Developing STEM in Early Childhood and School Age

By Dr. Lynne Hartman


With all the advancements in the STEM areas, adding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to the developmental stages of children can be overwhelming. However, it is important for parents and educators to build a STEM foundation in early childhood. Parents, educators, and nannies should view the advancement as a rewarding way to invest in the future.


Embedding STEM into a curriculum builds long-term success for the children as they are empowered to take hold of their own learning (Sneideman, 2013). Explore STEM as a philosophy - it integrates experiences and knowledge over several areas of Science, Math, Engineer and Technology and allows children to make connections (Sneideman, 2013). STEM is enhanced in a child-centered learning environment when children can explore and be the center of their learning. This means the child needs to be active and make their own choices in what they want to explore, investigate and build. In this environment, learning is active and not passive.


Building STEM in Early Learners (Birth to Age 5)

The best way to build STEM is to make sure you build curiosity in all learning experiences. For example, give children as many things to explore as you can including pinecones, rocks, acorns, and feathers. Have the children explore the items and the adults ask the children ‘why’ questions, allowing the children a turn to ask questions too. For a feather, you can ask, “Why do birds have feathers?” Another way to introduce STEM is to allow children to investigate water and sand. With a sand table, children can compare items and use items such as scoops, rakes, magnifying glasses, and microscopes (Friedman, 2015).


Other activities that can enhance the development of STEM in early learners is building with blocks. Blocks teach foundational engineering as children plan, design, build and topple structures. The parents and teachers can help by asking children to use 5 blocks to build a structure, then use 10 blocks, and so on. As the child adds more blocks, they are counting, planning and re-designing their building. There are a variety of blocks that have different shapes and colors so you can also discuss patterns, shapes, and various design strategies. As the building develops, have a conversation with the child by asking more ‘why’ questions and having the child tell you stories about their buildings.


Building STEM in School Age Children (Ages 6 to 12)

School age children need to have new experiences and STEM is a great way to add variation to school and home projects. Developing STEM in school age children is all about encouraging the child to be curious by asking questions and have the child ask questions (American University, 2019). Another way to add STEM is to take the child on adventures to museums, nature walks and to encourage more complex, interactive toys. Children need to experience the world in order to learn how to interact within the real world.


Another way to add STEM is to look for patterns. Seeing how components combine and work together shows children how systems work. Discussing how a thunderstorm works or how the pattern in the brick patio works to keep a wall strong can help children see beyond the simple structure and understand its purpose and function. Ask more in-depth questions, such as what don’t you see that is important? In this way, adults guide the conversation from simple shapes and colors to the types of clouds, how they move, and the impact temperature has on rain or snow. These conversations encourage the child to think about weather patterns and may encourage them to research weather reports or build a weather station.


How else can you bring STEM into a child’s world? Ask a child to make something that tells time, then provide a range of different items (i.e. cotton balls, paper plates, spaghetti, etc.). The child can design and plan how these random items go together to make something new while developing engineering skills. Developing math experiences is easy as math can be found almost everywhere in the real world. While grocery shopping, have a budget and a list. Ask the child to help you track the cost of items and compare it to the amount of money available. While walking or driving, identify all the different shapes that you can see around you as baseball fields are pentagons and stop signs are octagons.


The overall goal with STEM is for children to become curious and investigate his or her world. To encourage awareness and scientific thinking, talk with each child and ask them age-appropriate, thought provoking questions. There are also STEM toys and activities to help parents develop STEM skills. Also, many extracurricular programs are available to school age children and other organizations offer programs for children to learn to code. The more a child interacts with his or her environment, the easier it is to find Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.


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