How to Foster Pre-K STEM Smarts

How to Foster Pre-K STEM Smarts

STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, has been a buzzword in K-12 education for years.

Now, educators, parents and government officials are realizing the benefits of incorporating STEM education in preschool and are looking to expand these efforts. In fact, late last year President Trump signed into law the bipartisan Building Blocks of STEM Act, which calls for the National Science Foundation to focus on pre-K and early elementary STEM research.

Why all the attention on exposing students to STEM early? Proponents say expertise in computer science, engineering, health care and related fields will continue to be in demand in the job market of the future. 

“The majority of brain development occurs before kindergarten,” says Heather Bambam, senior curriculum developer for Great Lakes Science Center. “This leads to the importance of introducing STEM concepts with preschool-aged children in order to start developing their comfort level with STEM concepts, and the 21st century skills needed to succeed in future careers.” 

Research shows early math and science skills are predictors of future achievement in those subjects. Plus, early learning in math and science does the following, according to the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education (CADRE), which is funded by the National Science Foundation:

  • Promotes socio–emotional development;
  • Supports the development of curiosity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, persistence, problem solving and positive attitudes toward science and math;
  • Helps with later learning in all subjects; and
  • Benefits students from all backgrounds, including non-English speakers.

Not to mention, young children are the perfect candidates for learning through exploratory, hands-on activities, which are typical of STEM education. Preschoolers are naturally inquisitive and inclined to make sense of the world around them.

Preschool students learn STEM concepts with the help of everyday items at Royal Redeemer Lutheran School in North Royalton. (Photo Courtesy of Royal Redeemer Lutheran School)

“STEM is learning that’s focused more on the process,” says Christine Zinter, preschool STEM teacher at Royal Redeemer Lutheran School in North Royalton. “It’s about learning how to think about the world, which is a bit different than your normal preschool lessons.”

Royal Redeemer has offered a preschool STEM program for several years. Zinter, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology, is in her second year teaching it. Students ages 3, 4 and 5 enrolled in full-time preschool at Royal Redeemer engage in STEM once a week. Zinter brings STEM lessons into the classrooms, tweaking the activities for each age group.   

For example, a ramp activity that demonstrates cause and effect would look slightly different for 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds. Three-year-olds would watch a ramp demo and talk about what happened and why, Zinter says. Four-year olds would explore questions like, “How can you make the car go faster?” Five-year-olds would build ramps in small groups to make the cars go faster or slower.

“They begin to learn how to figure things out for themselves, which is a big movement in K-8 education, where students are being taught in math and other subjects how to find the answers, rather than teachers just giving them the answer and telling them to memorize it like they used to,” Zinter says. “(STEM) builds their confidence at an early age, and they’ll keep that as they go through school.”


Family Time, STEM Time

Families play an integral role in building children’s early STEM interest, according to CADRE. Homes and neighborhoods are rich with opportunities for STEM-focused discussions.

“Caregivers can foster these concepts at home through simple activities such as building with recycled materials, playing sequencing games and reading sequencing stories, and using senses to describe objects,” Bambam says.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Great Lakes Science Center launched a series of early childhood videos on its website. Each video features a book that families can read along with and a related experiment that can be conducted at home using common household items. Topics include skyscrapers, rockets, wind power and slimy science. They touch on introductory concepts like sorting, coding and buoyancy.

Zinter agrees that homes are flush with opportunities for preschool STEM projects. She emphasizes keeping it simple — think blocks, rubber bands, cardboard boxes and materials like recyclables that can be turned into something else.

“It’s about getting (kids) to think about what they’re doing, how it’s working and what would happen if they changed it,” she says. “Take a rubber band and see how far you can get something to catapult. Then catapult different items to make them go further. Using different materials is a big thing.”

Remember, STEM activities don’t have to be fancy, expensive endeavors. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. We all know the cliché: You buy your children a coveted gift, and they end up playing with the box. That’s perfectly OK, Zinter says.

“I’ve brought in more expensive items that were pre-made or built, but the kids tend to gravitate towards everyday items,” she says.

Other simple ideas include sink and float experiments with various objects or in fresh water vs. salt water. Turn snack time into a STEM-related building activity with apple chunks and toothpicks. 

The opportunities are endless, but if you’re short on ideas, Zinter recommends searching Pinterest or early education websites. Regardless of the activity, she says to ask questions rather than tell your child what’s happening.

“It’s about asking questions and guessing, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ One of the big things I want to instill is it’s not about getting the right answer,” Zinter says. “It’s about figuring out the process. We’re all going to find out what happens at the end.”


More ways to explore science and math with your preschooler 

Math: Measuring fun
A trip to the playground provides abundant opportunities for playful mathematics learning. For example, children can be enticed to think and talk about various measurement concepts, including describing and comparing lengths, heights, distances and speeds. “Which slide is longer?” “Can you swing as high as the branches?” “Which tree is closest to us?” “Your hole is so deep!” “Look how fast that squirrel runs!” There are also myriad opportunities to count all sorts of things — pushes of a swing, rungs on the monkey bar, steps on the ladder, clouds in the sky, jump rope jumps and seconds it takes to run around the blacktop. A wonderful way to promote productive math play at the playground is to bring tools like stopwatches (or the timer on a phone) and tape measures to incorporate into children’s activities.

Science: Shadow play
A sunny day provides opportunities for open and guided shadow play that supports learning about the nature and behavior of light. When children notice and make shadow shapes and chase their shadows, adults can bring out chalk to trace the shadow outlines and invite children to explore what is happening through their play. “Can you find a way to hide your shadow?” “Can you make it large or small?” “How did your shadow change from morning to afternoon?” Shadow hunts draw children’s attention to light sources and the shadows created. “Where are there shadows?” “What causes them?” “Are they sharp or fuzzy?” “I wonder why?” Children also can use flashlights and desk lamps for indoor shadow play that provides opportunities to see what happens to the shadow of an object when the object or the light source is moved. “How can you make the shadow larger?” “Smaller?” “Change its shape?” A guiding adult also can highlight mathematical ideas of shape, size and distance as parts of these explorations.

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