I spent endless hours as a kid creating complicated contraptions with my Erector® sets, testing the boundaries of physics building elaborate sand castles at the beach, and conducting experiments with my small chemistry kit I received at Christmas.   My brothers and I built a transistor radio, our own tree house fortress, and wooden sail boats to race at the local pool.   I didn’t know it…but while I was busy playing, I was also busy learning about science, technology, engineering and math, i.e. STEM.

Over the last decade or so, policy-makers, business leaders and educators have pursued adding more STEM curriculum to children’s education.  This flowed from the realization that the future economy needs many more people who are knowledgeable in the STEM fields.  In addition to the content of the subjects themselves, STEM education is essential to developing problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and sense making abilities, among many others.  These skills transcend the STEM content itself.  They are vital to navigating a happy life and charting a great career.

More recently, academics and thought-leaders have added arts to the equation, resulting in the acronym STEAM.  This addition reflects the understanding that the best problem solving, critical thinking, etal requires creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence and many other abilities developed through art.  One only needs to look at the success of the iPhone to see the power of STEM by people with great artistic ability.  Or, marvel at art that blurs the lines with science such as Aeolus by Luke Jerram, the Lava Project by Bob Wysocki and Jeff Karson, Strandbeest by Theo Jansen, or anything by Andy Goldsworthy.

Certainly, STEAM topics can be learned by reading textbooks and taking notes during a teacher’s lecture.  However, the learning will be woefully incomplete.  Perhaps more than any other subject matters, STEAM education is most successful when children learn by doing.

As a thought experiment, imagine a child who learns how to build a structure out of blocks by reading a manual.  Imagine another child who actually builds the structure.  The building process probably includes a few failed attempts where the blocks fell or did not fit together the right way.  After successfully building the structure, the child then takes is apart and starts to build something new from her imagination.

Who learns more?

child playing with wood blocks

Your intuition is probably saying that the second child learned more. There is ample science that validates your intuition.  For example, one conclusion from the scientific research is that how we play and how much we play directly shapes the architecture of our brains.  In other words, play and experiential learning makes our brains significantly more creative, intelligent, adaptable, resilient, curious and empathetic in ways that typical instruction based learning cannot do alone.

I have worked in the play world for over 20 years.  I observe over that time that children are naturally drawn to STEAM topics.  If we want to nourish and stroke these interests, the best way is through play.  Kids want to play.  They love to play.  And, they learn STEAM best through play, which is sometimes called project based learning, experiential learning or learning by doing.  Whatever it is called, playful learning is essential to children’s achievement in STEAM.

On a final note, I’m reminded of a story detailed by Stuart Brown, PhD in his book entitled Play, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.  The short version is that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), perhaps the premier aeronautics company in the world, had a major problem.  Engineers hired in the late 90s were not capable of certain types of problem solving essential to performing at the highest levels, yet their counterparts from the 60s and 70s were.  After exhaustive research, they discovered that how the engineers played as children directly correlated with their performance in the company.  Now, when JPL interviews potential candidates from the best universities in the world, they explore how much they built, tinkered, explored and otherwise played and learned using their hands and imaginations.

Matt_BrownAbout the Author
For over 20 years, Matt Brown has been leading high-performing teams to develop vibrant business cultures, invent and launch high-impact branded platforms, and turn around underperforming brands and businesses. Matt consults with Fortune 500 and early stage companies, usually working with the C-suite. He also co-founded a couple of companies including big BOING, an integrated strategy, innovation and development company that partnered with Kraft, Disney, Coca Cola, Nickelodeon, Hasbro, Learning Curve and others to invent, design and launch (or completely overhaul) major domestic and international brands.