The findings buck the common notion that more screen time may encourage students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).
Instead, the Southern Cross University study found to address critical STEM skills shortages across the resources sector as well as in scientific and medical innovations, technology, and engineering, getting outside to play was better than computer time.
In fact, watching a dead kookaburra decompose could be far more important than writing code to creating Queensland’s next generation highly skilled, technologically advanced workforce.
Project leader, Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles who is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education at SCU, said the findings were counter-intuitive and could mean a greater push for playing in nature or outside classes in the Queensland school curriculum.
“We would normally expect this about environmental science. It is a bit of a no brainer, of course nature play is going to drive scientific learning in the environment,” Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles said.
“But what was really fascinating is that it drove more than that. It was actually a leverage point for other types of STEM learning. It might start at environmental science but then goes into areas such as physics, chemistry and maths.
“This is a point of new discovery. We really haven’t understood that in the past.”
The study is the world’s first large-scale research into learning through nature play that is the hallmark of a growing number of bush kindergartens and forest schools across Queensland.
The study looked at 20 early childhood settings across Queensland, including 10 in the south-east and another 10 in the central and north of the State. It included some dedicated bush kindies and schools, including Birdwings Forest School in the Gold Coast Hinterland, and schools that specialise in outdoor learning such as Silkwood School at Mount Nathan on the way to Tamborine mountain.
During the study, children observed animals in nature, including some that had died. One study group observed a dead kookaburra decompose over six months.
“It was a fascinating thing for these young people, whose practice involved walking in nature every day in the outdoor reserve where they would see the dead kookaburra and linked in their learning into slow decomposition – which is quite remarkable to have that opportunity at such a young age and shows how these nature play pedagogies operate in practice,” Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles said.
“What it really means is children are doing far more outdoors experiential learning and across disciplines as well.
“For Australia, it’s still fairly new. Of course, there’s a long history of it in Indigenous culture, but in a formal education setting it’s still relatively new.”
Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles said while nature play was part of many kindergarten and early learning programs, it wasn’t across all schools.
As a result, Queensland could be missing out on future scientists, technology professionals and mathematicians. “Others might say that more screen time will lead to more STEM, but that’s not the case,” she said.
“It might lead to a particular part of it, such as having a particular interest in being a social media influencer or a coder, but if we’re talking about the actual sciences and careers in the sciences, in our experience it is more likely to leverage from nature play.
“There’s always that tension of too much screen time. Here’s another reason to tell the kids to go outside, because it’s actually good learning for them.”
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