Planning STEM activities for early childhood

STEM

STEM Education (or STEAM, or STREAM) is all the rage now at every level of education, including early childhood. But teachers, especially those who don’t have a strong science education themselves, are often stumped with how to incorporate these topics. Sometimes they just resort to buying toys or pre-made curricula that are labelled as STEM activities. But so many of those products aren’t actually using any STEM principles. A whole lot of them are just art projects or English worksheets masquerading as STEM. Just because a coloring page features dinosaurs or a word search has chemistry terms in it doesn’t make it STEM!

So, what is STEM, and what are easy ways to incorporate it into your planning?

I teach parent-toddler classes and STEM enrichment classes – one for 3 – 6 year olds, and one for 5 – 9 year olds. In planning my curriculum for a week of classes, I have a list of categories of learning, that help to build all the intelligences and all the developmental skills. For each class, I ask “what are we doing to build / exercise large motor skills? small motor skills? music skills? social skills? What’s our sensory activity?” and so on. I don’t have to hit every category in every class, but I try to be sure that over time, I’m tagging all those bases. I’m sure lots of early childhood educators take these categories into account to some degree while planning.

So, if you would like to add more STEM content, it can be helpful to think of categories of activities that build STEM skills. The STEM categories I use in my lesson plan are: experiment, building project, observation station, sorting / matching games, and tool of the week.

When I develop a lesson plan from scratch, I start with my list of categories. When I inherited a class curriculum from previous teachers, the first thing I did was take all the existing activities and plug them into those categories. I discover that some weeks are ALL craft projects and nothing else. Some weeks are lots of experiments and process, but no products to take home. Once I’ve sorted them into categories, then I can get rid of weak activities in any category that’s overcrowded, and I know where I need to focus my planning for the under-represented categories.

Let’s look at the STEM categories in more detail.

Science

In planning science activities, I think about the 6 foundational Science Process Skills: Observation, Communication, Measurement, Classification, Inference, and Prediction.

I often pair Observation and Communication. Observation is using all their senses to examine an object and explore its properties. Any time a child is playing with something new or looking deeply and intently at something, they are building these skills. Any time you ask them to describe what they see you’re building more skill. Especially if you prompt them to look again… observe more deeply with more senses… look at the details and describe them more specifically. I think we all incorporate this all the time.

You can formalize this, if you want, by having an Observation Station. This is just a spot in the room set aside, where on a regular basis, you display new and interesting items. Offer tools like magnifying glasses, materials so they can draw what they see or write about it, questions to prompt further discovery.

Measurement can be incorporated anywhere, but especially in the building zone…. I’ll talk about it in the Math section below.

Classification is a hugely important skill – you can build it with any activity that asks them what category something goes in (is an apple a fruit or a vegetable?) or any activity that encourages them to compare and contrast – notice ways in which things are like other things, and notice the ways that they are different.

At the toddler level, classification and sorting includes simple things like shape sorters, activities where they sort by color, clean-up time where they put the books here and the play food there. Or playing the game – “one of these things is not like the other.”

For older kids, you could put out a pile of objects and ask them to sort them by color, or by the material they’re made out of, or by natural or human-made. You could put out games where they have to match up pairs – the picture of the socks goes with the shoes, and the picture of the bat goes with the baseball. Check out this article on Sorting for lots more ideas or read through any of my lesson plans.

Inference is an explanation that follows an observation… when you ask someone “why do you think that happened?” and they answer based on previous knowledge combined with what they just observed. A prediction is about a future event, but is based on your inferences. So an observation is “Look at that llama.” Inference – “What do you think that llama likes to eat – do you remember what we fed the alpacas at the zoo?” Prediction – “If we offered it hay, do you think it would eat it?” The experiment is offering the hay and seeing what happens.

Inference and Prediction are core skills I require in my Experiment activity. I’m picky about this… lots of teachers figure that if you’re doing anything “science-y” you can call it an experiment. But making a habitat diorama is not an experiment. In my experiment activities, kids explore “why do you think that happened” and “what will happen if” questions. They are asked to make predictions and test them. Some sample experiments: sink and float, what will dissolve in water, which of these substances is best at cleaning pennies, if you cup your hands behind your ears how does that affect your hearing, how many counting blocks do you need to be as heavy as one metal bolt?

