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Engaging young learners in STEM


STEM activities—those focused on science, technology, engineering, and math—have traditionally held an important place in early childhood curriculum and classrooms. The new focus on STEM, however, encourages a more mindful practice than simply putting water in a tub and asking children to identify objects that float or sink. Instead, STEM is a system of integrated, hands-on activities that help teach children problem solving skills through investigation, manipulation, construction, exploration, and discovery.

Successful STEM inquiry builds on the theoretical work of Piaget, Erikson, Vygotsky, and Gardner: Children are active learners who use multiple intelligences to build relationships with materials and other people to gain mastery of a particular skill. Further, STEM integrates language, literacy, and art skills in identifying and describing questions about how, why, and what.

The following activities reflect the teaching cycle of observation, reflection, and practice. Each anticipates a teacher’s knowledge of each child in a group, each child’s interests and needs, and developmentally appropriate learning goals for individual children and for the group. Building on observations—of individual children, the group, and the physical environment—teachers actively think about goals and needs, and then build activities and play opportunities that reflect those goals and needs.

Curriculum activity books abound in STEM activities for young children. Many are well grounded in life, earth, or physical sciences, tool use, mathematical concepts, and problem solving. It’s important to remember, however, that what happens in STEM activities is not magic. An activity that is beyond the cognitive abilities of a young child is probably not science, even though it might be fun—like blowing bubbles with toddlers or swiping a magnet wand over iron filings with a 4-year-old.


Grow green grass
The science in STEM is intended to build on a child’s background knowledge: Plants need sunlight, soil, and water for robust growth, for example. It challenges the child to ask, “What would happen if…?” Science demands a hypothesis (an educated guess), an experiment (to test the hypothesis), observing and recording data (to follow the hypothesis over time), and a conclusion (an answer to the question, no matter the outcome).


Here’s what you need:
small flower pots, one for each child
rye grass seeds
measuring cups and spoons
index cards
paper and marker for transcriptions


1. Plan the activity with small groups of children to facilitate observations, questions, and demonstrations of background knowledge.
2. Gather the children with a song (like The Green Grass Grows All Around) and a book (How a Seed Grows by Helen Jordon, for example). Invite observations about grass: where it grows, what it looks like, how it’s cut, why it’s grown.
3. Ask the children to form a hypothesis about growing the grass seeds based on their background knowledge (plants need water, light, and soil to grow). Transcribe the hypothesis on a chart tablet.
4. Ask the children to predict how much of each of the basic elements the plant will need—this forms the basis of your experiment. Again transcribe the children’s words.
5. As each child is ready to plant seeds, talk about how important careful measurements are to scientific thinking. Demonstrate counting and pouring—for example, ½ cup of soil, ½ teaspoon of seeds sprinkled on top of the soil, and 2 tablespoons of water to moisten. Chart the measurements on an index card for each child. Allow each child to construct a different proportion to test the hypothesis. For example, one child may choose to use 1 tablespoon of soil in the bottom of the pot and then cover the seeds with another tablespoon of soil before watering.
6. Place the pots in a spot that receives bright sunlight. Add daily observations to the index cards. (Rye seed will generally germinate within 3 to 5 days.)
7. After about two weeks, the young scientists will be able to evaluate their work by comparing the hypothesis with the results. Depending on the children’s interests, you may repeat the experiment with new variables—comparing, for example, the growth rates of plants kept in dark or bright spaces and those that are watered daily with those watered only on Monday and Friday.

Extra: Integrate additional STEM components by encouraging children to sketch or take digital photographs of the plants (technology), to measure growth (math), or explore tools that moderate the amounts of water or light the plants receive (engineering).


Nature prints
The technology in STEM is a focus on tools—those things that make our work easier. While we tend to associate technology with smart phones, GPS systems, and computer programs, humans have used tools and basic machines throughout history—from apple peelers and knives to interactive screens and smartboards. Some educators have encouraged the acronym STEAM, adding an A to STEM to designate art.


