Watch a group of preschoolers working in a garden. It’s cute, right? But it turns out they’re learning more than you’d think. According to our new NSF-funded report, STEM Starts Early, co-published by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America, there’s growing evidence that very young children from all backgrounds — even children from birth to age 8 — learn important science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and habits of mind from everyday play and early learning activities. For example, by growing their own fruits and vegetables or even building forts and stacking blocks, children collect data, begin to develop strategies, solve problems, and learn to adjust their approach when things do not go as expected. These activities, when facilitated well, aren’t only laying a foundation for future STEM learning; they’re allowing kids to actually be scientists, here and now.
Who knew that such young kids were capable of this kind of scientific inquiry? There are lots of common misconceptions about how young children engage in STEM learning — and that’s important, because adults’ attitudes about STEM learning profoundly influence children’s own beliefs about STEM learning, as well as their abilities. Take a look at these four facts everyone should know about early STEM learning, and consider what you can do about them.
1. STEM benefits all children, regardless of their innate abilities or backgrounds.
What the research says
It’s a common myth that STEM is only for certain kinds of kids — those who are naturally gifted or driven in STEM subjects. But in fact, the research shows that STEM is important for all children and for all subject areas. Think of it this way: As we learn new skills, our brains weave skill strands into ropes we can use to solve problems, meet challenges, and, in turn, acquire new skills. STEM skills are vital in many kinds of skill ropes: When kids have opportunities to collect evidence and solve scientific problems, they build strong ropes that can be used in many ways, both now and later in life.
Take, for example, the profound ties between STEM and language learning: Early STEM instruction results in higher language and literacy outcomes, and the reverse is true as well. For example, exposure to more spatial language during block play in infancy and early childhood increases children’s spatial abilities when they’re older. Furthermore, math skills and reading skills at kindergarten entry are equally predictive of reading skills in the eighth grade; and background knowledge about the world and how it works (much of which falls within the realm of STEM concepts) is critical for reading comprehension once children are able to sound out the words they encounter.
What you can do
If, like many teachers, you find yourself wondering where you could possibly find time to add a STEM block to your full schedule, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Remember that you can weave STEM into almost anything you’re already doing. There are curricula available for this — for example, research has shown that using the IDEAS model, an integrated science-and-literacy instruction block, leads to better reading and science scores (and more positive attitudes about both) than using traditional, separate literacy and science blocks.
If you don’t see yourself or your school adopting new teaching models or curricula anytime soon, consider how you can casually weave STEM into everyday situations in the classroom. For example, let’s say a child is trying to get something she can’t reach. Instead of reaching it yourself and handing it to the child, talk her through a problem-solving scenario: “Hmmm, let’s stop and think about why you might not be able to reach it. Oh, you’re not tall enough? What can we do to make you taller?” Support the child as she works through the problem herself, encouraging her as she communicates and tries some different solutions and offering suggestions if she becomes frustrated. In these simple ways, you can foster independence, critical thinking, STEM and oral language development, and more.
2. Children are born scientists and need adult support to realize and expand their natural STEM capacities.
What the research says
Many people believe very young kids can’t do real STEM learning and should be focused on learning the “basics” first. But, as one researcher we interviewed put it, the reality is “[y]oung children are quite capable of doing, at a developmentally informed level, all of the scientific practices that high schoolers can do. They can make observations and predictions, carry out simple experiments and investigations, collect data, and begin to make sense of what they found.” In fact, researchers have documented children conducting systematic experiments as early as the first year of life!
For example, babies, only hours after birth, experiment with cause and effect as they realize that putting their own thumbs in their mouths makes them feel better; toddlers push their sippy cups off the edges of their high chairs over and over and over again to test the limits of gravity; and preschoolers are eager to understand why their clothes no longer fit (life sciences) and are obsessed with the fair distribution of communal snacks (math).
What you can do
Children need adult support to both realize and expand their natural capacity for STEM. Think back to the example of a child trying to get something that’s out of reach. By simply scaffolding the child’s critical-thinking process during this challenge moment, you’re encouraging math by comparing heights, science by encouraging experimentation, technology by helping her think about tool use, creativity in imagining a solution, and engineering by letting her make her imagined solution into a physical reality. And, on top of all of this, you’re giving her great practice in executive functioning skills such as self-control and sustained attention. It’s STEM and so much more.
