Cultivating a variety of STEM skills in the garden

Children watering garden

With days becoming longer and the weather increasingly sunnier and warm, springtime for many early education services brings the opportunity to engage children in more outdoor play and experiences with various life science lessons. 

Building educational garden beds where children sow flower and vegetable seeds, watching them sprout and grow over time, are often used as an important way to spark conversations about the food we eat. 

Establishing a native beehive and constructing ‘bug hotels’ with bamboo and twigs introduces children to explore the world of minibeasts. But these gardens and beehives are not only a place for valuable science lessons. They can also be a rich environment to incorporate experiences in technology, engineering and maths – fields collectively known as STEM. 

Global challenges such as climate change and COVID-19 have highlighted the importance and value of an educated and prepared STEM workforce for solving the problems of the future. So while these beehives and gardens are growing flowers and vegetables, so too are they growing Australia’s future resilience and prosperity.

So how can educators make the most out of these springtime activities and ensure children are building skills across all STEM disciplines? The ideas below are not exhaustive but will give you an idea of how to cultivate strong STEM skills (and vegetables).

Engineering

Support children to think and act as engineers as they plan, design and build their bug hotels or support structures in the garden for various plants. 

  • What is a bug hotel? What kind of minibeasts might take up residence? How big are they and how much room do they need? Research using books or magazines and find insects in other areas of the garden for inspiration.
  • As the tomatoes and sunflowers grow, they will need support. What kind of shape structure will help support tomato plants when there are large fruits weighing heavily on the vine? Are there some shapes that are stronger than others? Will the sunflowers need the same type of support? How tall will it need to be? 
  • Design and planning. Help children draw a blueprint of their design and/or build a prototype with blocks or Lego. Prompt questions about specifications such as, “How many pieces of bamboo will you need? How long will the pieces be?” Let their design imaginations go wild but continue to check back in on their research to see if their design ideas will meet the requirements, i.e., do the sunflowers really need a 10-metre-high support?

Technology

Encourage children to evaluate garden technology, finding ways for work to be more efficient and effective with tools and determine which tools are the best for each job. 

  • Involve families by asking them to bring in their garden tools. Children can look at and investigate all the various shapes and sizes of trowels, pruning shears, rakes and watering cans. Compare a range of secateurs with straight or curved blades, long or short handles and consider with the children what design aspects of these tools make them useful for particular jobs.
  • How will the garden be watered? Which watering can should be used, the big one or the small one? The big one might be obvious but allow the children to try – can they carry a large, full watering can far? Is there another tool that could be used to carry a heavy watering can? Or perhaps the children can pass it to each other one by one to get to the garden. Is this method useful or are smaller watering cans better? Why? Why not?

Maths

Support children’s development of logic and mathematical thinking such as quantities and space when planning what to grow and what you will harvest. Encourage discussions about equivalence, partitioning and distributing and comparing quantities.

  • Read seed packets with the children and help to measure space between rows of seeds to be planted with a rough guide such as a hand. How many hand spaces should be between rows? Is it the same when using an adult hand? 
  • Do all plants need the same space? Can the children guess how big a plant may grow by the amount of space the seed packet recommends? What might happen if too many plants or seeds are put in the recommended space?
  • How will you share the harvest equally? If 20 carrots grow and there are 10 children, how many carrots will each of the children get? What would happen if another 10 children wanted carrots also? Would each child get more, fewer or the same number of carrots? How do you know?

Science

Introduce children to scientific research methods, testing hypotheses with experimental trials, manipulating variables and conducting scientific observations.

  • Collect data from the outdoor space. What kinds of minibeasts can be found? How many of each type are found? Can the minibeasts be sorted into different groups according to their features – number of legs, eyes, wings, shells, etc?
  • What type of habitat do each of the minibeasts inhabit? Under rocks? Within lush leaves? Can these naturalistic observations guide thoughts on what kind of minibeasts will inhabit their bug hotels?
  • When planting and growing seeds, set up experimental trials that will test different growing conditions and see which is best. Compare variables such as the amount of water, sunlight or types of fertiliser or other substances.

These playful, hands-on experiences in engineering, technology, maths and science are rich learning opportunities that lay foundations for positive learning dispositions.  They strengthen scientific habits of collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving. Educators who extend everyday activities such as bug hotels and gardens are helping children develop STEM fluency. 

Similar to learning a language, STEM fluency is established with early beginnings and immersion in daily life. Hands-on, inquiry-based experiences in the early years that engage children in multiple spaces, times and activities empower children to truly grow concepts and ways of thinking. And, in this case, they might also grow a carrot.

Originally published at Gowrie NSW

Article author: Lena Hammond
Head trainer

Lena is an environmental educator with extensive experience in education, advocating progressive teaching approaches and facilitating hands-on STEM workshops. Inquisitive by nature, Lena believes that STEM inquiry initiates lifelong curiosity.

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