Learning and Development

Teaching STEAM in the early years

  • Teaching STEAM in the early years

Alfreton Nursery School’s Jane Blant and Amanda Hubball explain how they are engaging children in science, technology, engineering, art and maths…

You may not be familiar with the term ‘STEAM’, but the learning it describes is everywhere in early years – it’s embedded in play, exploration, curiosity, observation and questioning; it’s ongoing and builds crucial skills for life.

For the uninitiated, STEAM covers five subject areas, namely science, technology, engineering, art and maths.

In settings that embrace a STEAM approach, all five are interwoven to create an effective strategy for the acquisition of a wide range of skills and knowledge.

Exploring STEAM

Science is based on wonder and a drive to explore. It’s about ourselves, others, the natural world and our interconnectedness – indeed, it is our very existence. We effectively engage with science through a growth mindset and the use of our senses.

When we nurture a scientific approach, children learn to investigate, observe, test, predict, evaluate and gather evidence.

Without such an approach towards life, children will live without beauty, wonder and a desire to know more.

The good news is that children are born scientists! The interconnectedness of all life on Earth is an essential core to a child’s understanding and compassion.

Our future depends on those in our classrooms and we can capture their natural curiosity and desire to connect.

Technology is about doing – putting all of children’s thoughts and questions into action. Our focused area in school enables children to look at technology through a historical and global perspective.

There are images of, and literature about, vehicles through the ages – from penny-farthings to steam trains, all provoking conceptual analysis of how technological skills have developed over time.

Structures are key, too, with children introduced to inspiring examples from across the world, including the Great Pyramids and igloos. They can see how human thinking and skill has changed the world.

Children need to see themselves as having real solutions to real problems and have the skills to affect positive change.

Engineering is designing and building. Children need time to explore a solution to an identified problem and the opportunity to design and redesign based on their findings. These skills enable children to explore how to problem solve in all aspects of their life.

Children learn:

  • Decomposition – breaking a large concept down into smaller, more manageable parts.
  • Abstraction – removing unnecessary and unhelpful detail to achieve clarity when pursuing an outcome.
  • Collaboration – teamwork is sometimes more successful than working alone.

Engineering is about taking our skills and our wonderings to create something amazing!

Art is at the core of STEAM and may be the spark that motivates children to engage. We need creative people in our STEAM fields. It is essential that we allow children to explore their creativity and as teachers, we understand and respect children’s contributions to creative thinking.

At Alfreton Nursery School we celebrate freedom of expression. Children are empowered to think, wonder, question, explore and express themselves.

Every child’s potential is used as a window through which they can see their world. We provide stimulating opportunities for children to express their creativity.

A great example involved our ‘metallic themed workshop’, daily extensions for which included the provision of technology materials, clip boards, pens and an ipad. Developing the creative process further, we added paints and a variety of joining materials.

Celebrating the uniqueness of critical thinking, problem solving and innovative processes is paramount.

As Loris Malaguzzi wrote, “Creativity becomes more visible when adults try to be more attentive to the cognitive processes of children than to the results they achieve in various fields of doing and understanding.” (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1996)

Maths is so much more than counting! Everything can be seen from a mathematical perspective and mathematical success is achieved through a mindset which is open, analytical and curious.

Maths is both rigid and creative. It is both serious and great fun. Maths is for all children and, as such, all children should believe in their abilities as maths masters.

Children will achieve success in many different fields of study if they have a positive approach to mathematical learning.

All aboard!

According to Mark Oliver, in an article entitled ‘The Science Behind Kids’ Obsession With Trains’, train play can have a significant impact on improving STEAM skills and there is a direct correlation between spatial reasoning and SATs maths scores. Hence, simply engaging children in play with trains, wheels and balls is a fantastic first-hand experience that will enhance their STEAM journey.

Through Leuven Scales observations of children’s interests, involvement and emotional wellbeing, we gained further insight into the precise levels of engagement and how we could improve the quality of the resources and the immediate nursery environment.

The train play was previously limited to a small area and restricted the children’s opportunities. These observations reflected on our aspiration to bring the STEAM subjects into this area of play.

To take it further, we visited an open day at a local engineering company, where we accessed photographic resources, which were then displayed in the new area.

Alongside the selection of trains, track and sheds, we created a ticket office that led to encouraging the children’s interest in mark making and writing for a purpose.

Clipboards and mark-making sheets were also made readily available to provide technical drawing opportunities. A selection of construction equipment, including loose parts, connectors and tools, is readily available to access alongside the train play.

The addition of construction kits to support train play, led the children to extend their thinking, begin to design, invent and test theories.Train play transformed into a workshop of engineers and inventors!

The impact

Our work around STEAM at Alfreton has led to highly motivated, creative girls and boys – so much so that we have won national accreditations for our work in science and other areas, whilst working with our academically more-able children.

We are currently developing relationships with local businesses, through recycling projects, and parental involvement work which can inspire and enable families to engage in the world of work, as well as supporting our young learners to explore how things are made and why.

One of our most recent mindful and open-ended STEAM journeys has been the work around sustainable travel and environmental impacts. The children considered the role of engineers and collectively discussed the plight of our planet, given the excessive pollution from travel.

As a group of thinkers, inventors and compassionate global citizens, the children designed a new vehicle to support safe family travel to school and a healthy impact on air quality. Their fantastic ‘scooter-brain’ was then entered into a national competition.

If this sounds of interest, I really recommend coming on board as STEAM is the driving force that supports children as they develop into the future guardians of our Earth.


Jane, a nursery nurse, and Amanda, an early years teacher, both work at six-times ‘outstanding’ Alfreton Nursery School in Derbyshire.

Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Get 56 top early years tips delivered straight to your inbox

Find out more here >