Here’s what you need:
a collection of weeds, wildflowers, and grasses
photographs and books about plants
magnifying glasses
shallow paint trays
liquid tempera
small paint rollers
large sheets of heavy paper
digital camera and printer
paper and marker for transcriptions


1. Plan the activity with small groups of children to facilitate observations, questions, and demonstrations of background knowledge.
2. Gather the children to explore and discuss the features of a plant. Provide large color images of the plants in your collection. Share nonfiction books about plant life like Kristin Rattini’s Seed to Plant, Gail Gibbons’ From Seed to Plant, and Nancy Dickmann’s Plants on a Farm.
3. Invite each child to choose one plant in the collection, and encourage more close investigations. Help children build vocabulary as they describe the plant’s structure, texture, and form. Encourage them to compare, for example, the seeds hanging from a sea oat stalk with a dandelion flower or a prickly milkweed stalk.
4. Help children make the connection between technology—tools to make work easier—and the materials you’ve provided. For example, a magnifier helps people see things that the unaided eye cannot; a drawing of an object guides the eye and memory; a photograph refines the image and makes it permanent.
5. Introduce the art supplies by first encouraging children to draw a picture of their plants. Encourage them to first look at a plant detail and then to draw it on paper with a pencil. Transcribe the children’s observations.
6. Offer the opportunity to make a print of the plant. Pour a bit of tempera onto a shallow paint tray and show how to use the paint roller to paint the plant and then to place the plant paint-side down on paper. Remove the plant carefully to reveal the mirror image. Transcribe the children’s observations.
7. Take a digital photograph (or better, teach children how to do it for themselves) of the plant. Print the image and talk about how the three images of the same plant differ. Transcribe the children’s observations.
8. Let each child arrange the three images of the plant on a large sheet of paper. Be sure to attach your transcriptions of the children’s observations, and invite the children to sign their work.

Extra: Integrate additional STEM components by encouraging children to review plant structures (leaves, stem, and roots), growth needs, and life cycles (science); to measure their plants, count flower petals, and explore symmetrical and asymmetrical growth patterns (math); or to imagine ways in which they might refine their techniques to make their images look more like the original plant (engineering).


Sew a smock
Tool use, for problem-solving and ease of tasks, improves as children build cognitive and physical skills. Engineering in STEM employs common tools and offers opportunities for refining those tools—making the tool work more efficiently for a particular task. For example, blunt-tip scissors work well to snip paper but are frustrating, if not impossible, to use to cut fabric.

Engineering tasks demand reflecting on a problem and seeking solutions for that problem: Children like to paint but paint can stain clothing and make parents unhappy. For this problem there are several solutions including protecting children’s clothing with a smock when they paint.


Here’s what you need:
½ yard clear, mid weight, vinyl for each child
sharp scissors
sheet of poster board
heavy cord
paper and marker for transcriptions


1. Plan the activity with small groups of children to facilitate observations, questions, and demonstrations of background knowledge.
2. Describe the problem and encourage children to brainstorm possible solutions. Transcribe the potential solutions and guide the children toward the most practical and helpful. Some will automatically identify smocks as the common solution, but encourage the brainstorming conversation too.
3. When children agree on a clothing cover, continue the exploration by identifying styles and their drawbacks: bibs—too small and hard to tie; towels tied behind the neck—uncomfortable; old shirts—hard to put on and take off. Demonstrate with real bibs, towels, and old shirts so that children have concrete experiences with each.
4. Encourage the children to describe and sketch their ideal smocks. Again discuss the pros and cons of each. Ask: “Does this smock protect?” “How does it stay in place?” “How do you put it on and take it off?” “What happens to the paint that’s smeared on the smock?”
5. In engineering, templates, models, and prototypes help guide problem-solving. Copy and enlarge the smock pattern, trace the full-size pattern onto poster board, and cut it out. Share the pattern and talk with the children about how a pattern can help ensure consistency among the completed smocks. Consistency of product is essential to engineering and manufacturing processes.
6. After reviewing safety rules, give each child an opportunity to use the pattern. Show how to use a marker to trace around the edges of the pattern onto the vinyl. Then allow children to use scissors to cut out the smock along the marker lines.
7. Help the children mark the smock pieces with stitch guides about 1-inch from the shoulder and side edges. To make the stitching easier, use a hole-punch and make holes along each seam line about 1-inch apart.
8. Review sewing stitches—in an out, in and out—in a running stitch. Show how to thread the needle with heavy cord, tie a knot, and start stitching in and out of each of the punched holes. The children will likely need help getting started with the stitches. Use clothespins to line up the holes and to hold the layers of vinyl aligned as the children stitch.
9. Invite children to test their prototype smocks. Transcribe their observations and encourage modifications for the prototype to make the smocks a better product.

Extra: Integrate additional STEM components by encouraging children to explore color and color mixing (science), body measurements (math), and simple machines—scissors and needles are examples of wedges (technology).