STEM in the PlayScape: Building Knowledge for Educational Practice

January 15th, 2016 - December 31st, 2018 | PROJECT

This research project builds upon an Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) project (DRL#1114674) that investigated preschoolers' self-directed science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related play experiences in outdoor nature-based playscapes. An emerging trend, nature-based playscapes have great potential for exposing young children to STEM-related phenomena, concepts, and processes in a variety of early childhood education settings, including daycare centers, pre-schools, playgrounds, and children's museums. In contrast to traditional playgrounds, playscapes are designed to result in complex, sensory-rich environments in which extensive access to natural materials and resources inspires young children's investigative and exploratory behaviors. This study explores the hypothesis that play in nature provides young children (ages 3-5) with extensive contact with science content and that a play-based curriculum could expand opportunities for STEM learning. This Research-in-Service of Practice project will: 1) design, implement, and evaluate four digital play-based professional development curriculum modules for pre-school educators across multiple partner sites; 2) research the impact of professional training on educators' facilitation of STEM content and activities; 3) examine the impacts of play-based facilitation on young children's understanding of and engagement with STEM; and 4) evaluate the transferability and sustainability of new playscape design principles at three partner sites. This investigation will be led by researchers at the University of Cincinnati in close collaboration with early childhood educators at the Arlitt Center, Cincinnati Nature Center, and two local early childhood organizations that serve children in Head Start programs. The study will use a mixed-methods approach. Data sources include video observations, behavior mapping, teacher self-studies, surveys, interviews, child assessments and children's photo documentation of their experiences. This research project is being funded by the AISL program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. Research that promotes the understanding of how designed play-based natural environments and related instructional approaches support the development of young children's engagement with STEM could lead to new learning theory, pedagogical approaches, and inform the design of effective informal learning experiences. Understanding the affordances of particular components of playscapes with respect to young children, as well as how pre-school educators could productively facilitate young children's engagement with, and understanding of, STEM would be a contribution to the informal STEM field.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

Video - STEM in the PlayScape: Building Knowledge for Educational Practice
Digital Learning Modules: STEM in the Playscape
Poster - STEM in the Playscape: Tools for Research and Education
Listening in: Spontaneous Teacher Talk on Playscapes
Evaluation of STEM in the Playscape: Final Report 2020
STEM in the Playscape: Building Knowledge for Educational Practice Project Overview
Early Childhood Educators' Perceptions of Play and Inquiry on a Nature Playscape
Nature by Design: Playscape Affordances Support the Use of Executive Function in Preschoolers

Team Members

Victoria Carr, Principal Investigator, University of Cincinnati
Rhonda Brown, Co-Principal Investigator
Heidi Kloos, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: AISL
Award Number: 1516191
Funding Amount: $1,116,905


Audience: Educators | Teachers | Pre-K Children (0-5)
Discipline: General STEM
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Informal | Formal Connections | Park | Outdoor | Garden Programs | Pre-K | Early Childhood Programs | Public Programs