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STEM in the Early Childhood Classroom

You’re probably already doing it.Mention the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to an early childhood educator, and you may get an eye roll and sigh: “It’s hard enough to include everything I have to do without adding one more thing that is really four more things.” I had those same thoughts once upon a time, but the more I learned about STEM, the more I smiled when I realized that almost everything that happens in a developmentally appropriate early childhood classroom is STEM. So don’t be scared! You’re probably already doing it.

Curiosity is the root of scientific inquiry, and children have that by the boatload.From the day Eve looked at the fruit on the tree in the middle of the garden and thought “I wonder if it tastes as good as it looks,” humans have been curious. Curiosity is the root of scientific inquiry, and children have that by the boatload. From the toddler, who bangs a toy pan on a shelf to see how much louder it can get, to the preschooler, who rolls a toy truck down the slide, we can see that curiosity is not something we have to teach, but something we rather have to foster. How do we do that? At the risk of confusing you even further, I am going to use STEM as a new acronym for how we promote the other STEM: Schedule, Talking, Environment, and Manipulatives.

Schedule

marble runElisabeth McClure, in an article for Young Children magazine, uses the phrase “STEM habits of mind …critical thinking, persistence, and systematic experimentation.” All of these elements require time. In our often jam-packed classroom schedule, are we offering enough time for children to use these habits of mind? A developmentally appropriate classroom schedule should have plenty of time for free play. Instead of a teacher directing a lesson on a one-time event (let’s put the baking soda in the vinegar and watch what happens), there should be plenty of time for children to conduct their own experiments, even if they don’t know they are doing them. “How many blocks can I stack before the tower falls over?” “Can I fit all of these rocks in this little container?” “How much sand will it take to cover up this tractor?”

Do we allow time or make time for children to observe, explore, and wonder? One day, we were walking from our circle area to get our mats for nap time. I happened to notice a tiny spider that had spun a single line and was hanging above one of our tables. We all gathered around the table and watched the spider climb up the web. It was like an aerobic workout. He would climb for awhile, stop for a break, climb higher, stop for a break... we watched his eyes spin around and wondered at the line that we could barely see but which could take him all the way up to the ceiling.

This was in the days before iPads, so now I would extend the learning with technology. What kind of a spider is it? How did it make the web? Ask, “How can we find out?” Then let children help you sound out “spider” and enter it in a search engine. There are lots of spiders. What is different about ours so we can find what kinds it is?

As we think about our schedule, we must be willing to set aside our perceptions as teachers about what we want to get done and recognize the value in the children’s work of experimentation and curiosity.

Talking

“The role of a good STEM teacher is often to resist directly answering children’s questions. Teachers can encourage STEM habits of mind and facilitate learning by asking purposeful questions and then supporting children as they investigate for themselves.” (McClure, 2017)

playing with blocksIn a developmentally appropriate early childhood classroom, lots of talking happens. And not primarily by the teacher! We all know that language development is key to early childhood growth and learning. STEM gives us an opportunity to guide children as they develop vocabulary and language skills. Children collaborating on a project will make suggestions to one another and learn from one another.

But the way we talk is important. Open-ended questions, rather than yes-no questions stimulate thinking and lead to language development. The W words—especially why, wonder, and what—should be part of our questions and encouragement of children as they work. Remember, our goal is not to fill our students’ heads with knowledge, but to help them discover it for themselves. When we help them label what they have learned themselves, they are more likely to remember it. I remember my little brother, in kindergarten, rattling off the names of dinosaurs. Since then, I have never tried to limit children’s vocabulary to small words. Water evaporates. A car rolling down a ramp accelerates.

Story time is an important part of every early childhood day. As we choose books to share with children, we need to include non-fiction as part of the shared reading diet. Non-fiction doesn’t have to be dry. Teachers can also use books with great photographs to stimulate discussion rather than reading text. Storybooks that include a problem to be solved or demonstrate a character’s persistence (Rosie’s Walk) also lead to STEM-like thinking.

Environment

STEM learning requires space. Many early childhood classrooms are overcrowded. Children need room to make extensive block structures and roll things. What to do with that elaborate building when we need to take it down for circle time? That’s where technology comes in. Take a photo with an iPad. Allow children to refer to the photo later as a basis for drawing or writing about what they made.

The art center can include lots of “junk” for creating 3D structures in addition to the usual items for creating on paper. My preschool students fought over the Goldfish cracker box when it was put into the recycling container since it was so great for making houses. Engineering concepts of balance, weight, and how to attach things happen when children can use things like cardboard, popsicle sticks, or foam peanuts.

Does the environment include living things? Plants provide a way to watch changes over time to measure and observe.

Manipulatives

cars lined upFrom the day Noah had to put two of every animal on the ark, humans have been pairing things up and putting them in lines. Developmentally appropriate classrooms include many open-ended items that can be used for such math play. The traditional counting bears will be sorted by color and size, lined up, taken for rides in vehicles, and placed in block homes. You can also make patterns with them, weigh them, and count them. The same can be true of rocks, feathers, container lids, beads, pine cones, small sticks, seashells, and golf tees.

Very often, teachers are rigid about where items belong. “Don’t take the rocks into the kitchen.” Part of STEM and the joy of watching children learn and grow is to see the different ways they use items. A plastic banana can only be a banana. A rectangular block can be a cell phone, ramp, base of a house, roof, or enchilada. My dad talks about his childhood on a farm during the depression when they made hay derricks out of sticks. Children can play with anything. Only adults think they have to have fancy toys that can be played with only one way.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Relax, you’ve got this. Create a developmentally appropriate schedule, a stimulating and flexible classroom and outdoor environment with lots of open-ended toys, and think before you talk. You’re doing STEM.

 

Julie Bedard, MEd, has been a Lutheran early childhood educator and director for over 30 years.

McClure, Elisabeth, 2017. “More than a foundation: young children are capable STEM learners.” Young Children 72 (5): 83 – 89.

Photos ©iStock/Yakobchuk Viacheslav, Nor Gal, Emese, Comzeal Images.