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STEAM powered learning – Why STEAM teaching is critical in early childhood education

Reading Time: 4 minutes

STEAM-powered learning in early years education is embedded in play, exploration, curiosity, observation and questioning.

How children feel about themselves as learners is intrinsic to their success. Not just in the early years, but for their lifelong learning journey.

In this article, Alistair Bryce-Clegg tells us that arguably, how we support children to learn is just as important as the knowledge we teach.

Alistair is an award-winning early years author, blogger, product designer and advocate of play. His work has been published in a number of books and magazines and he has worked as an early years advisor for various film and television projects. Alongside providing support and training for a range of settings, schools and parents, he also works internationally and with local authorities across the UK. 

Being a Learner

When you think about what you learned at school, what comes to mind? Capitals of the world, historic figures and how to work out internal angles of a triangle (although to this day that still escapes me!)?

Much of what we focus on as adults (and educators) is what we learned, not how we learned it.

If we were encouraged to focus more on motivation to learn and dispositions for learning, I believe we could achieve much greater success with all learners.

A STEAM approach fits well into this way of thinking. Let’s take a look at this in a bit more detail.

A Curriculum for School Readiness

The term ‘curriculum’ is familiar in education. It is synonymous with a standardised list of pre-set activities or experiences linked to specific outcomes. These outcomes are often unrelated to child development and, instead, are set by political agenda or institutional preference.

A term like ‘school readiness’ is often interpreted as having the essential knowledge and behaviour that prepare children to achieve the prescribed outcomes. However, this can shift the focus away from a child’s development to fulfilling the specified outcomes.

When we are encouraged to get all children to the same destination, teaching becomes focused on planned, structured activities linked to achieving specific objectives – rather than child-led, play-based, development-centred learning.

Dispositions for Early Years Learning

Skills, like reading, writing, and arithmetic, are vital to being successful and valuable society members.

But, in the early years, the question is not if knowledge is important, but when knowledge is important. 

We must not lose the opportunity to introduce children to the skills that will allow them to interpret the world around them to its fullest capacity. Steeping them in a pedagogy for learning that ensures that they experience, rehearse, and extend their ability to think, question, reason, and recognise and articulate their feelings effectively. 

As educators, it is crucial that when we plan for opportunities for our children, we ensure that these essential dispositions underpin them all. That doesn’t only relate to the activities that we plan, but also the children’s environment indoors and out.

Young girl building wooden structure

Ask yourself:

  • Do the opportunities and spaces that we create for our children engage them as individual learners and not see them as one homogenous group?
  • Are we actively acknowledging the importance of dispositions for learning? Are we using techniques – like play – that we know motivate children most to ensure that they develop the essential curiosity, enthusiasm, cooperation, confidence, commitment, resilience, persistence, imagination, reflectivity and creativity?

These approaches to learning give children a sense of purpose in the tasks they do and a feeling of value due to their efforts. It is these feelings that will help to keep a sense of motivation and resilience.

Dispositions for Early Years Learning

Two young children drawing on plastic outside structure

Creativity is frequently thought of in an art or music context, but it is so much more than that. Creativity is a way of thinking and being that helps us approach all aspects of our lives.

A creative approach to learning aids children’s cognitive development, as outlined in recent research by Durham University. The study showed the importance of a creative approach across different learning, development, and growth aspects.

“…the more a child sees, hears, and experiences, the more he knows and assimilates, the more elements of reality he will have in his experience, and the more productive will be the operation of his imagination” [1]

How does STEAM fit in?

The fundamental elements of a STEAM approach in the early years will support practitioners in providing the knowledge, understanding, skills and dispositions that children need to be successful, lifelong learners.

As well as Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics, STEAM could also stand for:

  • Skill
  • Tenacity
  • Engagement
  • Achievement
  • Motivation!

If our ultimate aim is to encourage children to develop creative strategies, we must motivate them to engage and keep their levels of resilience high by enabling them to be curious and critical thinkers.

We need to present children with the fundamental elements of STEAM in a way that relates to their individual context and everyday life. Children in play-based settings will constantly come into contact with these opportunities in various contexts.

An effective STEAM approach needs to be nurtured through opportunity, activity and environment. There cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach; effective learning happens through the freedom to play and explore in an environment built on engagement and child development.

STEAM–Powered Learning

Reflecting on our practice and reframing how we think about the links between child development and education is essential to progress.

If we provoke our children with opportunities to investigate, explore, and be curious, we will empower them to become effective learners. An early years environment created with an ethos for exploration and play can support children in the early exploration of science, technology, engineering, art and maths and develop the essential dispositions for lifelong learning.

Boy using hand held microscope to look at plants


[1] Durham University. (2021). Durham Commision on Creativity and Education Report. Available:

Early Years

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