From Building Blocks to Blueprints: Building STEM skills in early childhood

Easy ideas for demystifying and incorporating science, technology, engineering and math with little learners 

Science and technology and engineering and math! OH MY!

For many of us, “STEM” (short for all those fun topics above) can be a new and overwhelming topic to tackle in the classroom. I don’t know about you, but when someone says “engineering,” my eyes glaze over and my mind wanders. But wait! STEM skills are very important for children, as job opportunities are trending more and more to STEM fields. Tomorrow’s professionals – the children in early childhood programs today —  will need these skills to compete in our ever-changing world.

earlylearningIN-62So what’s the good news? In early childhood, STEM comes naturally and, for teachers, it’s not that complicated to support! Children are already building STEM knowledge when they are playing. From babies to preschoolers, little learners don’t need to understand E=MC2. They just need to have lots of hands-on play with how things work. When you give them the chance to build with blocks, put together and take things apart, explore patterns and numbers and investigate the natural world, little learners naturally gain STEM skills. Even engineering can be an everyday topic, as this family- and classroom-friendly resource from Too Small to Fail highlights.

The key is to allow your little ones to have diverse and direct experiences, likely things you are already doing. Allow them opportunities to spend long periods of time building with blocks, solving puzzles, and playing with other STEM tools on their own. Then, use your skills of observation and conversation to help them play with important ideas like cause and effect: “The tower kept falling over, but you put the biggest block at the bottom, and then it stayed up.” Partner with little scientists by making predictions (“what will happen next?”, recording observations (“what happened when we mixed salt with soap?) and asking lots of questions about children ideas about why and how changes happen (“why does ice melt?”).

Here’s a quick list of easy activities that can help children gain STEM proficiency:

  • Be “Mad Scientists” and mix some kitchen ingredients together. Fun combinations include: vinegar with baking soda and flour with water and salt.
  • Cardboard boxes can provide hours of play and a great engineering foundation.
  • Melt ice on hot day or freeze water on cold day. Have children guess what will happen when water or icea moves from one environment to another.
  • Sorting is a math skill! Sort laundry, toys, rocks, dolls, cars or any other group of objects.
  • Make a ramp for marbles or cars with wrapping paper tubes or cut in half a pool noodle. Help little ones see how gravity moves objects lower.

About the author: Lenore Friedly designs and implements projects that support families and early childhood professionals with the goal of creating strong, collaborative relationships that support all young children. Developing avenues for authentic partnerships between families and providers is her professional passion. Her previous work in the field, including teaching at a co-operative preschool, supporting parenting teens and working with Early Head Start families, has continuously reinforced the importance of uplifting parents in this important work.

Lenore says, “my hope is that more and more, we recognize that children are stronger when the adults  in their world work as partners.” Her current projects include the Bloom Bright family texting service, amplifying Indiana’s Family Engagement Toolkit, and representing the interests, strengths and needs of families in a variety of additional Partnerships for Early Learners projects.