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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.
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.
“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:
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Action questions: These can nudge children to imagine future outcomes, to make hypotheses, and conduct little everyday experiments.
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:
Comparison questions: These help children reflect on what they’ve learned, by thinking about how one event or object might relate to something different.
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.