How educators weave STEM into early learning

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  Published on Wednesday, 14 July 2021

How educators weave STEM into early learning

Library Home  >  Arts, Crafts & Activity IdeasProfiles & Interviews
  Published on Wednesday, 14 July 2021
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Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or ‘STEM’ for short) are four disciplines that make the world go round, and in the early learning environment, there are endless ways to spark under fives’ interest in STEM and encourage them to question, explore, test and discover.

The simplest of experiments can lead to sophisticated understandings, and educators play an important role in sparking young children’s curiosity, following their interests and wrapping their minds – and hands – around key STEM concepts.

In support of this, Little Scientists Australia equips educators with the positive mindset, practical skills and engaging activities they need to successfully teach STEM to children.

Today, they explain the benefits of STEM learning for under fives, and share ways for educators and parents to support little scientists’ early education.

Why is STEM learning so vital before a child goes to school, and what skills does it help under fives develop?

Going beyond knowing how to count or recognising the alphabet – the traditional skills thought to help children transition to school – early STEM education enables children to become confident and involved learners as they move into primary school and beyond.

Keen observation skills, critical thinking and problem-solving are inherently part of STEM inquiry, but they’re also essential to all areas of evolving education curriculums that focus more on applying knowledge rather than remembering knowledge.

Nurturing the innate curiosity of young children and helping them construct meaning from their explorations with the world around them underpin early STEM education. As such, this kind of early learning builds metacognitive skills and fosters positive learning dispositions in children’s future school years.

And last but not least, hands-on explorations in co-constructed environments help children cultivate responsibility, independence, self-confidence and resilience – all skills vital to successful and enjoyable transitions to school.

Little Scientists Australia offers STEM workshops for early childhood educators (and teachers) around the nation. How do you help educators weave STEM into early learning?

Sometimes educators have pre-conceived ideas about STEM and they’re often afraid of not knowing the answers to big questions that children have and ‘getting it wrong.’

One of the best messages we can share with educators is that developing STEM skills is the key to early STEM education – not the acquiring of STEM knowledge itself.

We don’t expect children to understand the laws of thermodynamics, nor would we expect educators to know this! However, educators could definitely pick up on a discussion about how cold it is getting outside and how we keep ourselves warm. They might ask:

  • Is a thin cotton shirt enough?
  • Is a woollen jumper better?
  • Does a heater work as well outside as it does inside?
  • How long does it take for my hot chocolate to cool down?
  • What if it were in a plastic cup compared with a porcelain mug?

These are all small curiosities that can spark potential research questions that children and educators can delve into together.

By noticing STEM opportunities in everyday activities, educators can help children hone in on their research skills and practise hypothesising, trial and error, discussions, and documenting their scientific explorations.

Our Inspire STEM online workshop in early August introduces these concepts in more detail, equipping educators with the confidence to implement STEM in the classroom.

What are some practical ways that early childhood educators can support children’s STEM learning in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) setting?

Observing and listening to children in their everyday activities is first and foremost to understanding where their interests lie. Following children’s interests is crucial in building motivation to embark on a scientific exploration.

Educators can support STEM inquiry by asking questions that prompt children to think about:

  • What they know already
  • What they expect might happen during activities, and
  • Encourage children to try different ideas.

Educators can foster STEM learning by role-modelling genuine interest, actively participating, and allowing children to create their learning journeys.

Educators can also become the lab assistants for the little scientists!

Providing a rich learning environment is important to help stimulate explorations and discussions.

Educators can build their own knowledge through professional development, such as by participating in STEM Hour on 16 July to help build resources and strengthen curriculum planning.

What kinds of STEM activities are always popular with under fives and what do they teach children?

Water play in the summer months has got to be one of the most under-utilised STEM learning opportunities in the early education sector, but also the most beloved!

Troughs of water, buckets, cups, and bits and bobs, such as pebbles or gumnuts offer so many chances to explore STEM concepts such as:

  • Gravity
  • Density
  • Solids and liquids
  • Buoyancy and displacement
  • Evaporation
  • Volume and measurement, and much more.

Engineering and mathematics skills can be encouraged by building aluminium foil boats and seeing how many marbles each boat can carry until it sinks.

Providing PVC pipes (especially if they are clear) allows children to explore the flow of water, and they can be challenged to see if they can make water flow upwards.

Evaporation is fun to explore, particularly on very hot days, when water paintings on warm bricks can evaporate almost instantly.

Involving ice adds another dimension to understanding the different states of water.

Making bubbles with varying solutions, or using bubble blowers of various shapes, allows children to explore viscosity, tension, emulsion and suspension.

These ideas are only skimming the surface (pun intended!), which is why Little Scientists’ hands-on water workshop in October is the foundation point for educators wanting to learn more about inquiry-based STEM education.

How can parents support their young children’s STEM learning?

It’s great when parents can get involved by keeping the conversations going at home.

Parents can help to draw out children’s metacognitive skills simply by asking about:

  • What their children experienced that day at ECEC
  • What they noticed that was interesting, or
  • How they solved a challenge.

Recalling activities and telling parents the experience in their own words helps to cement children’s learning.

Parents can also continue with explorations, and try similar activities at home – comparing and contrasting what happened at home and at the service.

If parents have interests in particular STEM topics (e.g. they’re an amateur astronomer or professional engineer), it is always wonderful to engage them in the classroom for activities or show and tell. This provides role models that children relate to and makes STEM relevant to their everyday experience.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 12 July 2021

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