Playful Preschool STEM: 3 Tips to Support Your Young Learner
A former Fulbright Scholar and Institute of Educational Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow, Alissa A. Lange, PhD, and her colleagues have worked with hundreds of preschool educators over the last 10 years to support early STEM teaching and learning. She was PI (and co-PI) of two National Science Foundation-funded early STEM professional learning projects and, more recently, she has been collaborating on an early childhood preservice teacher preparation project in
STEM at East Tennessee State University. Dr. Lange started the Early Childhood STEM Lab at East Tennessee State University in 2019 as a hub for early childhood STEM teaching and learning. She is co-author of the book Teaching STEM in the Preschool Classroom: Big Ideas for 3-to-5-Year-Olds, which was published by Teachers College Press in 2019.
When we use the term STEM, we are referring to the importance of each area – science, technology, engineering, and math – both separately and in the ways that they can be integrated.
Any way you slice it, STEM matters for young children. Playful STEM experiences can even be done at home and can become a doorway to awesome explorations and a chance to build critical thinking and language skills.
Has your child ever stealthily fed some of her dinner to the dog? Has he indignantly pointed out the inequality of the slightly taller toy his sister got, compared to his? Have your children ever created a “potion” with chalk shavings, toothpaste, and milk (like mine did yesterday)? Young children are already thinking like mathematicians, testing out theories like scientists, and using materials to solve problems like engineers.
As parents and teachers, our job is to start early with the idea that everyone has the capacity excel at STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and develop a positive disposition toward STEM that can last a lifetime. As families and educators, we can support preschoolers’ STEM thinking, learning, and doing everywhere, every day – and it doesn’t have to be a daunting undertaking. Here are three tips below to get started.
TIP 1: READ ALL ABOUT IT
We know that reading to our children is valuable. What about reading math and science books? Or looking for examples of math and science in the books we already have? We know literacy matters, and so do math and science: why not put them together?
- Look for books with explicit math, science, and/or STEM ideas. Ever thought of reading a non-fiction book with your preschoolers? Next time they have a question, see if you can find a non-fiction book at the library as a source to find the answer! Read Mission to Space, by John Herrington to learn about being an astronaut. Even though Google is quicker, children can discover there are a variety of sources to find answers to the questions they have!
- Look for math and science in ANY books! They don’t have to be “math” or “science” books. We count (math) and talk about rolling, swinging, and flying (physical science) in one of my children’s favorite books, Little Pea, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
- Ask questions.
- Click here for other book reading tips!
TIP 2: TEST IT OUT
During play and throughout the day, let your children test their theories − even their wild ones! Give them space and time to think, talk, and problem solve for themselves. By letting them test – and sometimes fail – they’ll learn it’s ok to try, fail, and try again. This actually helps their brains grow!
- Talk about it. Next time your children ask you something, instead of giving them the answer, ask “How can we find out?” or “How do you think that works?” Is there a book that can tell us?
- Face your fear of mess – or find safe areas where your children can make a mess! If a child posits, “If we mix blue crayon shavings and water, we can make blue play dough,” test it! If the child doesn’t like the result, ask, “How can we fix it?”
- Pose a challenge and, again, let children come up with their own solutions. Let them test out these theories in a safe, controlled environment. “How can we get the toys out of the ice?”
- Let kids help you solve REAL problems: We don’t have a proper pot to use to plant this seed. “What could we use? Why?”; The hose is broken. “How can we get water to the plants from far away?” (See our engineering article on this very challenge.)
TIP 3: FIND STEM ALL AROUND
STEM is here, there, and everywhere! Bath time? Math & Science: volume with different-sized cups; physical properties of materials. Construction play? Math & Science: 3-dimensional geometry (Cubes! Spheres! Rectangular prisms!); balance, forces, and strength. Mealtime? (If you have any energy left at the end of the day) Math & Science: measuring ingredients; states of matter, taste buds: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, Umami!
These are just a few places where we can share with children our everyday experiences of STEM in our normal life and play. For more resources on doing STEM activities with young children: The DREME Network has two family kits with meal tips and more. Many sites offer math games for free and instructions for games that are easy to set up, such as this blog or The Young Mathematicians website, which offers math games and tips for growing children’s mindsets for learning. There are even resources for computer programming with preschoolers (robots; play-based methods) and using media to learn about science.
Once we see children’s worlds as full of STEM opportunities, just a few ideas and space to make a mess can transform your home into a math, science, engineering, and technology lab. The possibilities are endless!