PhD (UQ); MEd (Hons) (UNE); MA (Deakin); BEd (Edith Cowan)


Increasing concerns for the low participation in science, engineering and technology (STEM) professions have been expressed over time in Australia, particularly for girls and women. But children’s motivation and future imagining of being involved in STEM careers begins early. Research is showing that interest in STEM starts as early as 18months of age.

Funded through the ARC Laureate Fellowship Scheme, Laureate Professor Marilyn Fleer is leading Australia’s first programmatic study of STEM in the early childhood years. As Director of the Conceptual PlayLab at Monash University, the research is seeking to change Australia’s current STEM engagement. The researchers in the PlayLab are working on three pillars of research: 1) a longitudinal study of infants, toddlers and preschoolers learning of STEM; 2) how families create motivating conditions to support their children’s play and learning of STEM concepts at home; and 3) a model of teaching to support teachers’ confidence and competence in STEM teaching for play-based settings.

Starting early means understanding the motivating conditions for STEM learning, identifying existing or potential barriers to participation, and building a model of practice that can amplify opportunities for STEM in childcare, playgroups, preschools and early years classrooms in schools.

Core to the research is studying how imagination in play supports imagination in STEM for children from infancy to age 8. Many concepts in science, such as the position of the Earth in the solar system, microbial action in the compost bin, and Force in the playground have to be imagined. How to create the conditions in homes and preschools to develop children’s imagination in play and imagination in STEM is a fundamental problem that is being tackled in the Conceptual PlayLab.

Imagination is the psychological function of the preschool child, and imaginary play acts as a key source of development. Better understanding the relationship between the development of imagination and the development of abstract thinking from birth to eight years can contribute to designing models of teaching where STEM concepts can act in the service of children’s play.

It has already been established that eminent scientists changed the course of research in their respective scientific fields because of an exceptional cognitive capacity to visualise, imagine, model, and explore theoretical contradictions for certain features of the physical world. Thought experiments and mental models support fundamentally different theoretical insights (e.g., Michael Faraday – electricity and magnetism; Albert Einstein - theory of relativity); visualisation of big ideas paves the way for new lines of scientific inquiry (e.g. Steven Hawking) and simultaneously imagining the relations between molecular and observable contexts changed the course of genetics research (Barbara McClintock)

The outcomes of the research by Laureate Professor Fleer is on track to contribute to building new knowledge about infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers STEM concept formation in homes and play-based settings and to pioneer methodological innovations for researching concept formation, including a digital imagination in STEM scale to support future research. It is envisaged that the results will build capacity in researching STEM early learning, positioning Australia as a research leader in early childhood STEM.

Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow 2018-2023

  • Additional ARC award: Australian Research Council Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow
  • Honorary Research Fellow, Faculty of Education, University of Oxford
  • Second Professor Position, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences
  • Honorary professor at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark
  • The 2019 Ashley Goldsworthy Award for Outstanding leadership in university-business collaboration
  • Early Childhood Association of Australia, Advocacy award in Early Childhood Education (1999)
  • Vygotsky Institute Medal, awarded in Russia at the Russian State University for the Humanities for services to cultural-historical research (2008)
  1. Fleer, M. and Pramling, N. (2015). A cultural-historical study of children learning science. Amsterdam: Springer
  2. Fleer, M. (2010). Early learning and development: Cultural-historical concepts in play. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press
  3. Fleer, M. (2021). Future imagining of being and becoming an engineer and a scientist: Creating new developmental conditions for disrupting preschool practices, Special Issue, Learning Culture and Social Interaction. doi: 10.1016/j.Icsi.209.100372
  4. Fleer, M. (2018). Digital animation: New conditions for children’s development in play-based setting, British Journal of Technology Education, doi:10.1111/bjet.12637
  5. Fleer, M. (2021). The genesis of design: learning about design, learning through design to learning design in play. International Journal of Technology and Design Education.