Whether it be playing with building blocks, constructing tall towers out of various materials, or manipulating kinetic sand, pre-kindergarten aged students consistently show eagerness and affinity towards the STEM fields whether they are aware of it or not. We have all seen students sit and explore with an object, curiously figuring out how it works, or run trials of experiments such as how fast certain materials can go down the slide. At this age, it is an imperative time to not only introduce students to STEM experiences, but to also foster their learning through hands-on, engaging opportunities that will continue to build their interest and skills. "Brain and skills-building experiences early in life are critical for child development," state authors from the article "STEM Starts Early", "and high-quality early STEM experiences can support children's growth across areas as diverse as executive function and literacy development," (McClure et. al, 2017).
What kind of engaging STEM experiences, then, can we use to support PreKindergarten students? Christine Cunningham, founder of Engineering is Elementary, took this question directly to the students. Cunningham had students complete surveys to more deeply understand their conceptions of the field and, through her studies, discovered that most students connect parts of STEM such as engineering and technology to work like construction and structure building (Cunningham, 2018). Although engineering and technology extends far beyond it, construction work, such as building and designing, is a great starting point in teaching students foundational elements of STEM education. Finding something students are already engaged in on their own time, like building, and extending their learning through cumulative projects provides them with the fundamental tools and the physical and mental capabilities for richer STEM exploration, as well as helps them develop their identities as scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians.
In our pre-kindergarten STEM program this fall, students have been challenged with a variety of building-related provocations that build upon each week's previously learnt skills. To draw students in, we would often begin our lesson with a story connected to our activity or have someone special named Ms. Pettigrew (Ms. Colette dressed up!) contract them for building projects. Each week, students would explore a new part of the building process, such as creating homemade bricks, manipulating materials to make shapes, sorting building materials by color and size, exploring the effects of "mortar" on their building materials, and ultimately utilizing technology like hammers and nails for their building. Making use of technology at this age refers to non-digital tools, such as scissors, toothpicks, or hammers, that help students complete their tasks. These projects required students to practice sharing with one another, apply mathematical thinking, exploring engineering designs and its processes, consider the advantages and disadvantages of different materials, and engage in inquiry-based thinking to name some of the STEM-related educational benefits.
Having activities that are thoughtful, playful, and challenging for students in age-appropriate ways will ultimately help these young students build critical skills that are necessary for STEM education and beyond. "Children are natural engineers, wanting to build things and design solutions, and this type of play can have beneficial effects in the long-term," share "STEM Starts Early" authors. "For example, preschool block building predicts math achievement as far out as high school," (McClure et. al, 2017). By engaging students in fun projects that already hold their interest, we as adults can deepen their learning experiences and foster a love for learning and exploring that is crucial for their educational career. Building or any other activities you see your child naturally drawn to can be great opportunities to help them engage in rich STEM exploration and learning, and it is my hope that we can see these moments of play as learning experiences for the future.
If you are interested in furthering your STEM learning at home with your child, I encourage you to look through the STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide created by the Boston Children's Museum. I look forward to continuing to work with your children in our STEM classes and all of the fun projects that await us! Please reach out with any questions that you might have about our classes or STEM learning in early childhood education.
- Colette Boylan, Lower School STEM Specialist
Cunningham, C. M. (2018). Engineering in elementary STEM education: Curriculum design, instruction, learning, and assessment. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Levine, M. H. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.