Here’s a handout on teaching science skills to kids.

Technology

I know that when we say technology, we all envision screen-based applications, coding practice, websites, robotics, and so on. While I am not opposed to screen time for kids (see my thoughts here on making screen time work for families), I don’t want that to be the go-to assumption in the early childhood classroom.

The word “technology” means “The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes” or “accomplishing a task using technical methods.” Honestly, the way I think of this in my curriculum is using tools! And I don’t just mean hardware store tools – anything a human being has invented to do a job is technology. So, when they’re learning to use markers, crayons, pencils, scissors, staplers, and hole punches, that’s a technology lesson plan! When they’re scooping and pouring at the water table, they’re using tools. If they’re working on a cooking project, they’re using tools. So, I very intentionally use a very wide variety of tools in all the activities in the classroom, and I have a “tool of the week” focus where I really think about how to bring some extra focus onto one particular tool that week. In modern schools, we rarely have the home ec classes and shop classes we had when I went to school, so I’m doing my part in the early childhood classroom to build lots of tool using skills in my students.

Engineering

One of my fundamental lesson planning questions is: What will they build today? We have lots of different building toys: Tinker Toys, gears,  K’nex, KEVACrystal ClimbersMagna-TilesLincoln Logs, Zoob, lots of Duplos or Legos and of course wooden blocks. (FYI, those are all affiliate links – if you purchase anything from Amazon after clicking on those links, I get a small referral fee at no cost to you.)

We also use lots of other things to build with – just get creative: plastic cups, straws, pipe cleaners, toilet paper tubes and cardboard, gum drops and toothpicks, raw spaghetti and marshmallows, sugar cubes, cereal boxes, PVC pipes, rolled up newspapers, and more. (Check out our lesson plans for towers and structures.)

I also try to combine other toys with building supplies, as that can prolong and deepen the play, such as when I put out toy horses and the blocks become stables, or add cars and they build a raceway.

Kids learn a lot through free play with building materials and loose parts. You can enhance the learning by giving them problems to solve or goals to achieve.

We often offer a “weekly challenge” activity where children have a chance to practice the Engineering Process (aka Tinkering) – see a challenge you want to solve, collect data and examine available supplies, build a prototype, test it to see if it works, tweak it to make it better. Some challenges: build a bridge to help the toy bears cross over the water, launch a pompom into the air, drop an egg without breaking it, build something that can withstand a pretend earthquake… There’s lots more ideas in my lesson plans on this site.

Here’s a handout on Teaching Engineering to Kids.

Math

I tend not to have a “math station” but instead incorporate math as a meaningful and useful tool used in other activities. (I love Teacher Tom‘s statement that “Reading and ciphering are tools to help us with our real education… The way we do it now, making math and literacy the core around which everything else revolves, is like spending 13 years learning how to use a hammer without ever actually building anything.”)

Sometimes the math happens with the experiment: “how many drops of water can you fit on a penny?” “how many gummy worms can you pick up in one minute with the chopsticks vs. with the spoon?” “mix one cup of glue with one cup of liquid starch.”

Often the math activity takes place at the building station or with the engineering challenge: “how many stories tall can you build a tower of cups?” “how many glass beads can your bridge hold – can you make a stronger bridge that holds more?” and so on. Check out this post for lots of measurement activities for 4 – 8 year olds. You can teach both standard measurement – using rulers, cup measures, and scales. It’s also a lot of fun to do non-standard measurements. “How many teddy bears tall is that tower of boxes?”

Here’s a handout on Teaching Math to Kids.

To start adding more STEM in to your classroom, just choose one category that you feel comfortable with, and try making sure to try out one activity related to that every week. Or just decide that each week you’ll have one STEM focus, and it can rotate between: Engineering Challenge, Tool of the Week, and so on.

 

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