Adults can encourage children’s STEM engagement by noticing when it’s already taking place, realizing that the child is not only capable of attaining the goal (getting the object) but also of meeting the challenge (solving the problem) with your support, and then taking advantage of that opportunity by engaging the child in an interaction that encourages their scientific inquiry. STEM learning moments aren’t only for special activities; they happen all the time, everywhere. Our job is to draw out that inner scientist, give them the tools they need to make important connections, and encourage them to keep trying and not give up.
3. Children need STEM immersion as early as possible to gain STEM fluency.
What the research says
A common misconception is that “real” learning happens in the classroom, as opposed to informal settings such as museums, libraries, and summer camps. However, the research shows that just as people need to be immersed in a language to become fluent, children, too, need to be given many opportunities in many different settings to become fluent in STEM subjects. You can think of STEM learning opportunities like charging stations that power up kids’ learning. If we increase the number of STEM charging stations in kids’ environments, we will see more interest and fluency in STEM. Our current system is patchy; this explains why some children never develop STEM fluency, which has significant consequences for their overall learning.
What you can do
To bridge informal and formal learning, educators can encourage parent and family engagement in STEM learning. Parents, as long-term influences in children’s lives, can help them make connections between in-school and out-of-school STEM learning, as well as among their learning experiences over time. Parents can activate a child’s in-school learning by engaging in related activities at home or outside the home, such as taking trips to a STEM museum or to a library with STEM resources or enrolling the child in STEM-relevant after-school activities (e.g., Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or a coding club). This kind of parental support has a strong, positive effect on children’s participation in math and science activities.
Teachers can encourage this involvement by sharing local STEM resources — library events, museum experiences, and educational technologies — with parents and encouraging them to charge up their children’s STEM batteries at multiple locations outside school. Communicate to parents what supporting their children’s STEM learning really looks like: They don’t need to do massive science fair projects at home every night or be experts in STEM topics. They can radically support their children’s STEM development by connecting STEM throughout their lives, by engaging in these out-of-school experiences or simply by showing curiosity in daily situations by asking their children the “wh” questions: who, what, when, where, why?
4. Parent and teacher attitudes are incredibly influential for children’s STEM outcomes.
What the research says
We often hear people say things like, “I can’t support a child’s STEM learning — I’m not a STEM person!” Both teachers and parents can feel intimidated by STEM topics, and many feel anxious about supporting children’s STEM learning. Almost one-third of parents, for example, do not feel confident enough in their own scientific knowledge to support hands-on science activities at home. But parents’ and teachers’ beliefs about STEM have a profound effect on young children. When they believe that it’s too hard or it isn’t as important as other topics, children pick up on this and come to believe it themselves.
The good news is that supporting children’s STEM development doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. In fact, one of the most important things adults can do is model genuine engagement and curiosity about the world around them. By asking questions and demonstrating wonder, by taking the role of co-learner and guide, and by encouraging children’s own curiosity, you are instilling in them the motivation to explore and experiment. Ask lots of questions — and instead of feeling pressured to have the answers, just be willing to learn alongside them and participate in trying to figure out the answers. This is the foundation of the scientific method.
What you can do
Support your own and parents’ confidence as STEM guides by taking advantage of some of the free resources available online. Common Sense Education has reviewed a number of terrific tools for early STEM learning, which they’ve collected in their list Best Picks for Early Childhood STEM Learning.
In addition, two of my favorites that do a great job of guiding parents and teachers in leading STEM activities also have great research support. BedTime Math helps families introduce math as a fun part of their daily routines, as easily as reading bedtime stories. Research is showing that using BedTime Math at home significantly boosts kids’ math performance and is especially helpful for children whose parents are anxious about math, even when it’s used as little as once a week. For teachers, STEM from the Start is a free curriculum resource for teaching STEM content to students in grades pre-K–2. It blends animated adventures with guided activities and is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. Preliminary research is showing that the lessons are engaging and effective, and they’ve had remarkable success engaging English-language learners and students with attention challenges.
When parents or teachers believe these common myths about early STEM, those attitudes transfer to children. So spread the word: STEM is great for all children, it starts early, kids need opportunities to explore across all aspects of their lives, and you are completely capable of supporting their STEM progress. Be confident STEM guides, and have fun exploring the world around you with your little ones!