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How to incorporate STEM learning in early childhood

Aug 30, 2021 | STEM

How to incorporate STEM learning in early childhood

As adults, we often overlook the STEM happenings in the world around us. So how can we increase the STEM skills of our youngsters if we have difficulty recognising STEM learning opportunities and feel unsure about scaffolding these concepts?

Recognising STEM learning opportunities

The New Zealand and Australian early childhood curriculum frameworks provide the perfect context for STEM education. For instance, it doesn’t need to be ‘taught’ by direct instruction. Children are experiencing STEM everyday through play. As an educator, a good way to start recognising opportunities is by viewing the world through the eyes of the children. What are the children showing an interest in? What questions do they have about it?  For example, an educator notices a group of children wondering why the mud pies they made yesterday are now hard, instead of squishy. Here is a great opportunity to delve into STEM exploration and learning.

Recognise and incorporate STEM learning in early childhood

Building a STEM experience

The good news is that effective STEM education is not about having the right answer to all the children’s wonderings. It’s about working through STEM processes such as observation, researching, hypothesising, trial and error testing and reflecting, together. The adult can model STEM language and investigative thinking, scaffolding the children’s STEM experiences. In the mud pie example, the educator might hypothesise aloud by wondering:

  • What happens when we change some of the ‘ingredients’ in the mud pies?
  • What if we put more or less of some ingredients in?
  • What happens when we leave a mud pie in a bucket with water?

Already the educator and children have started to build a STEM learning experience. This experience could involve science (the properties of solids, exploring mixtures, evaporation) and maths (measurement and ratios). It might even include technology or engineering if the children decide to investigate ways of retaining the liquid in the soil mixture. 

Here is a great opportunity to delve into STEM exploration and learning

Resourcing STEM learning

As Nicole Halton and Natashja Treveton note in Bringing STEM to Life, in this kind of child-led learning, the educator needs “to be always thinking ahead – ‘Where might this lead?’ and have resources available to respond to the many possibilities.”  Ensuring the availability of a range of resources, including loose parts and open-ended materials, enables children to investigate as STEM learning opportunities arise.

Here are some useful resources:

STEM learning resources
Source: Halton, N & Treveton, N. (2017). Bringing STEM to Life. Teaching Solutions

Thankfully, incorporating STEM learning into early childhood education is not about being good at maths or science. It’s about taking the time to observe children’s interests, listen to their wonderings, model STEM thinking and provide resources for investigation.

For information on strategies to make STEM learning visible, see Planning with and for Children and our article by Dr Claire Warden.

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