Did you know that your daughter, who loves to stack rocks in the back yard, is learning skills that could lead to a STEM career in mechanical engineering? Have you considered that your son, who meticulously cares for the vegetable garden, is developing skills that could lead to a career as a food scientist?
Research shows that everyday play and educational activities teach our children the skills and habits necessary for learning important STEM concepts (science, technology, engineering, and math). These early experiences – from birth to 8 years old – are instrumental in developing a child’s confidence and interest in STEM.
The problem is, many parents don’t realize that STEM learning happens so early in a child’s life. They assume that the STEM fields are taught in high school with classes like shop and physics. This assumption is causing our children to miss out on important STEM opportunities during highly influential and formative years. Without developing confidence in STEM subjects at an early age, children are not likely to pursue STEM careers as adults.
Check out these facts about early STEM learning and consider how you can make changes at home.
5 Facts About Early STEM Learning
- All children are born scientists. They just need your help to realize and expand on their natural STEM abilities. One of the easiest ways to see your child practice their skills as a scientist is to take them outside and give them some kind of challenge. Ask them to stack rocks 1 or 2 feet high. Encourage them to pick an acorn that’s just out of their reach. Give them some kind of challenge and watch their STEM skills develop, right in front of your eyes! I’ve heard it described as weaving a strong rope. Each STEM experience adds a strand to their skill set. By adding many strands (STEM experiences) you begin to build a sturdy rope that your children can use to solve problems, especially cross-disciplinary problems.
- Children must be exposed early to STEM learning to gain fluency and confidence. Just like people need to be immersed in a culture to learn the language, so children need to be immersed in STEM experiences daily to become fluent in STEM skills. If we give kids more opportunities to engage in STEM activities, then they’ll show more interest in STEM subjects as they get older. Our current early childhood system is focused on learning the basics. This means that STEM is a “special subject” that they learn at special times. By getting kids outside, nature becomes a STEM classroom. The kids are constantly engaged in problems that require STEM skills for a solution. Getting parent support for STEM skills at home is vital for their learning. Simply asking the who, what, when, where, and why questions are a great start for STEM learning.
- Your attitudes toward STEM will affect your child’s attitude. I often hear parents say, “I’d like to get my kids outside more often and learning about nature, but I know nothing about the science. What would I teach them if I don’t know it myself?” When children see that their parents think something is too hard, or maybe not important, they pick up on these attitudes and internalize them. One of the best things you can do is go outside and ask questions, being comfortable with the fact that you don’t need to know the answer. The process of inquiry is a vital STEM skill and something that needs to be nurtured. How many adults do you know that are curious about the world around them and make an effort to learn about it? Not many! That is why we, as parents, have to foster this skill in our children because our kids are not getting everything they need from the school system. We have to supplement this type of learning.
- All children can take part in STEM activities regardless of their age, abilities, or background. A common misconception is that we should focus on the “basics” when children are young and introduce STEM as they get older because they can’t comprehend it yet. This simply isn’t true. I’ve been teaching science at the college level for over 13 years and I can take a college-level science activity and turn it into something my 6 year-old and even my 2 year-old can learn from. The activity needs to be modified with developmentally appropriate expectations, but it’s easily doable (if you need help, check out my program Nature Matters Academy). My 6 year old can make observations and predictions, carry out experiments, record data, create graphs, and make conclusions (with a little help from me). Babies and toddlers are constantly conducting experiments which lead to huge messes and an occasional bruised forehead. The same is true for children with special needs or learning concerns. In fact, research shows that the kids who are the most vulnerable can be the ones who have the largest learning gains in outdoor settings.
- We need STEM leaders who have a good understanding of the interconnectedness of life on this plant so they can address large-scale issues like climate change. Right now, we rank far behind other countries in the STEM fields. Our 15 year-olds rank 24th in math, 25th in science, and 41st in reading. If we want our kids to be competitive in a global work force, we have to supplement their education with STEM experiences at an early age. If we want to have a future where our kids and grandkids are about to enjoy the same wild spaces that we do today, then we need to create environmental stewards. Nature Matters Academy is a great program that creates environmental stewards who are confident in the STEM fields.
What Can You Do?
Now you may be wondering how in the world you can fit one more thing into your daily schedule. If you’re a parent, how can you add a STEM activity into your busy work and family life? If you’re a teacher, can you really add another block to your already full instructional day?
The answer is yes! You don’t necessarily need to do something new, you can simply weave STEM into what you’re already doing. Talk about STEM concepts while you’re reading a book. Use STEM strategies to solve a problem like reaching markers that are on a high shelf.
There are many opportunities to incorporate STEM into our daily lives, both in the classroom and at home. However, we also need to make time for intentional, planned STEM activities. These activities allow your child to directly see that they are capable of learning and developing STEM skills. You’re weaving their “STEM” rope, strand by strand. The more often you do STEM activities at home, the stronger their problem solving “rope” will be. Your kids will have the confidence to follow whatever career path they choose.
STEM is great for all children! They’re all capable of learning STEM skills at a very young age, but they need guidance and support from parents to master these skills. As a parent, you’re not only capable, but you’re well suited for engaging your kids in STEM activities. You know their interests and strengths and better than anyone!
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