Creating the STEM Experiences Your Child Needs
In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning. From news stories to school lessons to children’s books and educational toys, STEM is everywhere. Generally, this trend is a positive one, since STEM skills are crucial to a child’s future success. But there is still a harmful misconception that STEM learning is only appropriate for older children; STEM ideas typically aren’t introduced in classrooms until the later years of elementary school, and most community-based programs are for older children as well. In their latest publication, The Roots of STEM Success: Changing early learning experiences to build lifelong thinking skills, experts from the Center for Childhood Creativity, the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s research division, explain why STEM needs to be introduced to children earlier, and how not doing so could prevent your child from reaching his full potential. To that end, our goal at BADM is to support parents to recognize that STEM learning begins in infancy, and to help them take advantage of the everyday opportunities that exist to encourage even the youngest children to develop the STEM skills they need.
You are likely already sharing STEM with your child, even if you don’t always realize it. Through the games you play, the questions you ask, and the learning experiences you expose your children to, you are helping them discover what it is about STEM they find exciting. Some kids love building block structures, while others ask constant questions about their environment. Some want to take things apart or put things together or create imaginary worlds filled with new things all together. These typical “kid” behaviors are actually the beginning of STEM learning.
The Importance of Guided Play
Guided play—where you let your child take the lead on a game or activity—is a great way to support your child to follow the path of their own natural curiosity, particularly in the years before they enter school. Every time you pull out a puzzle or agree to play make believe, you have an opportunity to encourage the creative thinking skills that are necessary for STEM learning. Letting your child decide how they want to put the pieces together, even if it goes against what you know to be more efficient or easier, allows them to develop their own process of creative problem solving. If they want to pretend to be the ruler of a foreign land, or a chef in a restaurant, or a fire-fighter saving the day, let them and ask them open-ended questions—“What do you think will happen when you put the cookies in the oven?” or “How can a firefighter reach the top floor of a burning building?” This encourages them to pay attention to their own decision-making process and to try out new ideas. When children do enter the preschool and early learning years, these guided play experiences become an opportunity to introduce more meaningful STEM-based concepts.
Rethinking Where STEM Happens
During the early school years, it’s also helpful for parents to understand that a love for and interest in STEM is not always fostered in traditional education environments. Children in kindergarten through third grade only spend 15 percent of their waking time in a classroom, and the STEM lessons taught in school may not resonate with every type of learner. Introducing STEM skills through engaging activities—rather than through lesson plans—can help children open their mind to these topics. We do this with literacy every day by reading our kids a bedtime story and teaching them the definitions of new words. There is a hesitation, however, to do this with STEM because of the perception that it will be difficult or involve complicated projects. In reality, sharing STEM with your children could be as simple as including them in home tasks by asking them to make observations about soil while gardening or to use measurement and math vocabulary while cooking. Or it could involve trips to museums and libraries. The important thing to keep in mind is that STEM is all around us and that STEM learning can and should happen in a number of places, many of which look nothing like a classroom.
STEM Learning at BADM
Because there has been a lack of information regarding how to share STEM with young learners, there is often a lack of confidence in doing so. The Bay Area Discovery Museum is a guide in navigating that space and breaking down that barrier. The environment we create through our programs, events, and classes is intentional; it relies on research-based finding from the Center for Childhood Creativity, like those in The Roots of STEM Success. This work shows what children are capable of from the earliest years, and how to best engage with them in a way that makes sense for their developmental stage. Through interaction with the museum, infants, toddlers, and children are able to try out new ideas, solve new challenges, and build the STEM skills that they’ll benefit from for years to come.