A few weeks ago when we visited Peaks of Otter we had the pleasure of a guided hike across the mountains. One of our tour guides from Muddy Squirrel was Lisa, who is currently completing her Ph.D in STEM education at Virginia Tech. As is often my experience with spending an extended period of time in the mountains, we had some great conversations.
Most of our talk revolved around the importance that playing has on STEM education in girls. As a mother to two girls and someone who is passionate about being out in nature, I knew I had to share this information for y’all. So I invited Lisa to share her thoughts with us:
My company, Muddy Squirrel, empowers women to try outdoor sports they wouldn’t try on their own. Every week, I trail run with women of all ages and walks of life.
When you’re out on the trail, you talk about everything. The subjects of school, kids and careers are popular. Women frequently tell me they were interested in this career or that, but because they are not good at math and/or science, they decided not to pursue it. In fact, (and this makes me nauseous to say) not one woman I’ve conversed with has said she’s good at math!
How many times have I heard “Oh, I would have loved to… but…” Many will say that they liked math in elementary school, but when it progressed to the “harder” stuff, they were just not good at it. These are smart, successful women! What causes this lack of confidence?
These women try new and challenging things every day, but when it comes to math, they’re afraid to go near it. When and how do these powerful women lose their power when it comes to math?
While we are seeing some changes, many toys and opportunities for girls continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes. Parents must be purposeful and vigilant to find activities, toys and books that empower building, design, scientific investigation, critical and mathematical thinking, creativity and problem solving. You know that the types of toys you purchase send a message to your child, but don’t forget the way you include her in everyday tasks will also tell her whether you believe in her abilities.
Perform some basic car maintenance with your child, let her help you measure and hang pictures and repair things around the house. Be sure to teach her how to safely use common household tools at an early age. She needs to be comfortable with these tasks before she gets to an age where it’s questioned by peers.
Outdoor adventures are a fantastic way for girls to build engineering, mathematical and scientific skill, resilience and confidence. What do you like to do outside? Do you participate in shooting sports, fishing, or hiking? Show your child how you do it. Even if you’re not an “outdoorsy” person, encourage your child to explore outside.
Don’t be afraid to take your child on a walk through the forest, or to search for critters in a nearby creak or pond. Don’t forget the investigations you could hold in your own backyard. Simple plant and animal guides, nature journals or even just a magnifying glass can turn a walk in the woods into a magical treasure hunt. Pick a spot to go regularly to observe seasonal changes. Help her gather sticks to build a shelter or a fort, plan a backyard camping experience with no “cheating” to get supplies from the house once you’ve set up camp.
Playing and learning outdoors helps your child develop a resilience and problem solving capacity that cannot be built any other way. Check your local nature centers, outdoor companies and clubs to look for guided experiences you can do as a family and camps or day experiences for your child. Orienteering is a fantastic adventure enabling you and your family to learn basic land navigation and have an afternoon of fun “treasure hunting” in the woods. Local event calendars often post cool outdoor events such as these in your area.