7 Ways to Raise an Engineer from Preschool Years
by Karen Villard
Karen Villard is a highly regarded change agent and advocates for quality early childhood education worldwide. She is a play ambassador and expert contributor to the Toy Association’s Genius of Play, a Most Valuable Peanut Ambassador, a World Pulse Changemaker with her goal of a Toy Library Initiative, a toy designer of developmental toys for children aged 0 – 5, and most importantly a mother of a preschooler and a toddler.
After spending part of her career as an Early Learning Specialist and Sustainability Champion in one of the leading early learning centers in Australia focusing on the social and educational development of babies and young children up to the age of five, Karen now uses her expert knowledge and considerable talent to inspire, educate, and empower parents to activate their child’s desire to learn, from birth through play.
Karen is most proud of her role as an Early Years Investor and Co-founder in an early learning center in the Philippines for more than a decade that has now scaled to primary and secondary schools educating more children and giving them a lifelong love of learning using play-based learning. You can learn more about Karen and her preschool educational toys that teach future and lifelong skills at www.cubotoys.com
Play is how kids learn the skills they need for success in life, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) toys, specifically, emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to learning these subjects through hands-on engagement.
Visit The Genius of Play's Toys & STEAM page to discover #SteamApprovedToys and learn about the unifying STEAM characteristics to look for when toy shopping.
You may ask, is engineering development-appropriate for my three- to five-year-old? Absolutely! This is the perfect age and stage to start introducing basic engineering concepts to your preschooler. When children reach this age, they already have come across early mathematical concepts such as shapes, colors, measurements, and patterns. They would be familiar with basic science concepts such as the different states of matter, cause and effect, exploration using the five senses, and use of scientific skills such as observing and classifying. The early math and science skills culminate in a practical application of concepts through engineering.
The good news is that you won’t need an engineering degree to implement these steps. It won’t cost you a lot to implement engineering-based invitations to play. There are absolutely lots of simple yet clever ideas to roll out in this preschool stage. Here are our recommended seven ways to raise an engineer from preschool years:
1. The Three Step Process
There are about seven steps throughout the engineering process. However, your three-year-old will probably not remember if you go through all these steps during play. We can simplify it to three steps based on the words that they already know: to explore (design), to create (build), and to play (test the hypothesis). Your preschooler still thrives on routines so an effective way to start conversations about engineering problems is with a nursery song. While there are tons of engineering preschool songs you can use, the simplest and easiest to remember is a variation of The Farmer in the Dell song:
“I am an engineer
I am an engineer
I explore, I create
I play as engineer”
What I like about some children’s stories are the hidden science concepts behind them. If you are familiar with the story “The Three Little Pigs,” you’ll remember the three different materials that they have used in building their own houses. They were faced with a problem: a place to live. They actually followed the three engineering steps I mentioned in the last item. First, they explored the different materials to be used such as straw, sticks, and bricks. Next, they started creating their houses using these materials. Lastly, there was someone to come in and playtest their build, which was the wolf (in this case it can be you). So, the wolf huffs and puffs and well, we all know how it ended. The beauty of this storytelling is that the children can explore again how to improve their build. So even though they will be using sticks or straw but with better adhesives, their designs can improve.
3. Loose Parts
For this part, you’ll need a space that can be a floor or a table where children can understand that they can “build” during free play. You can set-up shelves and baskets full of loose parts such as roll cardboards, bubble or hex wraps, round or rectangle stickers, a variety of buttons, colorful pom poms, cut out pieces of carpets, fabric, wood, and leather, a heap of pipe cleaners, collected wine corks, and even googly eyes. Outdoors, children can use larger loose parts to engage their gross motor skills such as grocery baskets, wood planks, used tires, industrial tubes, and empty tins for as long as they have been checked for safety.
Children can think of a project or an end goal such as making a skyscraper, a highway, a swimming pool, a chair, or a crane. They can gather the resources they need, start creating, pause when they need to, and then come back later to continue and finish the build.
If you have the budget, there are available wooden or non-wooden loose parts that you can buy as an alternative to these recycled materials such as rainbows, planks, and blocks.
4. Engineering Toys
The most obvious engineering toys of today will be your blocks, bricks, dominoes, arcs, and planks including those that you can put together using nuts and bolts. My favorites are connecting toys and marble runs that can start as early as 18 months old for as long as they follow the safety checks for children under three years old. For instance, marble runs should use a ball that is at least 45mm in diameter for children under three. Connecting toys can come in the form of straw, sticks, gears, pegs, discs, pipes, or even with magnets. Another favorite of ours is designing, building, and testing our ideas through marble runs indoors or water runs outdoors.
5. Invitations to Play
In preschool, we usually set-up tables with provocations or invitations to play. For instance, we can become sound engineers by exploring the different sounds that a material makes. We can line up empty boxes for children to take then let them choose the material they’d like to place inside the box. We then ask individuals to shake the box, listen to the sounds, describe the sound, guess what type of material is inside, and open it up for children to see. We can also set up an incline using varying heights of blocks and planks then test at which steep level does the ball run slower or faster. Let the children make their own assumptions then test those assumptions with the materials at hand.
Science or children’s museums engage children with engineering ideas. Apart from the indoor exhibitions, children can interact with outdoor, nature-inspired large builds such as sundials, self-lifting pulleys, water transfer from bottom to up using a rotating tube or experimenting with echo and sounds. If these aren’t available, some playgrounds or outdoor exercise equipment will have engineering concepts that your children can learn from.
7. Role Play
Your preschooler is big on role plays. She would appreciate taking a break from wearing princess wigs and dresses by trying on a hard hat, a high visibility vest, and some tools in tow. If they have seen adults wear this in construction sites or service your neighborhood, the more that they will get excited in playing as an “adult.” We find that children in preschool immerse themselves in the role when they are dressed for the job as well. My favorite toy during this role play is a ride-on digger that toddlers use to lift real sand and transfer it to another location.