The rest of the school was preparing for Science Week and it gave me pause for thought: early years, despite being highly investigative and experimental by nature, is rarely involved in the concept of science.
It is there, though, in the form of "Understanding the World", but the outcomes are largely linked to children being able to discuss change and how things work. The science can be added to this, of course, if you interpret it that way, although more often than not it is linked to seasonal changes and growth.
It got me thinking about STEAM more generally: do we cover this enough in EYFS?
Want to know more? Early intervention: too much, too young?
I was particularly keen to see how the ‘arts’ aspect could be incorporated into investigative learning, as it is something we already do so richly in early years.
Alongside this, I really wanted to focus on developing children’s critical thinking; one of the less discussed characteristics of effective learning in my experience.
So I developed a project.
EYFS stories for STEAM
I started with The Rainbow Fish. It’s a classic text in early years, but it is more often used from a PSED and sharing perspective. This time, it would be used for STEAM.
“What makes the Rainbow Fish sparkle?” I asked at the end of the story.
“The shiny scales!” answered some of the more confident children.
“Indeed, but why do the scales shine and sparkle?”.
We pursued some creative work making our own rainbow fishes with sparkly scales, alongside exploring colour, sea creatures and friendship through the story.
When we each had our own rainbow fish with sparkly scales, I took the children to the sensory room. We sat on the floor and all held hands bravely as I told them I was going to turn out the lights.
Did their fish sparkle and shine? No! So what had happened?
I turned on the various sensory lights in the room and gave the children torches. The sparkles had returned and the children embarked on an age-appropriate but challenging discussion on the power of light and reflection.
We extended the learning to using mirrors and torches in various aspects of their play.
Extending the learning
The children’s experiential learning enabled them to continue to be able to discuss light and reflection in the weeks to come. Encouraged by this, we then used other stories to add aspects of science, technology, engineering and maths to the learning.
“How could the gingerbread man cross the river?”; “What made the beanstalk grow?”; “Why was the porridge too hot?” – so much STEAM!
We used artwork such as Kandinsky’s Squares with concentric circles to promote exploration and design. And all the time the children’s critical thinking grew, enhanced by our work with Guy Claxton and Becky Carlzon’s Learning Power Kids.
So when I was asked to present a question for some teacher action research for our trust’s EYFS innovation hub, I knew exactly what I wanted schools to work on with our youngest children.
The project grew and grew.
First, Dr Louise Kay at the University of Sheffield picked up on my EYFS STEAM tweets and introduced me to the amazing MakEY project, an EU-funded project run across Europe and in which Sheffield University had participated.
I worked with EYFS leaders and teachers across the Trust to develop their knowledge of STEAM in early years, particularly with reference to Simon Nicholson’s "Loose Parts Theory" and MakEY’s inspirational ‘makerspaces’.
Alongside this, we looked at examples of tinkering and many schools introduced "tinker tables" with tools and old and broken technology for children to take apart and ‘tinker’ with. The staff joined up with various Midland’s based scrap stores to help cheaply furnish their makerspaces.
Children have been using iPads as part of the project and this will hopefully develop and digital literacy will be the next step.
We set up a Twitter hashtag to share our journey, #EYFSSTEAMJourney, and used tech to communicate and share among ourselves by creating a team on Microsoft Teams.
What are the outcomes?
Teachers used a simple statement-bank assessment for the children’s CoEL at the start of the journey and focused on specific children to assess, although the project has been developed with and used by all children. The statements will be revisited at the end of the year to assess impact and we are encouraged by the positive impact so far.
I am really proud of how the early years’ staff at Victoria Academies Trust have embraced the project with such enthusiasm and developed their own practice as part of it. They all delivered table presentations to the rest of the Trust at our annual conference and it was great to see the interest from KS1 and KS2.
I have been spreading the word too, sharing a table presentation recently at a Whole Education regional meet and a workshop at the Firm Foundations conference at Bath Spa University. The feedback had been really encouraging with other teachers picking up STEAM and introducing it to their schools.
I have had a conversation with one of the MakEY project leaders at Sheffield who was equally pleased with the practice being shared via their inspiring work.
I look forward to assessing the impact of this STEAM teacher action research and developing digital literacy in EYFS over the coming years.
Nicky Clements is head of EYFS at Victoria Academies Trust. She tweets @nickyclements71