by Kim Bone, Gaia Education & Development

In December 2019, I had the opportunity to present at the AGU (American Geophysical Union) conference in San Francisco.  This event is the largest gathering of Earth and Space scientists in the world, with over 62,000 delegates in attendance, and this year one of the special focus themes was Education. Our session was themed “How to Engage Preschool Children in Earth Sciences”. This was in partnership with Dr Sefania Amici from the Istituto Nazionale Di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Italy, Gaia ED and Chrysalis Group of Early Learning Centres.  Below is an overview that was presented and the entire interactive presentation can be found here.

The purpose of this study was to test the effectiveness of the Paper Volcano Kit, designed and prepared by Paper Volcanics Lab, with a small group of children aged between four and five years old.  This was also the first unique collaboration between scientific researchers in the filed of volcanology and front-line early childhood teachers, both teams coming together from almost polar opposite ends of the world (Italy and New Zealand).  The design, methodology, experiments, observations and results were also measured against the outcomes from Te Whāriki.

Child-led learning is something the centres were wanting to honour.  A planned trip to the Auckland War Memorial Museum was an opportunity for the children to visit the volcano exhibition.  This experience garnered lots of questions from the children (and some from kaiako) and a great way to introduce project-based learning where the teachers consciously planned provocations, activities and experiments that were fun, age appropriate and engaging and that allowed children to extend their working theories and build on the Gaia (Earth) values of discovery, awareness, resilience and risk to name a few.

Photos: Kim Bone presenting her research about “Engaging preschool children into Earth Sciences” at the 100th AGU Earth and Space Science Conference in USA (December 2019)

Over the weeks, the teachers observed a continued interest in volcanoes.  The teachers planned activities using STEAM learning.  Early childhood settings are a great place to support STEAM learning when you consider the definitions of each discipline:

Science – The process of finding out about the world and how things work by exploring, gathering data, looking for patterns, and developing hypotheses, explanations and ideas and using evidence to support a viewpoint.

Technology – this includes tools that have been designed to help meet human needs, ranging from a lever, to writing with a pencil, to a hammer and nail, to magnifying glasses, to complex construction, then moving onto digital devices such as computers or phones or augmented/virtual reality.

Arts – this is the creative, visual, auditory, tactile, emotional, physical, and every other sensory expression we can use to experience, learn and grow.

Engineering – the art and process of planning, designing and developing or creating structures, systems and tools to help us in our everyday life and to help solve problems.

Mathematics – observing shapes, symmetry, space; measuring angles and distances and quantities such as ‘how many’ or ‘how much’ of something and ‘how to modify or adapt it’ to fit an environment.

STEAM activities should be planned to be both fun and extended learning for the children at their own pace.  They should allow children to explore with their minds and senses, through observing, building, testing, designing, asking probing questions and solving problems.

Our early childhood curriculum states that providing a learning environment for children to experience new opportunities helps them to construct new knowledge.  It draws on cultural, aesthetic, historical, social, scientific, technological, mathematical and geographical knowledge (p.22).

The teachers also enhanced the learning with cultural relevance and connectivity via local stories and Maori legends.  ‘Battle of the Mountains’ by Peter Gossage was a favourite of the children, and the teachers found this a great tool to support the Paper Volcano kit.  It is a captivating retelling of the Maori myth of how Mt Taranaki, Mt Tauhara and Mt Putauaki came to stand where they are today in the North Island of New Zealand.

The way the teachers incorporated four of the 24 Gaia values to inspire the principles of nature-based learning included:

(Extract from Gaia Values Booklets)
DISCOVERY – a journey of adventure and learning about something new and having the courage and interest to explore.  By teachers providing uninterrupted time to discover, this allows children to build on their working theories.
(Extract from Gaia Values Booklets)
AWARENESS – children become more informed about communities and environmental issues.  The outcome is that by having awareness, this empowers people to step up and make a difference.
(Extract from Gaia Values Booklets)
RISK – many examples of risk in nature is related to survival. It can also be related to responsibility. When children learn healthy risk-taking, they gain confidence in trying more complex things and extending themselves in new situations.
(Extract from Gaia Values Booklets)
RESPECT – children develop an understanding of how mighty volcanoes and volcanic activities can be and how they can impact on our environment and also the communities that surround them.  It encourages children to show empathy and become more responsible for their actions.

It is an expectation that teachers are able to develop learning dispositions and working theories in children as this helps to enable learning across the whole curriculum.  Having and building on domain knowledge is an area that teachers will continue to develop to  help support children in developing their own interest in one or more of the STEAM learning topics.


Ministry of Education (2017).  Te Whāriki He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa.  Early Childhood Curriculum.  Ministry of Education, New Zealand.

For more information on how Gaia Education & Development can support you or to learn more about the Gaia Values booklets which give a practical guide for teachers on how to connect Gaia Philosophy and Earth Sciences with your local curriculum, please contact us:

  • Our Study Tours take you to centres around the world, where you can see, be inspired by and learn from teachers and children being OK with risky play.
  • Our 1-1 Mentoring is a supportive and reflective space for you to explore, test and develop your own sense of facilitating, guiding, scaffolding and planning risks in play.
  • Our Centre Quality Audits provide a good balance between ‘risky play’ and ‘risky business’.