STEM in early childhood education isn’t a new approach to teaching, but it is gaining traction as an important piece in developing well-rounded learners.
The reasons for that start with the innate curiosity of our youngest students.
Tapping into that curiosity with STEM education nurtures critical thinking, helps students think about the world around them, and sets the stage for future academic success. It’s also a fun approach to learning, something that’s so important to classroom engagement.
Find out more about the benefits of beginning STEM education at an early age, and learn why it's never too early to dive into STEM learning.
There’s no shortage of acronyms when it comes to education, but STEM is one many educators support and encourage.
The combination of four key areas of learning — science, technology, engineering, and math — STEM programs allow children to develop skills that extend beyond these specific subjects, ones that they’ll use throughout their lives.
With activities that encourage higher-level thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and gathering and processing evidence, students don’t even realize the foundation they’re establishing for themselves as they engage in fun activities that often include collaboration.
Because of the importance of what STEM can do for students, it’s never too early to begin taking part in STEM activities.
Curriculum exists for all ages, and being able to build these skills throughout their educational career helps prepare students to succeed as they enter the workforce as adults.
What is STEM in early childhood education?
STEM in early childhood education is an approach to teaching that integrates science, technology, engineering, and math into early learning.
It’s not about introducing a new STEM curriculum for kindergarten at your school but integrating STEM approaches into existing programs. That means more hands-on learning, exploratory activities, and lessons that tap into students’ problem-solving skills, even at an early age.
Let’s break this down a bit.
- Science: This is where students’ natural curiosities come into play. Science at an early age is about asking why things are the way they are and how they work.
- Technology: Interactive media like digital scavenger hunts are a way to tap into student engagement. Video-led lessons are a good alternative in less tech-heavy classrooms.
- Engineering: In a STEM preschool, engineering can be as simple as building towers with blocks or popsicle sticks. Support students in activities that practice innovation.
- Math: Bump existing math lessons up a notch with more hands-on activities that practice skills like counting, patterns, and making comparisons.
Why is STEM important in early childhood education?
STEM is important in early childhood education because it encourages a love of learning and promotes analytical skills. It sets a strong foundation for future success in and out of the classroom.
It’s also a natural approach to early childhood education. Children have an innate curiosity. It makes sense to foster that curiosity and tap into early problem-solving skills with hands-on, exploratory activities.
The Benefits of STEM Education
There are so many benefits to incorporating a STEM curriculum into early childhood education. Not only are students gaining exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math early, but their learning is vibrant and engaging in special ways.
The excitement that comes from project-based STEM education could very well lead to more students continuing their study of any of these subjects well beyond their primary education. It also teaches them that learning is fun. This is just the tip of the iceberg though when it comes to why STEM is so important for students.
Especially in early childhood education, STEM learning provides the significant benefit of driving active learning. Many activities are hands-on, including:
- Building something out of a set of materials
- Playing a game as a group
- Using a specific piece of technology to reach a goal
This not only makes learning fun, it becomes more memorable too. Ask any first grader what they did in school today. They won’t tell you about the worksheets they completed or the addition facts they practiced, but they’ll talk for an extended amount of time about the car they made with a toilet paper roll, straws, and some Lego wheels.
Retaining these activities may not make it obvious in the moment students have learned anything significant, but mathematical formulas and scientific rules are hiding all throughout STEM education, in addition to the soft skills students develop.
There’s nothing like a group project to get students thinking critically while working out how to meet the goals of the activity when a bunch of personalities have to come together. This builds social skills and improves communication. Self-esteem can go up when a group succeeds. This added confidence may make it easier for those students to speak up in class, or feel more comfortable continuing to learn within that particular subject.
Talking with their peers as they work in a group also has the added benefit of improving language skills. The introduction to new vocabulary within the STEM subjects also enhances language. They’re picking up new information, while getting to practice the effectiveness of what they say so they learn how to craft constructive sentences others will really hear.
Developing these skills at an early age will only make group work go more smoothly as they grow and projects are assigned with more creative freedom and less teacher support. Then there’s the professional workplace, where collaboration happens often. Knowing how to handle different personalities and to work effectively within any group (because they’re been practicing these skills since they were very young) can make a world of difference when it comes to success.
Collaborative learning also goes hand-in-hand with technology, and another student favorite, gamification. Online learning tools that present information through games can engage the whole class in collaborative play. It can open up young students to the joys of learning and the realization that there are many different ways to access information.
It’s a common misconception that engaging in STEM-based activities detracts from all the subjects not included in the acronym. Of course, this points a finger at the exclusion of language arts, reading, etc.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. What STEM really does is present ways to learn that are beyond the memorization of facts. It creates opportunities to take a more holistic approach to learning, so that one lesson incorporates many subjects rather than separating each out.
When it comes to language arts and literacy, there’s a direct correlation between science instruction and improvement in these areas. Studying STEM can also increase executive functioning, which helps students plan, remember instructions, juggle multiple tasks, and focus. These skills are all essential to reading comprehension, essay writing, and more.
