Forest Kindergarten is STEM by Nature

By Erin Kenny ©2017

(Excerpt from Erin K. Kenny and Robin A. Rogers upcoming book “Teaching The Cedarsong Way: Lessons From an Award-winning Forest Kindergarten” set to be published in Spring 2018)

Many in the education field are aware of the current buzz in early education called STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) or STEAM (STEM plus Art). Most STEM programs operate indoors with a heavy emphasis on teacher-directed science curriculum involving hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion. Unfortunately, even children who are fascinated by science begin to lose their focus and interest at an early age because the typical STEM curriculum is not spontaneous or fluid and does not follow the children’s interests.

The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten is naturally a STEAM program. Most, if not all, of the child-directed activities during their unstructured forest kindergarten day involves some Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. During their flow learning at Cedarsong, children are highly engaged in nature discoveries, experimentation and conclusions and since their learning is self-directed and intrinsically motivated, and takes place while they are having fun in a real world experiential context, the lessons in STEM skills are learned deeper and retained longer.

Nature provides endless opportunities for children to explore STEM concepts without the need for overlying curriculum, teacher-directed projects or required activities. When children are unselfconsciously interacting with nature, they are fascinated by its physicality not yet knowing about concepts like gravity and volume. An activity as seemingly simple as pouring a bucket of water over and over contains rich lessons for the child who is intently studying the flow and noticing differences having to do with volume, speed and obstruction of the water.

You don’t need skill packs or prescribed activities or props for learning to occur organically in nature. Age appropriate activities are what you observe when children are left to their own devices and at Cedarsong we notice that although each child is on a different timeline, there are generalizations we can make about the various stages of development with regard to children’s interaction with nature.

From our many years of experience working with and observing children authentically engaging in nature, we notice that the two to three year olds are highly interested in “the science of it all”. Children at this age are often seen lugging around a magnifying glass, excitedly calling attention to every mushroom and slug that they see. Their work at this stage of development is to make sense of the physical world and its laws of thermodynamics by observing, discerning, questioning, problem-solving and experimenting; and to integrate all of their senses.

Between the ages of four and six, children become more interested in imagination play. Their work at this stage is to hone the developmentally appropriate skills of peer-to-peer communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, creativity, teamwork and cooperation.

Outdoor experiential learning by intrinsically motivated learners is the ideal environment for eliciting emergent STEAM curriculum. Teachers can guide and support the learning by using the inquiry-based teaching style and asking open-ended questions designed to increase the children’s problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. Interestingly, these are reported to be the three most important job qualifications expected to be needed in 2020.

Playing in a puddle can lead to experiments with and understanding about concepts of volume, displacement, mass, evaporation, pouring, measuring, flow, buoyancy, water cycle, state of water, temperature, weather and seasons. To support the hypothesis, we ask leading questions such as “Before you throw that in the water, do you think it will sink or float?” or “How many buckets of water will it take for that water in the channel to reach the puddle?”

Playing with mud and/or sand leads to lessons in physical properties of substances, texture, porousness, strength, durability and usually involves the use of tools. The children experiment with how much water to mix with dirt depending on their goal for the final product: is it to build a mud statue or a dam or to use as face paint? All these applications require a different ratio of water and dirt. Children are so intimately familiar with the various forms of mud at Cedarsong that they actually have different names for each type such as spotty mud, sticky mud, gooey mud, silky mud and chocolate mud. We may ask leading questions such as “Do the different muds stick to tree bark when thrown or do they fall off?” and “Why do you think this mud has a different smell than the other mud?”

Young children are naturally drawn to collecting and sorting objects and, true to form, the Cedarsong children often notice and collect the newest forest floor found objects. Through our leaf, bark, dirt and myriad other collections, the children are studying patterns, sorting, classification, counting, color, shape and symmetry. At Cedarsong we may ask leading questions such as “How are these leaves in our collection the same and how are they different?”

When children of any age are allowed to free play in nature, great learning is taking place. This learning can be enhanced when adult mentors and guides draw out the hypotheses and conclusions through open-ended questions. The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten model is one of the best methods for introducing STEAM concepts in a manner that is relaxed, organic, emergent and fun. There is no better way to keep children’s natural fascination with science learning intact.

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