STEM Thinking Begins In Infancy

Earlier this year, the Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum published “The Roots of STEM Success: Changing early learning experiences to build lifelong thinking skills” (click here for the executive summary), which explains the value of introducing even preschoolers and infants to STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Research tells us that children’s early experience builds brain architecture and lays the foundation for one’s lifelong thinking skills and approach to learning, both critical roots of STEM success. After all, the STEM disciplines require not only content knowledge but also robust thinking dispositions—such as curiosity and inquiry, questioning and skepticism, assessment and analysis—as well as a strong learning mindset and confidence when encountering new information or challenges. These need to be developed in a child’s early education, beginning in infancy and continuing through third grade to lay the roots for STEM success (McClure et. al., 2017).

The report authors reviewed more than 150 empirical studies on cognitive and developmental psychology and education, and concluded that “children are capable of remarkable problem solving from the earliest of years. At the same time, adult guidance, support, and awareness are critical to harnessing our intrinsic STEM capacity and transforming it into lifelong STEM intelligence, knowledge, and capability.” They list six specific findings to support their conclusion, each of which is accompanied by practical tips for parents at the end of its respective chapter.

1. STEM thinking begins in infancy.

Understanding the cause of events, developing and testing hypotheses are key to discovery and problem solving. As anyone who has spent time with young children knows, “why” is a constant question. Once a baby knows that the spoon falls to the floor when she drops it, and that Dad will pick it up, she will drop it again and again to see how this cause-and-effect relationship operates. Not only that, but research shows that, as they get older, children are able to watch adults and learn on their own which steps are necessary to make something work, while too much instruction from adults they consider authority figures actually inhibits their own creative thinking and problem-solving processes: that is, as they begin to see adults as authorities on certain things, they may learn to trust their scientific abilities less if the adult is too prescriptive.

2. To become strong STEM thinkers, children need more play.

Creative play, rather than structured academic preparation, may be a better support for developing children’s ability to think conceptually and scientifically. The report cites an article in which Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, notes “play lets the young learn by randomly and variably trying out a range of actions and ideas and then working out the consequences… The gift of play is the way it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected.” Play promotes brain plasticity, and it enables them to practice imaginative thinking and exploration, and to learn to cooperate with others. Various studies have shown that pretend play strengthens children’s ability for counterfactual thinking (i.e., what could be), while exploratory play strengthens their ability for causal thinking. Finally, when adults engage in guided and explanatory play with children—setting learning outcomes but letting the children control the learning process, asking them to explain how things work—the children reinforce their exploratory and testing habits and have learn more than through free or directed play alone.

3. STEM amplifies language development; language enables STEM thinking.

Children who engage in scientific play develop greater conceptual thinking—the ability to use words to describe ideas, not just things. Adults who engage with children through STEM can support the development of this ability, by discussing concepts and the meanings behind them. When adults explain ideas, relating them to the child’s own experiences, and ask “what” and “why” questions during an activity, the children generally engage in and understand those activities better and have a better recall of them afterward.

Parental and adult engagement is important in this regard: a “robust and growing body of research provides convincing evidence that parent-child conversation in informal, real-world settings promotes children’s causal and conceptual reasoning, and in turn, may inspire children’s interest in STEM.” Even if the child doesn’t fully understand the vocabulary being used, by consistent exposure to it, she will begin to make the association between the word and the concept so that, when she is reintroduced to that idea in school later on, she can grasp it more easily.

4. Active, self-directed learning builds STEM skills and interest

Children learn by doing: children retain more when they do something rather than watch someone else do it. This means that hands-on involvement is the best teacher, and in fact, physically handling things helps the learning process. Playing with blocks, for example, may support later learning: the experience of handling blocks and thinking spatially and mathematically has been found to predict later achievement in junior high and high school. Other research “demonstrates that children are more successful with complex thinking when they are encouraged to use their hands and bodies during thinking tasks.”

This body of research highlights the importance of family engagement: by providing hands-on experiences at home and in places such as children’s museums and parks, parents can stimulate their children’s learning processes generally and interest in STEM specifically.

5. Mindset matters to STEM success

Thinking “I am good at math” may make a child better at math: even children at the preschool age begin to form opinions of their own intelligence and approaches to success and failure, so cultivating a “growth mindset”—one geared toward learning—rather than a “fixed mindset” focused on achievement can make a significant difference in how children approach academic challenges. For example, emphasizing young children’s efforts and processes (e.g., “that was a good job of counting!”) leads them to seek challenges and persist through difficulties later in school, while children who receive praise based on their person (“you’re so smart”) actually avoid challenging tasks later on. “By communicating that they are capable of accomplishing their goals through hard work, persistence, and seeking help when needed”—starting with toddlers and preschoolers, and instead of fixing their mindset about their academic skills—the authors argue “we can better prepare all children to thrive in areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning.”

6. Children’s abstract thinking potential can be unlocked through both adult support and executive function skill development

Even young children are capable of abstract reasoning. A four-year-old may need more adult guidance to think through a question in a logical way, but she can do it; so when an adult asks about an abstract concept, provides physical examples, and introduces the right vocabulary, he promotes her capacity to think abstractly. In fact, in a finding related to the third finding above, it is through having the right words at hand that children can describe what they observe and think, and thus work with abstract ideas.

Moreover, research shows that the development of children’s executive function skills strengthens the development of their ability to reason abstractly. A child with better-developed executive function—cognitive flexibility, greater working memory, and self-control—is more able to take in new information that overrides pre-existing beliefs, and form new beliefs based on that information.

Taken together, these six findings make a strong argument for introducing preschoolers to STEM at home and at preschool: it is never too early to start children on the path to a growth mindset and academic confidence.

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