Inclusion and wellbeing

STEM learning in early education is easier than you think

The best STEM learning is already baked into children’s play.
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July 21, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This story is about STEM learning in early education, and how we can make it more fun and meaningful for everybody.
  • You don’t need a laboratory or a robotics kit to teach STEM to children. Rather, we should help children recognize the STEM concepts that are built into their play, and their curiosity toward the world.
  • By the end of this article, you’ll snag some great tips on how to highlight and enrich the STEM learning that’s already happening in your own early education setting.

Sometimes, the pressure of STEM learning looms over us like a storm cloud.

In a world of crayon drawings and circle time stories, something like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) can seem daunting. We’re always hearing that it’s critical to children’s future careers — and there’s a mountain of guidebooks, blogs and webinars with fresh ideas on how to give children the youngest possible start with STEM.

But what if it didn’t have to be so complicated?

The thing is, we’ve already got STEM learning all over the place. You don’t need a junior quantum computing kit to introduce these concepts to children, because they’re already baked into children’s favorite ways to play. From hunting for bugs in the garden to splashing about at the water table, children are already experts in these everyday experiments, as they follow their natural curiosity about how the world works.

As an early educator, you’ve just got to give children the space and time to explore those interests, and give a nudge here and there to help those lessons sink in. 

3 steps for good STEM learning in early education

Young children have always been fascinated with why water flows the way it does, or how they can stack blocks to build the tallest tower. It’s only recently that we’ve slapped a ‘STEM’ label on these forms of play, and that makes it feel more complex.

In a 2018 review of over 150 studies on developmental psychology and education, the Center for Childhood Creativity affirmed children’s inherent ability to think as little scientists.

“Even before a child’s first birthday, she is capable of making inferences, drawing conclusions about cause and effect, and reasoning about the probability of events,” the Center writes of their findings.

What we need to focus on in early education is nurturing this core experience of tinkering, exploring and problem-solving. If we introduce children to STEM through worksheets and results-focused activities, STEM becomes abstract; something that takes them away from the things they find engaging.

In early education, STEM learning should be:

  1. Relevant to real life. When we explore something like the chemistry involved in baking a cake, it’s easier for children to understand how STEM matters in their own lives, and how these concepts work in the world around them.
  2. Exciting and hands-on. A worksheet just doesn’t fire up a four-year-old like blasting a bar of Ivory soap in the microwave. Learning through playful activities lets children take ownership of their learning, and makes a meaningful memory out of the lesson.
  3. Not focused on right and wrong. Focusing too much on results can give children a fear of being wrong, which can result in long-term anxiety around STEM subjects. Instead, we should celebrate the open-minded, problem-solving curiosity inherent in experimentation.

As Dr. Daniel Ness explained to me a few months ago, when we get caught up in too many rules and expectations, we crowd out the curiosity that fuels children’s play.

“The STEM exercises that we give to children often don’t make room for imagination, and instead focus on following a specific process to get one specific correct answer. When we’re so over-structured like that, we lose the sense of wonder in our scientific thinking.”

Dr. Daniel Ness, St. John’s University School of Education

The big ideas

Case study: STEM learning at the water table

You don’t need loads of rigid lessons for STEM learning, because your early education setting is already brimming with great ways to pick up STEM skills.

To illustrate that, let’s take a look at something common, like a water play table. It might seem humble: a little basin, some cups and buckets, a few liters of room-temperature water, a rubber dolphin, maybe an old tea kettle. But in the minds and hands of toddlers, water play is packed full of STEM learning

Here’s how:

  • Pouring water between cups builds mathematical muscles through measuring and understanding volume
  • Learning about how water flows, how floating objects displace water, and how we can manipulate water’s movement speaks to core engineering skills
  • Exploring different objects’ buoyancy and density in the water gives children a crash course in fluid physics
  • Understanding cause-and-effect relationships, observing water’s properties, conducting experiments and drawing conclusions offers a first-hand experience with the scientific method

But it’s not just water play that’s well-suited for STEM learning. Once you start looking, you’ll find STEM lessons throughout your early years environment: The physics and architectural learning in building a block castle, the maths and chemistry of baking a cake, or the biology lesson in hunting for bugs out in the garden.

If you’re looking to boost STEM learning in early education, then, you don’t need to worry about buying the right workbooks. Rather, it’s about giving children the time and space to learn STEM through play — and guiding their play with a few questions and nudges to help those STEM learning lessons hit home.

Where’s the STEM learning pressure come from?

STEM can sometimes seem more high-stakes than other areas of learning. You probably don’t feel the same pressure to make sure your toddlers are doing enough finger painting, for example.

You might say that this STEM learning pressure comes from three directions:

  1. Politicians - In the US, Europe and Asia, politicians often connect STEM skills with jobs, economic benefits, or making a country “competitive” on a global scale. The policies supporting this idea affect all levels of our educational system, including early education.
  2. Parents - Every parent wants to see their child do well, and some feel that a strong STEM skillset is their child’s passport into top universities and dream jobs. Those expectations start early, influencing what parents look for in their child care provider.
  3. Educators - Reflecting the expectations from parents and STEM-focused policy goals, early educators naturally start to look for more quantifiable, demonstrable ways that we’re building STEM fundamentals in the early years.

But if we push STEM learning based on these pressures, as though children owe it to some higher power to be good at engineering, we’re missing out on what really matters. We forget to stop and smell the STEM roses, so to speak: to celebrate the simple wonder of figuring out how the world works.

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To make STEM fun for children, ask the right questions

In the Early Years, it might make sense to think of building STEM as a mindset, rather than a skillset. Instead of sweating over whether a toddler has memorized Newton’s laws of motion, we ought to focus on kindling that fundamental flame of curiosity. 

One way we can do this is by recognizing when children are engaged in something, and asking them some questions about what they’re doing. This keeps the focus on what they find exciting, while also helping them absorb some of those fundamental STEM concepts embedded in their play.

Here are questions that we can use to model open-ended, analytical thinking:

Attention-focusing: Can draw children’s attention to certain details or processes in what they’re doing, to help them notice cause and effect, or build hypotheses about how things work.

  • “Did you notice how _______ happened when you did _______?”
  • “Did anything change after you tried ________?”
  • “Why do you think _______ happened?”

Action questions: These can nudge children to imagine future outcomes, to make hypotheses, and conduct little everyday experiments.

  • “What do you think would happen if you did ________?”
  • “How would this be different if ____________ happened instead?”
  • “Why do you think ______________ works the way it does?”

Measuring and counting: These can help children build up some basic mathematics, and practices the sort of measuring and precision that’s useful in engineering. You might start these questions with:

  • “How many…”
  • “How long…”
  • “How far…”

Comparison questions: These help children reflect on what they’ve learned, by thinking about how one event or object might relate to something different.

  • “How is this different than __________?”
  • “Do you think __________ and __________ are similar in some ways?”
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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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