Clayton Early Learning

Curious Minds: Three things to remember about STEM in Early Childhood Education

Rebecca Soden

What do you think of when you hear the words Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)?  If you’re like the majority of us, your heart starts racing a little.  I’ve heard colleagues discuss the ways in which they learned about science and math when they were in school.  Their reflections are often laced with a sense of trepidation and they usually mention the heavy mental burden that they remember feeling during these subjects.  Some parents and teachers are moved to tears by the sense of failure they experienced in STEM courses.

But we can write a new STEM story (for ourselves as well as our children).  When we look at STEM through the lens of early childhood education, we can apply our tradition of weaving content into play-based classroom experiences that are naturally engaging and reinforcing to children.  What a wonderful opportunity to make learning science and math a joyful time!

I’d like to share with you three things to think about as you approach STEM with young learners.

1. Children are more COMPETENT in math and science than teachers and parents realize.

We are born using intuitive math and science skills to interpret and react to the world.  Infants as young as 9-months old have some sense of number and will move their eyes to a picture of two circles when two drumbeats are played (instead of a picture of 3 circles).  Studies of language development indicate that from birth, babie’s brains work like a statistical program by sifting through all of the sounds that they hear in the world and determining which sounds go together in their native language.  In fact, when infants were played a tape of a “made up language” with sounds that were not a part of their native language, they got bored and stopped listening.  But, when new combinations of the sounds of their own language where introduced into the “made up language” they started attending again.  Over and over, babies are making connections and decisions about the world around them.  They are “choosing” to attend or not attend based on data that they gather, interpret and act on.

2. Gender and socioeconomic GAPS related to STEM develop sometime in the preschool years and tend to grow as children move through the primary grades.

We’ve learned that math scores in preschool predict both math and literacy outcomes and that one possibility for closing opportunity gaps is to help children learn the types of higher level thinking skills that are used by scientists, mathematicians and readers alike.  Quality STEM education in preschool is not a ‘cherry on the top’ to be incorporated once the language, literacy and social-emotional development have been mastered.  STEM education in ECE is an issue of equity because we know that these higher level thinking skills and math knowledge are key to closing achievement gaps for kids.

3. To teach STEM in early childhood classrooms, you don’t have to know all the ANSWERS, but you do need to know the QUESTIONS.

At Clayton Early Learning, we’re working on supporting children’s school readiness and we spend a lot of time thinking and learning about what teachers can do to really make a difference for kids.  We are understanding more about the specific ways in which teachers can facilitate children's thinking during play that have been shown to correlate with academic outcomes in first grade and beyond.   These ways of questioning and interacting with children can be used across content areas, but they work very well to support STEM activities.

Ask questions that…

Focus on helping children understand concepts - “Why doesn’t this shape (rectangle) belong with the other shapes (triangles)?”

Encourage children to use analysis and reasoning skills - “Why do we need to wear a coat outside today when we didn’t need one yesterday?”

Support children to link concepts across activities – “Remember when we looked at and touched different types of rocks yesterday?  Today, we’re going to make some guesses about how heavy or how light those rocks are.”

Help children apply concepts to their everyday world – “Let’s make a graph to show how each of us got to school today.  Bring your picture up and put it next to the bus, the car or the walking feet”.

Spark children’s creativity about ideas – “Let’s brainstorm all the ways we might get from the door to the playground.  How would you get there?”

Support children to observe and evaluate their ideas and conclusions. “Would you want to live in the house that we built out of straw or would you rather live in the brick house?” “Why?”

Help children to think about their own process of thinking by asking questions like “How did you know that?” or “How did you figure that out?”

Don’t be afraid to use academic language – “What are your observations?”, “Let’s document what we find by drawing a picture.”, “My hypothesis is that it will grow one inch. What is your guess?”, “When we finish graphing our data, let’s see which one is bigger.”

Let’s support every child to be a Scientist, Engineer, Techie and Mathematician!  Building on children’s early STEM competencies through our intentional use of questions that promote higher-level thinking can make a difference for vulnerable children.  What are your thoughts about incorporating STEM into early childhood classrooms?  Please share your ideas and joyful STEM experiences so that we might all learn and grow together.

Rebecca Soden

About Rebecca Soden

Rebecca Soden, Vice President for Clayton Early Learning, has 18 years of experience implementing programs for children birth to five and their families, including Early Head Start, Head Start and two multi-site Early Reading First initiatives. She provides vision and oversight to the Research, Evaluation and Professional Development services offered through Clayton. She is responsible for the creation and implementation of a continuous improvement model for using data to effectively plan and monitor early childhood programs. Her work has a special focus on supporting evidence-based programming, including caregiver-child interactions, language and literacy development, and the innovative use of technology with young children. Rebecca strives to develop communities of practice in an effort to discover what researchers and teachers can learn from each other. She serves on the Prenatal to Age 3 Subcommittee of the Colorado Early Childhood Leadership Commission. She has a Master of Science degree in Human Development and Family Studies with an emphasis in Early Childhood Education from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and a Doctorate in Leadership for Educational Equity P-20 from the University of Colorado – Denver.
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  1. Rebecca,

    I agree that these topics can be very overwhelming for some families and early childhood providers alike. However, we use these types of things everyday. Thank you for pointing out that we can integrate these concepts into everyday play with a little more intentionality, since we know that young children are sponges absorbing knowlegde more than we had ever imagined in the past. I like the questions you give, so those of us as parents know what kinds of questions to ask.

  2. Excellent article and easy to understand explanation. How do I go about getting permission to post part of the article in my upcoming news letter? Giving proper credit to you the author and link to the site would not be a problem.

  3. Terry, please do share this information through your newsletter. We’d love your readers to visit our Clayton Early Learning website and blog.

  4. I have been given the awesome task if coming up with a STEM vision for my primary school. I don’t know where to begin to build a STEM program in my school. Please help.

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