Early STEM Learning: 4 ‘Things to Know’

STEM learning

This week we highlighted tips to introduce preschoolers and infants to early STEM learning — that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Today we continue down the path, because as Dr. Elisabeth McClure, lead author on the 2017 report “STEM Starts Early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood,” wrote in Common Sense Educator:”There are lots of common misconceptions about how young children engage in STEM learning — and that’s important, because adults’ attitudes about STEM learning profoundly influence children’s own beliefs about STEM learning, as well as their abilities.”

As the STEM Starts Early report notes:

Whether it is gardening, building forts, stacking blocks, playing at the water table, or lining up by height in the classroom, children demonstrate a clear readiness to engage in STEM learning early in life.”

It continues: “And research from several disciplines is converging to show the importance of a new national commitment to early learning generally. Brain and skills-building experiences early in life are critical for child development, and high-quality early STEM experiences can support children’s growth across areas as diverse as executive function and literacy development.”

Early STEM Learning Tips

Dr. McClure distilled much of the report into accessible tips: “4 Things Everyone Should Know About Early STEM Learning.” These include:

1) STEM benefits all children, regardless of their innate abilities or backgrounds

Research: “As we learn new skills, our brains weave skill strands into ropes we can use to solve problems, meet challenges, and, in turn, acquire new skills. STEM skills are vital in many kinds of skill ropes: When kids have opportunities to collect evidence and solve scientific problems, they build strong ropes that can be used in many ways, both now and later in life.”

Tip: Dr. McClure offers ideas to add to an existing curriculum, or if that’s a challenge, working STEM into regular interactions with children.

2) Children are born scientists and need adult support to realize and expand their natural STEM capacities

Research: “Researchers have documented children conducting systematic experiments as early as the first year of life! For example, babies, only hours after birth, experiment with cause and effect as they realize that putting their own thumbs in their mouths makes them feel better; toddlers push their sippy cups off the edges of their high chairs over and over and over again to test the limits of gravity; and preschoolers are eager to understand why their clothes no longer fit (life sciences) and are obsessed with the fair distribution of communal snacks (math).”

Tip: “Adults can encourage children’s STEM engagement by noticing when it’s already taking place, realizing that the child is not only capable of attaining the goal (getting the object) but also of meeting the challenge (solving the problem) with your support, and then taking advantage of that opportunity by engaging the child in an interaction that encourages their scientific inquiry. STEM learning moments aren’t only for special activities; they happen all the time, everywhere.”

3) Children need STEM immersion as early as possible to gain STEM fluency

Research: “Research shows that just as people need to be immersed in a language to become fluent, children, too, need to be given many opportunities in many different settings to become fluent in STEM subjects.”

Tip: “To bridge informal and formal learning, educators can encourage parent and family engagement in STEM learning. Parents, as long-term influences in children’s lives, can help them make connections between in-school and out-of-school STEM learning, as well as among their learning experiences over time.”

4) Parent and teacher attitudes are incredibly influential for children’s STEM outcomes

Research: “One of the most important things adults can do is model genuine engagement and curiosity about the world around them. By asking questions and demonstrating wonder, by taking the role of co-learner and guide, and by encouraging children’s own curiosity, you are instilling in them the motivation to explore and experiment.”

Tip: “Support your own and parents’ confidence as STEM guides by taking advantage of some of the free resources available online. Common Sense Education has reviewed a number of terrific tools for early STEM learning, which they’ve collected in their list Best Picks for Early Childhood STEM Learning.”

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us