STEAM Part 1
Back in 1974, Buckminster Fuller wrote in the introduction to my first book, Build Your Own Playground, the following:
I think that playgrounds should be renamed “research environments.” This is what the children are doing so vigorously. They are not playing. They are finding out how the universe works. This is spontaneous research which is inherently gratifying, often joyously gratifying. How wonderful to find out how to use gravity as an accelerator or a brake. Nobody is around to tell you or to give you the name gravity, but you learn quickly that the greater the drop, the more it hurts your legs. That is what Galileo’s work with falling bodies was all about. You want to understand that invisible power that is working around for you; you wish to check out your theory on a slide.
Children learn about tension. They have got to tear a great many things apart to find something that won’t tear, that they can spontaneously grab for to arrest the falling and anticipate leg shock or break. They don’t have to know the names tension, compression, gravity, or acceleration, but they have to get very familiar with such phenomena before a sound emanating from somebody’s mouth can develop a word meaning experience. City-born and -matured children have almost no access to operative research environments as have had the billions of humans in the millions of years of their occupancy on planet Earth’s pre-city eons.
Playgrounds provide children with experience-fortified gratification of physical research. Thus, their intuitive assumptions of “can do” are proven; they are thereafter confident of their own capabilities for sensing and employing the principles operative in nature, such as gravity, flotation, wind resistance, tension, and compression. Teen-agers and adults then may successfully deploy into wilderness for such activities as mountain skiing, surfboarding, cross-country motorcycling, and flying kites.
Of course, we all know that Bucky was WWWAAAY ahead of his time. What I especially love about Bucky’s statement was that it presented the vision of full-body exploration. Far too many STEM products are desktop and don’t account for the fact that little kid CAN’T sit still. They learn faster and better when they are totally immersed in playful learning. Many of the toys presenting themselves being STEM have a single “right” solution which, for me, is the antithesis of scientific inquiry. This is especially true when looking at toys for children seven years-of-age and younger.
I just ran across an excellent white paper by the Toy Association, STEM/STEAM – Formula for Success. The paper does a good, if very superficial, job of identifying right and left-brain functions and clearly supports the proposition that a good STEM product needs to be both fun and intellectually challenging. What they don’t point out is that, for young children, the left cortex is in a very primitive state and is not ready for intellectual growth as such. I liked nearly everything they have to say, especially this point:
“OPEN-ENDED. This refers to a toy that encourages the child to find his or her own individual way to play. After the mandatory characteristics, this was the most predominant attribute mentioned for a good STEM/STEAM toy – the ability for a product to be used in multiple manners where there is no one right way to play. This includes toys that offer various pathways to solving a problem, building a structure, creating a design, or accomplishing a task.
I will recommend this paper to you if the object of your interest in STEM is for kids eight years and older. However, if you have, or are teaching, younger children stay tuned to this blog as we will be exploring what the neuroscience has to say about how the developing brain is preparing the young child to take on the rigors of STEM.