How playing can unlock a love of STEAM subjects in your kids

Playing is a vital part of your child’s development but it turns out that it could also be the key to unlocking a love of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) subjects.

What happens if you ask a child to build a duck with Lego but only give them a minute to do so? This might seem like fun for some, a little challenge to pass the time, but it’s so much more than that. A lot more.

In those 60 seconds, you’ve done more than give a child a challenge or a distraction. You could have inspired them to develop life-long skills and an interest in the world of STEAM.

How is this possible, you might ask? According to the Lego Foundation, this “simple” task involves fine motor skills, systems thinking, attention, problem solving, visual search, working memory cognitive flexibility and much more. These are all attributes that can lead a child to explore the exciting world of STEAM, and the opportunities that this can open up for them.

Creativity and problem-solving skills

The idea of play as the foundation for growing critical skills for adulthood is a relatively new concept. Yet leading organisations are embracing and investing in this concept as they look to encourage the next generation of global innovators and creators.

Johan Roos and Bart Victor created the ‘serious play’ concept and process back in the mid-1990s, when they were both professors at IMD in Switzerland. It was originally conceived to enable managers to describe, create and challenge the views of their business. The concept was further developed into Lego Serious Play under the patronage of Kirk Kristiansen, the owner of Lego.

The importance of creative play and engaged learning for children to develop their resilience, creativity, and problem solving skills was recently highlighted by Georgine Paltzer, Initiatives Manager at The LEGO Foundation. She was speaking at the launch of Generation Tomorrow, ESB’s new STEAM programme dedicated to empowering young people.

“We believe playful experiences support children in developing the skills to serve them, their communities and society through a lifetime and our vision is a future where learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners,” she said.

“This ambition is more critical than ever, with our children facing rapid change, global challenges and a highly interconnected world, all of which affect their future prospects.”

The importance of play as a formative habit

With so much focus on preparing and encouraging children for future careers in STEAM, it’s never been more important for them to play. We need critical thinkers, creators, problem solvers and team players to solve the problems of today, and tomorrow.

We need to start preparing children for careers that don’t even exist yet and to be resilient in a rapidly changing society. Today’s play spaces are the training grounds for tomorrow’s robotics engineers, drone technicians, green power creators, self-driving car mechanics or virtual world creators.

All the research indicates that playful experiences in early years helps children to acquire critical skills for learning throughout a lifetime.

As with the duck building exercise, there are many ways to encourage children to embrace STEAM-style play activities. Exploratory play activities such as making slime brings science to life in the home. Through unstructured free play, children create tunnels from cardboard boxes or towers from empty containers. Everything and anything is possible when it comes to imaginative play involving children.

Allowing children the space and time to play is obviously key, just as it is in adult scenarios where true creators need the right environment to explore and innovate. Trial and error is key to all STEAM tasks. Letting children fail without any consequences is all part of the process. You need to allow them the joy of discovery and let them try to make things work.

Collaborative Play

Technical innovations like the Tesla car, Alexa virtual assistant and drones were not developed by just one person. Collaboration and teamwork are an essential part of innovation, just as it is central to building up a child’s confidence and well-being.

Fortunately, new programmes and initiatives are emerging to help encourage the exploration of the world of STEAM through play. For example, Techspace is supporting young people to use their native interest in technology to become tomorrow’s digital creators, inventors and makers.

Likewise ESB Science Blast, a new learning programme delivered by the RDS, makes STEM learning fun for both children and teachers. It involves whole classes working together to investigate the science behind a simple question that they find interesting. “Why does cake go hard but biscuits go soft?”, “Where do waves come from?” and “Why is slime slimey?” are just a few examples. In this non-competitive education programme, children from fourth to sixth classes get to display their findings at showcase events in Dublin, Belfast and Limerick, attended by hundreds of other classes.

Playing together has always been fun. But now, more than ever, we have a new appreciation of how it can open up a whole new world of possibilities and discovery for the next generation.

ESB’s Generation Tomorrow programme will see the company invest €7.5m over the next five years to support the work of a number of partners, including ESB Science Blastand ESB Creative TechFest. The programme aims to help young people develop scientific literacy and critical thinking skills through programmes that encourage curiosity and discovery, helping them not only to become creative and innovative problem solvers, but also active and engaged citizens, capable of making informed choices to tackle climate change and other global challenges.