ARIZONA — National STEM Day on Nov. 8 probably conjures images of 4.0-earning high school students in a chem lab, or that 8-year-old who built a “live” 6-foot monster in his back yard. But the day also celebrates the STEM learning of those much younger: babies and toddlers, say local and national experts.
Linda Nelson, a national KinderCare Curriculum Developer, says STEM comes naturally for kids, even from the moment they’re born.
“Children are born with what we call ‘STEM mindsets,’ meaning they naturally make observations and predictions, carry out simple experiments and investigations, collect data and begin to make sense of what they found,” she explained.
Such innate STEM experiments and data collection by babies and toddlers naturally occur but often go unrecognized by parents. An adult might walk into the living room or a classroom and just see toys. However, when young children play with toys such as Lincoln Logs or magnets, group toys by their shapes or look at a leaf’s veins, that’s all STEM experimenting and learning, Nelson says.
Danielle Jackson, a center director at the Goodyear KinderCare Learning Center, agrees that STEM learning happens all the time naturally when it comes to very young children.
“Babies and toddlers are often exploring STEM concepts when we don’t even realize it. Ever seen a toddler repeatedly fling a pea off their plate and onto the floor? Even actions like these that often seem like an annoyance to adults are examples of children engaging in their own STEM learning,” she explained. “Babies and toddlers are constantly testing out materials to see how they respond. This is STEM learning … It is how they explore their world.”
Even though much of early STEM learning is innate, parents and teachers can also help foster STEM learning in infants and babies, according to Nelson.
“Early childhood is the best time to begin teaching children about STEM and nurturing children’s STEM mindsets,” she said. “Children who are free to wonder and explore their curiosity about the world are more likely to carry that same wonder and curiosity into adulthood, which not only helps prepare them for careers in STEM fields, but also to become informed citizens.”
Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, observation, curiosity, communication and creativity are key elements of STEM exploration. They’re as important or perhaps more so than the STEM conceptual learning that comes later on, Nelson adds.
One way to foster those STEM skills is to give young children the opportunity to answer open-ended questions. Some key beginnings to open-ended questions include asking “how” or “why” something happened, rather than telling them the answer.
“Asking, ‘Why do you think the block tower fell down?’ instead of saying, ‘The tower fell because it was too tall,’ inspires a child to think about cause and effect — which is exactly what a scientist would do in an experiment,” Nelson said.
Sensory experiments are also important in cultivating STEM learning at a young age.
Jackson gives an example: Babies and toddlers “are able to study force and motion through experiments involving cause and effect: ‘What happens when I move this ball with my hand? Does the cube-shaped block do the same thing?’ ”
Additionally, adults can help babies and toddlers in sensory exploration of dark and light, she says.
The Oro Valley KinderCare Learning Center’s infant classroom also uses sensory activities.
“In our infant classroom, we practice color mixing, create sensory bottles and play with rain sticks,” Sarina DiMaggio, the center’s director, said. “At this age we want to enhance all senses. Toddlers can also mix colors, but they practice pouring and measuring as well.”
“Manipulatives” —touchable, engageable learning tools — are also key in STEM learning for toddlers, DiMaggio says.
A good example is blocks, according to Nelson.
“Rather than give a preschooler an abstract thought — ‘Is two more than four?’ — ask a child to put two blocks together and make a separate pile of four blocks,” Nelson said. “Then they can ‘see’ that four is more than two,” Nelson detailed. Such activities lend active learning to kids to aid in their world exploration and foster their STEM learning.
But teachers and parents should teach kids early on to not be afraid to make mistakes while learning, as experimentation, persistence and development of flexible thinking are vital to STEM, Nelson said.
“Whether a child pursues a formal career in STEM or just gains a background in related skills, that experience and perspective can be important in stimulating change,” she explained. “Rich STEM experiences in the early childhood years also enhance children’s confidence to wonder and fuel their innate curiosity, and confidence to experiment, investigate, design, create, collaborate and share.”