Making space for STEM in early childhood classrooms is easy; or should be.
Children are naturally curious about the world. They want to know:
- Why is it so?
- How does it work?
- What will happen if?
- How can I?
It is important to harness their curiosity, explore their questions, engage their interests and inspire their imaginations.
Provide them with opportunities to investigate objects and phenomena in the world around them. Don’t always be in a rush to provide answers to their questions. Help them explore ways of finding the answer for themselves, if possible, or conduct the research with them.
A story reported by Michael Rosen in his book Good Ideas: How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher inspires me. The story explains that, as a child, David Attenborough took an interest in bones. If he was out walking and found some bones, he would take them home and ask his father about them.
His father, who was a GP and would have known, didn’t just tell him. Wanting his son to be curious and interested in finding things out for himself, he responded, for example: “I wonder if we can work it out . . .” They would then look through books about zoology and anatomy and try to identify the bone’s origin.
However, the answers don’t always have to be found in a book or on the internet. Some answers can be discovered through explorations and experimentation. Experts can also be consulted.
In a stimulating early childhood classroom where children have access to a range of resources and opportunities to engage with them, especially through self-initiated play, but also through teacher-led inquiries, children are effortlessly engaged in STEM learning as they go about designing, creating, innovating and solving problems; for example:
- How high can I build this tower before it falls down?
- How far will my paper airplane fly?
- How can I make a party hat?
- How can we share the cupcakes?
- What happens when we mix these ingredients?
- Which material is best for keeping toys dry when it rains?
- What do plants need to grow?
- How can we get this to stay in place?
- How can we make props or costumes for our play?
- How will we set up a play area or cubby house?
Often the informal opportunities for child-directed STEM activities decreases as children progress through school. The separate curricula tend to replace the wholistic approach of investigations in the first year, and a crowded structured curriculum may push out opportunities for integrated learning.
However, creative and innovative teachers can find ways to ensure children’s interests are still catered for, their curiosity is nurtured, and they have opportunities to construct their own knowledge by actively engaging with a variety of questions.
Some projects can be developed over time and involve the whole class; such as
- observations of minibeasts in the classroom with a live learning kit
- observations of minibeasts, birds and other wildlife in the school and local environment
- caring for a garden, especially a vegetable garden
- designing a new playground for the school.
Many of these and other STEM projects encourage children to invent and design, to think creatively about solving real problems that are important to them. They remain engaged and active learners.
Knowing how to read non-fiction books is important and children need to be taught the features of non-fiction books and ways in which they differ from story books. Any school library will have a variety of books on topics of interest to children. Every classroom reading corner should have a supply of interesting non-fiction books for children to reference as well as to read.
Some readilearn resources to support you when teaching how to read non-fiction texts; include:
But STEM reading does not just have to be non-fiction. There are many picture books and beginning chapter books that support STEM learning.
Picture books with STEM related topics
(There are so many, I’ve chosen just two for each category. Ask your librarian for more suggestions.)
Cinderstella, written by Brenda S. Miles and Susan D. Sweet, illustrated by Valeria Docampo
If You Decide to Go to the Moon, written by Faith McNulty, illustrated by Steven Kellogg
Mister Seahorse, written and illustrated by Eric Carle
Leaf Litter, written and illustrated by Rachel Tonkin (Earth and biology)
Katie Schaeffer Pancake Maker, written by Cynthia Mackey, illustrated by Paula Nasmith
Meg and Mog stories, written by Helen Nicoll, illustrated by Jan Piénowski
Who Sank the Boat? written and illustrated by Pamela Allen
Mr Archimedes Bath, written and illustrated by Pamela Allen
Stephen’s Useless Design, written by Rodney Martin, illustrated by John Draper
The Most Magnificent Thing, written and illustrated by Ashley Spires
Engibear’s Dream written by Andrew King, illustrated by Benjamin Johnston
Rosie Revere, Engineer, written by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Ada Lovelace Poet of Science, written by Diane Stanley, illustrated by Jessie Hartland
The Rabbit Problem, written and illustrated by Emily Gravett
For older readers
Juliet nearly a Vet series by Rebecca Johnson
Song Bird Super Hero series by Karen Tyrrell
And a general one, about valuing ideas:
What Do You Do with An Idea? Written by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom
Perhaps you have other favourites. I’d love to know what they are. Please share them in the comments.
STEM resources in the readilearn collection
In addition to the non-fiction resources mentioned above, there are others in the readilearn collection that support STEM learning in early childhood classrooms. Check out the Mathematics, Science, Cooking and Craft resources; including:
You may think you have no time in which to add one more thing to your busy day. But if you think creatively about ways you can integrate learning across curriculum areas, you may be surprised at the opportunities you find. Many activities can be built into literacy or maths groups; for example:
In literacy groups, children could read to follow instructions to design and make something; then write about the process followed and describe what they made and its purpose. There are a number of procedures available in readilearn resources, but the activities can be more open ended; for example:
Design and make something that has moving parts. You may use any parts from the collection of materials. List the materials you will use. Draw and label your design. Make your object. Write about how you made it and describe its use.
In maths groups, children could; for example:
Choose a collection of materials that have a mass equal to the Teddy Bear. Use the materials to construct something long.
If you are still questioning the importance of STEM in early childhood classrooms, you will question its relevance no more after you listen to a TEDx Talk Inspiring the Next Generation of Female Engineers by Debbie Sterling, inventor of Goldi Blox, a construction set for girls. These are some of my favourite quotes from her talk:
“I finally learned what engineering really was, and to my surprise, we weren’t fixing train engines. In that class we got to invent and design things. We had assignments like make a catapult out of a soda bottle and a piece of string and five paper clips and a piece of foam core. It was so cool and so much fun. And in that class, I learned that engineering is really the skill set to build anything you dream up in your head … How empowering to be able to build whatever you want.”
“It’s not about being a born genius. It’s about how hard you work.”
“I was at a disadvantage. Like a lot of other girls, I had underdeveloped spatial skills. … Kids who score better on spatial skills tests grew up playing with construction toys.”
“Those toys (construction sets) have been marketed to boys for over a hundred years, and they get them interested in math and science. Meanwhile, all we get are the dolls and the makeup kits, and it’s not fair.”
Listen to Debbie as she talks about combining her engineering skills and creativity to invent Goldi Blox. It’s inspiring, and the toys will encourage our future female engineers.
The notes from Dr Pauline Roberts’ presentation STEM in Early Childhood: How to Keep it Simple and Fun at the Early Childhood Australia Conference in 2016 share some practical suggestions as well as links to useful resources.
The Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Resources for Early Education page of NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), a US organisation that promotes quality early education for children from birth to eight, has links to many informative articles and resources for both parents and teachers.
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