Hello, I’m Ashaan and I’m 4. When I grow up I’d like to be a doctor or an astronaut. I like dressing up and pretending I’m going to open someone’s tummy to get the baby out, or get into my space-rocket to zoom to the moon…STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, is a major focus for many educators and schools at the moment. There is also discussion happening about how to encourage girls in particular to explore and pursue careers in these academic disciplines that have to date been primarily driven by men. And yet, the desire to dismantle, explore and tinker with ordinary objects is intrinsic to most young children, of any gender. So why, as teachers, do we shy away from giving our pupils access to these mind-opening experiences?
Healthy and safety and an anxiety around risk, prohibits many teachers from presenting unusual, technical experiences to their children. Our argument is that if a thorough risk-assessment has taken place and there are adults to hand to help children learn to play appropriately with ‘skip’ objects, then the opportunities for problem-solving and critical thinking abound.
“The long-term benefits of tinkering time are remarkable,” says Katy Scott, Education Technology Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. “In many ways, tinkering resembles inquiry-based learning, cooperative learning, and project-based learning, all of which have been proven to have long-term positive effects on student achievement and success.”
In addition to that, playing with and dismantling mechanical objects found in skips and elsewhere, develops fine motor skills that are vital for writing, cutting, using utensils and tying shoe-laces. These skills, in our experience, are often under-developed in children further up the school and can negatively impact their learning. We need to allow children to hone these skills in the Early Years, and what better way to do it than by reusing waste items.
The whole notion of re-use and repair is something that we need to engage with as a society. With the commodification of our world, items are often thrown-away and quickly replaced. Organisations like Repair Café are now encouraging people to bring their items into their cafes around the globe to be repaired rather than throwing them into landfill. If we don’t currently have the skills to fix things ourselves so we can keep house-hold objects in a circular economy, why aren’t we skilling-up the youngest members of our population? Repair Kid is a non-profit organisation in the Netherlands that sets up at festivals and runs workshops to encourage children of all ages to interact with waste found in skips. Founder, Cis Deyl recalls one child who, after 4 hours of focussed, continuous investigation with different materials, came up to her and with a huge sigh confessed, “This is exactly what I’ve wanted to do all my life!”
Interestingly, the American Enterprise Institute recently published an article entitled ‘STEM without fruit.’ In it, they claim that STEM skills alone do not improve employability and that the skills of listening and team-work are more vital to later success in the workplace. Early childhood education should allow for the development of all of the above. Providing opportunities to develop STEM skills in non-pressurised, exploratory environments means that these very same skills can be acquired through and alongside listening and team-work. The development of one skillset does not have to be to the detriment of another.
So, cast a glance in a skip the next time you pass one. The enormity of learning contained within it, is just waiting to be tinkered with.