There’s also the real world element that STEM can bring into other subject areas. Maybe the STEM project students completed in the morning focused on the design of a spaceship to study aerodynamics. Then, later in a history lesson, students read about the first successful shuttle launch. When it’s time for reading, the class sits and listens to a story about becoming an astronaut. It’s a day of space, brought into every subject.
The benefits of STEM in early childhood education
We’ve touched on the broad positive effects of teaching STEM in early education. Let’s dig into the specifics of why STEM in preschool and beyond is a great tool for student engagement and success:
- STEM develops important skills. Early exposure to STEM helps children develop skills in creativity, teamwork, and perseverance.
- It prepares students for what’s to come. It may seem like a stretch to imagine little ones in the workforce, but skills developed today build on skills needed tomorrow.
- STEM has real-world relevance. Students who learn how the world works around them are better equipped to appreciate real-world issues. It makes lessons more meaningful.
- STEM lessons are engaging. STEM taps into students’ natural curiosities and gives students the tools to question, investigate, and hypothesize.
- It turns students into innovators. STEM encourages children to come up with unique solutions to even the most basic problems.
- It boosts technological and digital literacy. Preschool STEM activities that use tech help prepare children for a more tech-driven future.
- STEM boosts confidence in all students. STEM concepts are easier to adjust for students at all levels and unique learning styles because they are so hands-on.
- Early exposure can reduce diversity gaps. STEM for preschoolers may be the first spark in student groups that are traditionally underrepresented in these fields.
- It makes students more aware of the world around them. STEM can even help foster a sense of environmental responsibility.
How to Teach STEM in ECE
STEM education for preschool and beyond isn’t a readymade curriculum. It can touch different areas of an existing curriculum in and outside of science classrooms.
For example, a read-aloud of The Very Hungry Caterpillar can quickly turn into a science activity about butterfly life cycles.
You can also leave the potential for STEAM activities more open-ended. What kinds of questions do students have after the story?
Maybe an intrepid learner wants to learn about a caterpillar’s real diet. Allow children to ask all of those “Why?” questions you know are already brewing.
STEM for toddlers will certainly look different than STEM for older students, but the core is the same. It allows for space to dive into students’ questions, tinker, and answer them.
Looking for inspiration? Check out Kide Science for STEAM story-based lessons, chockfull of hands-on learning and exploration for ages 3-8.
Additional examples of STEM in early childhood education include:
- Teaching Through Play: Use STEM toys and games or existing classroom tools to tap into STEM concepts. It can be as simple as free play or building with blocks. How high can you build before a tower falls down?
- Nature-Based Activities: Take learning outside. There are natural phenomena to observe and interact with in every type of environment. This helps students develop an appreciation for the world around them.
- Partner/Group Projects: STEM projects that require teamwork and collaboration help students across levels and learning styles work together. Students may even learn from one another along the way.
- Classroom Centers: Create centers dedicated to STEM concepts or integrate STEM ideas into existing center work. STEMscopes Early Explorer comes with self-guided centers that are easy to differentiate for students at all levels.
- Storytelling: Our example of a read-aloud above is a simple way to integrate STEM concepts into oral comprehension activities. Choose more books with STEM themes or find ways to tap into student curiosity with classroom favorites.
- Age-Appropriate Tech Tools: Think about technology you already have access to and how it can be used to enhance student learning. Any level of exposure to technology promotes tech literacy for students down the line.
- Classroom Guests: Our youngest learners can make the best audience for experts and professionals in STEM fields. Reach out to your local zoo, planetarium, even sewage treatment facility to spark interest in classroom investigations and these fields.
- Role Play: This can be a fun follow-up after an especially engaging classroom guest. Use role-playing activities where students pretend to be STEM professionals like scientists to model real-world scenarios in those fields.
- Field Trips: Time outside of the classroom is a great way to expand students’ STEM experiences. Look to the usual children’s and science museums, but don’t discount places like local farms and urban gardens or markets to spark student interest.
- At-Home Activities: Support from parents at home is important across the board, but try to engage parents in connection activities students can do at home. Students’ parents may also be a good source for classroom guests in STEM fields.
- Varied Assessments: Rather than adding traditional tests to students’ existing assessment loads, vary checks for understanding in STEM concepts. Try assessing children’s understanding through play activities or observed progress.
What About the ‘A’ in STEAM?
Recently, STEM education has experienced a shift to STEAM education. Without losing the benefits and value of STEM, STEAM adds in the arts. It’s not about going to art class though, it’s about increasing the soft skills a student can develop.
With the inclusion of the ‘A,’ students have more opportunity to think outside the box. They can use visualization strategies to look at mathematical data or artistic imagery to understand scientific concepts you can’t see in the real world. You can even blend arts and technology through tools like a 3D printer or an infographic app.
Whether early education curriculum incorporates STEAM or STEM, the mission is the same — to build essential soft skills while enhancing interest in learning more complex topics.
STEM Helps Students Engage With the World
Teachers know their students best, but engagement with STEM can result in even more meaningful teaching moments in the classroom. It helps the classroom feel more like a safe space for learning. Open-ended questions can take education to new and interesting places.
STEM in early childhood education can tap into students’ potential for critical thinking. It can turn students into lifelong learners who want to know the why and how behind it all. It can help students see themselves as important participants in the world.