom.
Holding hands in groups of two or three, they cross busy Johnston Street on their way to Jacana Reserve, with a wagon packed full of supplies — tarpaulin, snacks, water, and even a portable toilet.
Arriving at the regular spot — an amphitheatre of grass nestled alongside a thicket of wattle and eucalyptus trees — the adventurers gather on the tarp to acknowledge Country and talk about the boundaries of the play area, and expectations, including a reminder to check carefully before picking up sticks (to make sure it isn’t a snake!)
Then the play begins. Hunting and listening for frogs and birds. Peering at fistfuls of caterpillars gathered on some branches. Climbing trees. Running, giggling and yelling into the wind.
Beyond the fun and freedom of being outdoors, there is a serious side to this activity, which is part of a weekly ‘bush kinder’ program. The centre calls it: ‘On Country Kinder’.
Australia is in desperate need of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates, and research points to the crucial role of early childhood education. Deakin university researchers say ‘bush kindergartens’ might offer a solution as positive enablers of STEM learning for pre-school aged children, particularly girls.
The STEM gender gap is often characterised in engineering terms as a ‘leaky pipeline’, with the gap able to be traced back to pressures and influences starting before the first day of school.
By age six, children have already formed gendered stereotypes about STEM fields, favouring boys in areas like computer science and engineering, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Early childhood is considered a “critical window” to capture and nurture girls’ interest in engineering and related fields, according to the Engineering for Australia Taskforce, a group founded by deans of engineering from the University of New South Wales, Monash University and the Australian National University. The Taskforce aims to address the low participation of women, who make up as little as 12 per cent of the engineering profession according to Australian Government data.
In the early years, educators, teachers, school leaders and families are central to “keeping girls connected to the idea of becoming an engineer”, a report by the Taskforce says.
Chris Speldewinde and Professor Coral Campbell at Deakin University’s School of Education say bush kindergartens can enable STEM learning and foster positive attitudes among girls. Their research spanning 2015 to 2020 is published in the Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning.
They found the play dynamic and opportunities provided by the outdoor environment and natural materials offers possibilities for more equal, less gendered play, in contrast to the gendered roles and expectations common in more conventional settings.
“Bush kinders can be in a paddock that just has trees around the outside, or it can be in a local park such as this one which is got a lot of natural environment to it, or it can be even in a park area that’s mowed by the council but has still lots of open space and trees and bushes. And of course the other one is the beach kinder that we see in [Torquay, on the west coast of Victoria],” Campbell says.
“Despite attempts by early childhood educators, and all of the professional learning teachers get, the materials and resources in most kinders are gendered. So they might be coloured differently, or they might be placed in a way that boys have easier access.”
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Inspired by European forest preschools, the concept of bush kindergartens kicked off in Australia around a decade ago with a pilot program run by Westgarth Kindergarten. Today, more than 150 bush kinders are running in Victoria, with more across the country.
“I think the openness, the open structure of bush kinder, the openness of the materials to be interpreted by the children’s imaginations, has allowed a much greater variety of play experiences where both boys and girls participate equally,” Speldewinde says.
He says the play often incorporates STEM ideas. Like using sticks as levers, constructing a playhouse, or counting leaves in an imaginary ice cream shop.
“We’ve got examples of young children building cubby houses … and that embraces technology and engineering. We’ve got examples of children who integrate science and maths through looking at things like ants moving along a trail on the ground, where they’re sitting and counting the ants.”
Astrophysicist and professor Lisa Harvey-Smith is the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador. She reflects that her own childhood growing up in the United Kingdom – in an inquiring house with plenty of time spent outdoors, helped spark her own curiosity.
She says gendered perceptions of STEM fields start very early on. “Early childhood education is an absolutely critical juncture where children learn their self-sense of self and their place in the world.
Harvey-Smith says the primary school and early childhood years can be formative for girls’ sense of self, interest and confidence in STEM.
Emeritus professor, science educator and academic Deborah Corrigan co-authored a systematic review on barriers to girls’ participation in engineering for the Taskforce, which considered the findings of 245 peer-reviewed articles and 49 other reports on girls’ engagement in STEM.
Factors affecting engagement included an individual child’s attitudes, confidence and sense of STEM identity; their teachers and learning environments as well as family and community influences; and the broader social and cultural context.
Corrigan emphasises, “it’s not that girls can’t do STEM, it’s just that they lose confidence really early and really quickly. And once that happens, then you sort of see a steady decline in achievement and it doesn’t become part of their identity”.
The report highlights the need for exciting, creative and high quality, positive educational experiences from an early age.
Educators at Gowrie’s ‘On Country Kinder’ program say they’ve observed when children play outdoors and can explore the natural environment – whether that’s to run and shout and tumble, or to sit quietly and notice the birds or hear frogs croaking in the creek – it builds their independence, curiosity and confidence.
Bush kinders are one of a range of approaches embracing STEM learning for preschool aged children. The Australian Government developed the Early Learning STEM Australia initiative, a set of apps and activities designed to encourage play-based, active learning. Harvey-Smith’s office has launched STEM story time for children aged three to six, and a program called Future You aimed at primary school aged children.
Harvey-Smith sums up the goal: “A lot of people in industry come to me … and they say how can we get high school girls into, you know, university or vocational training for STEM? And how can we get them into our workforce? And I tell them, it’s too late…”
“The early childhood education realm is completely formative,” she says.
Petra Stock has a degree in environmental engineering and a Masters in Journalism from University of Melbourne. She has previously worked as a climate and energy analyst.