Is there an appropriate age to start exploring and teaching STEM? The answer is simply: the earlier, the better!
By exposing children at a very young age to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, we are encouraging children’s healthy development and providing them opportunities to manipulate, inquire and resolve problems on their own.
As parents and early-years professionals, our objective is to support and enhance these skills by providing a variety of experiences, indoors and in nature, while asking thought-provoking open-ended questions that allow children to pause and investigate their ideas and actions.
Open-ended questions are designed to help children think about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and hypothesize about what the possible outcomes may be, as well as encourage them to find solutions to challenges that may occur along the way.
For children to feel and be successful in their own learning, children should be completely engaged and at the centre of the learning experiences. STEM encourages a holistic approach to learning and exposes children to a variety of learning opportunities within different contexts.
Viewed as an opportunity to allow children to learn in a way that reflects their own learning abilities, both parents and early-years professionals must try to step away from more traditional approaches to teaching topics in a unilateral way and allow the child to lead.
Learning is further strengthened when children can explore a concept with actual hands-on learning within their world. For example, to encourage preschoolers to gain an understanding of engineering, we might provide a variety of stacking materials for them to practice building towers.
By including some rich dialogue and a probing question, we encourage children to pause, investigate, inquire, hypothesize, test, and succeed. Saying: “I see you are building a high tower with the different rocks. Oh! The tower seems to keep falling over, what can you change to help it stay up?” will provide a wonderful opportunity for the child to examine the situation, the causes and the possible solutions!
The challenge for the adult involved is to ask the encouraging question while refraining from offering solutions or trying to solve the problem themselves. Giving children time, opportunity and encouragement to explore on their own, with some support, allows children’s innate curiosity to do the rest.
Providing learning opportunities to explore STEM is easier than it sounds. STEM is all around us in our day-to-day life. The key for parents and early-years professionals is to seize the moments as they happen. Asking a toddler: “I wonder what makes flowers grow?” while enjoying a nature walk is an invitation to explore STEM. They may not have all the language skills to fully communicate their thoughts; however, this early exposure to open-ended questions, to curiosity and investigation, is the first step to engaging in STEM. STEM should be fun, for children as well as for the adults supporting them.
The following activities are just a few of the STEM experiences suggested on the Too Small to Fail website. They are simple examples of how to begin discovering the amazing world and journey of STEM with your children (the words in bold are STEM vocabulary words).
Tips for Infants
Let’s Observe the World! Observing is important in science. Everywhere you go, talk about what you see and describe what your baby is looking at or pointing to: “Wow, I see that big, blue truck too! Look at the black spinning wheels! How many wheels does it have all together? 1, 2, 3, 4 wheels. Four wheels all together.”
Use All Your Senses. At the grocery store, discover the smell, feel and taste of different items with your child. Hold an orange and say, “What does an orange look like? Feel like? It’s round and smooth.” At home, hold a dish towel and say, “A dish towel is a rectangle and feels soft.” Encourage your baby to explore these objects with their senses.
Would You Like More? During meal time, you can teach about the idea of “more” – the first step toward understanding addition. As you feed your baby, pause and ask if she wants more. Wait to see how she responds to your questions and follow her cues.
Link Words with Actions. When you move your baby from one position or place to another, put words to your actions. Say “up, up, up” when you lift your baby from the changing table, crib, or floor. When you place him down, say “now down you go to play!” These simple words build the foundation for later math and engineering skills.
Tips for Toddlers
Explore Sizes. Ask your child to compare the sizes of measuring spoons when cooking. Use words like smallest, small, medium, big, bigger, and biggest to describe each spoon.
Whole and Half. At meal time, show your child a whole piece of toast and cut it in half. Then say, “These two pieces are the same size. They’re called halves.”
Let’s be Scientists! At the grocery store, have your child hold two different pieces of fruit in their hands. Ask: “Which one is heavier? Which one is lighter?” Ask other questions that encourage observation and description, like: “Which fruit is red? Can you find the yellow fruit?” Exploring together builds skills for future scientists!
Enjoy a Shape Snack. Offer a square (or rectangle) cracker. Cut a piece of cheese into a triangle. Talk about and trace each shape with your finger before you eat it.
Tips for Preschoolers
Why? Questions. When young children ask “why?” questions, they are being scientists! As a parent, you don’t have to have the right answers to help your child learn about STEM. You can respond by saying, “That’s a good question. How can we find out together?” Have fun and be co-discoverers.
Let’s Measure. In the kitchen, point out and read the lines on the measuring cups and spoons as you prepare dinner. Talk about how half the onion gets used for the soup. Let your child fill and pour using different measurement methods: one cup of cornmeal for the cornbread; two tablespoons of oil to cook the chicken.
Go on a Shape Hunt. You can discover shapes all around you. “The window is a rectangle. Look, it has four sides and four corners. Let’s see how many rectangles we can find.” Or: “The mirror is shaped like an oval.” It’s fun to make shapes too. Using a stick, draw a shape in sand or dirt while at the park. See if your preschooler would like to try. Practice making BIG circles and little ones, BIG squares and little ones, etc.
Math Walk and Talk. Take a “math walk” on the way to the bus. As you walk, play a game where you and your child need to take “four big steps,” find “six pebbles” or touch “seven green leaves.” Ask and work together to solve how many questions such as: “How many steps from the front door to the sidewalk?”
Let’s Build! Give your child safe, everyday materials like cardboard, tubes, string, fabric and tape. You can also provide simple tools and machines like scissors, rulers and wheels. Allow your child to get creative and work together to build, engineer and problem-solve! After you finish building, talk together about why you built the design the way you did and what tools made it easier
Find more tips and resources at Too Small to Fail and Let’s Talk about Math and the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. For family literacy resources, visit parentresource.ca.
Monique Collin is Pedagogical and Early Literacy Specialist at the Parent Resource Centre.