by Jessica Schaefer?
If STEM learning is important in the classroom, it?s important outdoors. But here?s the glory: It?s even easier outside. Far from the busy box of a traditional classroom, outside, things get real. Balls don?t stop at the edge of the gym; things that fall, break; water and wind create changes everywhere.
The biggest value of STEM learning outdoors is that it already exists. You cannot play outdoors and miss it – you can?t skip it, fail it, or forget to study it. It is readily, and freely, available.
STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – and all without a computer, counting blocks, or even electricity? Yes, it?s true. But the concept of STEM is more than an acronym to those who subscribe to it; it is a philosophy and a way of encouraging kids to think outside the box. Math overflows into art, art into science, science into math, and in the outdoors, these things come together in front of our faces in an always-changing laboratory.
For example, bigger rocks make bigger splashes, forest paths create simple networks, sticks over a river build a simple bridge with a question about how much weight it might hold. Children are naturally inquisitive and outside spaces are a great place to witness ?that natural passion.
Stuck for ideas? Here are a few fun activities that capitalize on STEM concepts already apparent in the outdoors:
- Pull weeds
For littles: Let them pull, touch, even taste when appropriate. Talk about each plant – where does it grow, does it like shade or sun? What does it look like in various stages??For middle grades: Identify plants you find. Do they all belong there? How does each plant ?move? and later grow in new places??For the bigger kids: Identify invasive species in your area. Discuss the impact of these plants and what can be done to prevent future damage.What they?re learning: the science of plants – plus how plants travel and the impacts on our ecosystem.Back it up with: the app “What?s Invasive?” ,a community data collection site.
- Get swinging
For littles and middle grades: throw a rope over a branch and gather various objects to tie to one end. See how fast different things swing.
For tweens or teens: make the same stick swing at two different speeds and at two different arcs (hint: hanging it long way versus at a “T” will make a big change!) Time and measure your swing and make some guesses – will a rock go further or faster? Does it matter what size? What if you swing on the rope?
What they?re learning about: pendulums and the science of motion.
Back it up with: the Pendulum app by Exploriments?
- ?Get from point A to B, and back again:
For the littles: Make a map of your area in the dirt – a pebble might represent a bigger rock or a building, pine needles can make a path or a stream. Plan out your path on your mini map and then walk it!
For the middle grades: Using the same map, make a few set points. How many routes can you make between all three points? What is the quickest way to get too all three? What happens when you add a fourth or fifth point?
For the bigger kids: Draw your maps to scale on paper and plan out a series of points. Find routes that connect all the points – what is the best route to hit them all? Does it help make it faster if you add points in between?
What they?re learning: mapping, spatial sense, ? and networking! Computers use this same technology to complete tasks.
Back it up with: different maps, new places, and lots more exploring!
- Harness the sun?For all: Collect leaves: some dry, some fresh, dark ones and lighter ones. Place a leaf in a safe zone (try a cool firepit, sidewalk, or baking tray) and use a magnifying glass to concentrate the light of the sun into a tiny point. Hold steady – you should soon see a bit of smoke as the sun?s energy burns a hole in the leaf. What types of leaves burn easier? Why? Remind kids about the power of fire – forest fires can start because of discarded water bottles or broken glass – and now you know how!?What they?re learning about: Energy.?Back it up with: this YouTube crew uses a really big magnifying glass to do the same thing.?Ask: It?s cool to make things burn using the sun – but how could we use this power to solve problems? Check out this simple solar cooker explained by Moses in Uganda from SendACow.UK.
The very best way to encourage STEM learning outdoors is to let kids get curious. Encourage questions, help find answers, and go back out again, tomorrow. You are building critical thinkers who will grow up not just with a passion for STEM skills, but with the drive to make a difference in their backyards and around the world.
Jessica Schaefer is an explorer turned stay-at-home mom, where she tells tall (but true) tales of her adventures to her two girls. The Schaefers have recently moved from Florida to New Jersey, where they enjoy the change of seasons while growing their online store, Biddle and Bop.