Five steps for early childhood educators to create a Conceptual PlayWorld and encourage a love of STEM

With a pushdown of school-style curriculum into preschools, kindergartens and childcare centres, it can be difficult for teachers to maintain a play-based program. Fleer’s Conceptual PlayWorld provides a model for teaching through play, and is particularly strong for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is based on more than a decade of research.

Marilyn Fleer breaks down the five stages of creating a PlayWorld.

There are many different ways to run a PlayWorld

As an educator, you can use Conceptual PlayWorlds for different things. You can run a scientific PlayWorld or an engineering PlayWorld.

It could be about social and emotional development like a Respectful Relationships PlayWorld, or it could be for some other kind of narrative development play, for example in literacy.

This is a kind of ecology – a program of learning and development which is about creating an imaginary situation together with the children.

Our free app is designed to guide you through this process, and to capture moments of learning.

Draw from a step-by-step toolkit, and make it your own

There are five steps to setting up and developing a Conceptual PlayWorld that are really important. But make them your own, because you will be making decisions that best suit the children you work with. You know them best.

Step 1: Selecting the story

Plot

The story needs to have a complex plot. You revisit the story over and over again with the children in an imaginary space. By selecting a story that is quite complex, it means it’s more engaging for the children and for you as the educator.

Characters

Think about the kinds of characters that are in there. You need lots of characters. Not all storybooks lend themselves to having 25 characters but what you can do is think of the main characters.

You can give those main characters cousins who live in other countries or visitors who might come to the PlayWorld, who can then become an additional character.

Drama

The story needs to have drama or dramatic dimension to it so that it’s exciting and it can lend itself to a problem situation that has to be solved and developed over time. New characters can enter the play and help solve the problem.

What do you enjoy?

Select a story that you really love because you are going be a play partner in this PlayWorld.

Rebecca Lewis: The beauty of Charlotte’s Web was that Oriana and I loved the story so much. I think if you enjoy reading it to the children it helps a lot.

“We found over various PlayWorlds that if you can choose the story where you can really develop empathy with the characters, that’s one of the most important things for the children to be engaged to help solve problems with the characters.”

Resources for Starter Playworlds
Resources for Longer PlayWorlds

Step 2: Designing Spaces

Use your spaces in different ways

The second part of our tool kit is the design of the spaces, particularly outside spaces.  You might decide to use an obstacle course to take your class to a particular place – a special tree or chair for example. You could use a trestle and beams to create a pathway to your PlayWorld.

Inside we can think about what can we change, what spaces can we use. The home corner or block corner can be transformed into a particular PlayWorld.

The blocks are in service of the PlayWorld. They can support the construction of a new building or a new bridge that takes you to some interesting place.

Step 3: Entering and exiting the PlayWorld

Another element from our toolkit is to think about how you can enter the PlayWorld. You might decide to use a magic wand.  It signals, ‘We are now moving into the PlayWorld.’ It also signals that we are also leaving the PlayWorld.

You can wear a costume, or not, to signal the characters of the collective play.

In an outside space, you might use a tunnel to crawl into an imagined microscopic PlayWorld. Entering and exiting the PlayWorld space can be many different things – a chair or a door frame. The idea is to enter and exit the PlayWorld as a group.

The children and teachers Preshil Kindergarten transformed their outdoor climbing gym into a space rocket.

Step 4: Plan your problem to be solved

What is the problem that arises? You might have a new character who arrives in a special little surprise box – perhaps a little ringtail possum with a special message to give to the children.

It’s something that is introduced, a message to be solved, something to be modelled. It could be anything. It expands the PlayWorld, so it can build over time.

In the Charlotte’s Web PlayWorld the children had to solve Farmer Zuckerman’s urgent problem – all the bugs were eating the apples in his orchard. For the children, it opened up all sorts of questions and ideas about the natural world, ecosystems and growing food.

The children at Mount Barker Community College – doing a Rosie’s Walk PlayWorld – had to urgently draw a map to help Rosie’s cousin find the farmyard safely.

Step 5: What role will you, as the teacher, take in the PlayWorld

Think about the way you interact as an educator in the PlayWorld. You can take on a role that is equal to the children, because you are play partners in this process.

You can take on a role where you are with the children, trying to solve the problem, or you are in a leading role, guiding the children through the process.

This allows you to help the children solve the problem collectively, and to deepen the play.

The teachers at Preshil took on the role of the planets as part of their PlayWorld.

Find out more

The original version of this article was posted on the TeachSpace—Monash Education website and can be found here.

We will be launching our research project on Tuesday March 19 at Monash’s Clayton Campus at 6.30pm.

If you are an early childhood educator, or interested in our work – and the research behind it – we’d love to see you there. If you can’t make the event, then the lecture will be live-streamed.

For more information about PlayWorlds and to download the app, visit Fleer’s Conceptual PlayWorld.

Follow Marilyn on Twitter @MarilynFleer


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Marilyn Fleer

Marilyn Fleer holds the Foundation Chair in Early Childhood Education and Development at Monash University where she is also a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellow. She researches in the areas of early childhood science, engineering and technologies with particular attention on digital visual methodology framed through cultural-historical theory. Her Laureate Fellowship on the theme ‘Imagination in play and imagination in STEM’ investigates how families and teachers create conditions for children’s conceptual thinking in play-based settings. She has published widely in international journals including Mind, Culture and Activity, Research in Science Education, Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, and Cultural Studies of Science Education. She founded the International Journal of Research in Early Childhood, which is an open access journal designed to support scholarship in early childhood education research.

3 thoughts on “Five steps for early childhood educators to create a Conceptual PlayWorld and encourage a love of STEM”

    Kate says:

    Thank you for sharing such amazing strategies!

    Louise says:

    Intriguing! How could a country kinder, a long way from Melbourne, get involved? I have the app and have watched the YouTube videos. I would love to learn more.

    Malo Taeao says:

    Thank you for publishing this information. I would love to see more articles from M.Fleer to support my teaching practice.

    Thank you.

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