Experts in many disciplines all agree that there is a national imperative to graduate students with a thorough understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM.) In 2007, a Carnegie Foundation commission of leaders concluded that the nation’s capacity to innovate and thrive in the modern workforce depends on a foundation of math and science learning.
But many parents and teachers wonder, at what age is it appropriate to start teaching STEM? And how can we implement these concepts into early childhood education? The answer is: It is never too early to start STEM education, and an ideal way to teach STEM is to go out into nature!
What is STEM?
First a little background on STEM, which is really more of a philosophy. STEM is a way of thinking about how educators and parents should be helping students integrate knowledge across disciplines, encouraging them to think in a more connected and holistic way.
STEM calls on parents and educators to give children chances to investigate an idea in a variety of settings in what educators call cross-contextual learning. For example, in addition to math worksheets to help practice counting, we can take students outside to practice counting real objects that they find, such as rocks, acorns, or leaves. Their learning is strengthened when they learn the same skills, ideas, and concepts in different contexts. And the learning becomes more relevant when students go outside to explore nature.
By asking the right questions, we can help stimulate investigations where students are identifying objects, making comparisons, making predictions, testing ideas, and sharing discoveries, all while observing their natural environment. Students can also explore sizes, shapes, patterns, and quantities in the process. In this way, children can learn concepts from different disciplines in different contexts, all in ways that are naturally engaging to them. Very early exploration of the natural world sets the stage for later learning.
Build a Foundation
There is no reason to wait until students are 5 years old and entering kindergarten to begin engaging in STEM activities. Students are incredibly active learners at 1, 2 and 3 years old, and we can start building their foundation in STEM as soon as they enter this world. Toddlers and Preschoolers are experts at investigating the natural world, beginning to learn about how it works by testing it with their tiny fingers, watching it change, listening to its sounds, and feeling its textures.
The research is quite clear that the best practice in early childhood education is to break away from passive instruction and allow for more play and investigation, and this kind of learning early in life builds skills and interests that serve children throughout their early years, and later in life. Long-term research indicates that being allowed opportunities to take initiative in your own learning is not only good for STEM learning, but for overall long-term academic success. Natural settings offer children almost unlimited opportunities to explore and investigate, helping them build STEM skills that create a solid foundation for future learning.
Teaching STEM to Young Kids
The most important thing to remember about teaching STEM to early learners is that they are perfectly adapted to learn STEM concepts, and it is not difficult to teach STEM to young children. The secret is to tap into their natural and innate curiosity about the living world. By simply allowing them to investigate, by encouraging them to ask questions about the real world, you are engaging children in STEM.
The most simple and powerful way to do this is to take children outside into nature. Ask questions of your pint-sized researcher, encourage more exploration, and provide more opportunities to return to these types of settings. If you don’t have access to natural areas or even a more developed park, you can plant a small garden, make a terrarium, or simply make a start by growing seeds in cups.
The Boston Children’s Museum’s STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide recommends the simple strategy of building students’ confidence and making them feel like experts by asking “what” questions rather than “why” questions. “Why” questions imply that there is a correct answer. “Why do birds have feathers?,” or “Why does the rock sink in the water?” are questions that have answers that children may not know, and may find discouraging. “What” questions, on the other hand, focus on what they are noticing and doing, and can be springboards for teachers and students to investigate together. “What are those ants doing?” and “What shapes do you see in those rocks?” are questions that invite children to observe, communicate, and be the “experts.”
To augment kids’ curiosity even further, create a home library full of books about nature. You can also have them watch documentaries on nature, and as well as children’s programming like Wild Kratts or SciGirls to reinforce the love of investigation with positive examples from media. In this way, we practice cross-contextual learning, where kids experience the ideas around STEM in different ways.
One of the best practices in teaching and learning is to make learning relevant, and there is nothing more relevant than being outside and exploring the world we live in!