STEM and what it means for early years…

Every now and then a new ‘it word’ comes out. Sometimes it’s just renaming something that’s been around for years and sometimes it’s something new and exciting to the sector. STEM is not a new concept. However, it is an area that is becoming spoken about a lot more, especially with younger children.

What is STEM? It is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I’ll admit that each of those words would give me hives when I was in school. It still does now as I am more literacy and languages inclined. However J is very much into all of these. He has always had what we jokingly call a ‘computer brain’, even as a baby. He used to look like he was scanning the room. When he is playing and watching things you can see him processing and storing everything he’s seeing and doing. At age 2 J was recognising numerals and showed understanding of shapes and mechanisms of things. He could ‘do’ much, much more fluently than he could ‘say’.

STEM is not just a case of 4 subjects being separate from each other. It has become a system of learning for older students and a career pathway. It has started to trickle down into the younger years and now early years. I think this is a great opportunity to show everyone that even at the ages of 2, 3, 4, 5 children can be scientist, mathematicians and that we can have higher expectations of what they can achieve. However, it is important that this is done through play and exploration. It needs to be achieved in a way that is fun and encourages positive self esteem and belief.

But can this really be part of the Early Years Foundation Stage?

Yes, of course. You need self belief and confidence to give things a try (that’s Personal, Social and Emotional Development), you need to communicate your ideas and listen to the instructions (Communication, and Language), you need to have the fine manipulative skills to use the technology, the resources to manipulate and design with (Physical Development). You will also find STEM in ‘Understanding the World‘, ‘Mathematics’, (obviously), Expressive Arts (after all you need problem solving for the ability to come up with ideas) and Literacy (factual books showing scientists, engineering and mechanics etc as well as being able to record what you’ve learnt through drawings or writing).

The idea is not to plan separate science, technology, engineering and maths activities but to combine all these areas of learning where possible. In early years there are lots of great ways to encourage this:

LEGO

This is a great resource for exploring space and measurement. Children can explore if pieces fit and plan which pieces they need next. There’s balance and connectivity to contend with which offers great engineering and maths thinking. J often builds spaceships and will think carefully over which pieces he needs for which part of the ships. I’m in the process of buying some more fact books which show the different working parts of spacecraft so we can talk about the names and functions of them all.

We use Lego for maths and construction. This ‘lego counting‘ activity encourages simple addition, copying patterns and 1:1 principle for counting. J started with ‘one more’ and then we used number 1-3 to add together. J would make a prediction of what the sum would equal and often he was right!

IMAGINATIVE PLAY

Imagination is something needed for thinking of ideas. It’s great for building the self esteem needed to have a go at things and not worry about failure. You can pretend to be astronauts, doctors, vets, scientists etc. You can set up pretend play areas with calculators, abacus, different containers showing measurements, apparatus and tools that real STEM workers may use

We played a game which I found on Twinkl called The Gingerbread Man Trap where we had to find a way to capture the Gingerbread Man from our story. J looked at the resources and used a combination of ‘trial and error’ and talking through what we could try. The pot was too small, the sticklebricks ‘prison’ originally had no roof and the paper on its own did nothing. J created the prison and I asked questions such as ‘how can we stop him from jumping out?’ To such J responded by adding a roof (the paper).

Another story we are going to use is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so that’s next on our list.

PROBLEM SOLVING/BOARD GAMES

Activities such as board games, cards games, shape sorters and jigsaws are all great for STEM learning. It requires children to think about maths in the form of counting, spatial awareness, shape awareness etc. We like dice games where J has to count the spots to tell me how many he has to find/move. He has reached the stage now where he can recognise groups of 1-4 confidently without counting (sometimes up to 10 if he’s motivated). This is great for numeracy.

We also do jigsaws which gives the opportunity to focus on shapes and awareness of where a piece might fit. Sometimes it’s trial and error, other times its a decision based on looking at the shapes, colours and sizes and knowing that is where it will fit. These are all great engineering and maths skills. There’s no reason why technology can’t be a part of this. You can get great apps with puzzles and matching games.

(Twinkl’s Easter number puzzle)

MODEL MAKING

Model making can be in lots of different forms. There’s connection based model making such as sticklebricks or lego where you can be restricted by the shape and connectors of the resources. There’s repurposing models such as junk modelling where you can use tape or glue or any other method you can think of (great for trial and error, and discussions of why something didn’t work). Then there’s models such as clay or playdough…which as this activity shows, can be used with different resources to extend ideas.

We used the ‘bridge’ idea from Twinkl as inspiration to explore creating bridges for J’s little cars. This was more of an opportunity to talk about manipulating materials, shapes and spatial awareness. We tested the bridge and amended it together. For older children they can make more ‘purposeful’ bridges but for younger ones it’s an opportunity to just have a go. J decided on a bridge for cars to go under rather than over. It worked and he had a huge smile at the end.

Models can be large scale too, with ‘loose parts play‘ being a great example. This type of play allows full creativity and ability to see what resources can go together, which shape or positioning they need to balance an object or just to explore the materials themselves and learn about their properties. You can talk about what they’ve made and what the purpose of different parts are, or you can just let them explore without it having to be a particular ‘thing’.

NATURE PLAY

When you think of science, it’s easy to think of chemistry or physics but biology is a great part of science. Nature play is a great way to introduce biology at an early stage. It can be large scale and involve plenty of space, physical play and fresh air, or it can be smaller scale and brought indoors. The best thing about biology is that it doesn’t have to be indoors or outdoors, it can be both! Exploring weather, bugs, plants and different environment such as the beach or the woodlands offers a lot of opportunity for seeing how the world works and learning new words.

Nature play and biology is great if you want longer term projects or themes to build on focus and attention levels. Planting is one example as children can watch something as simple as cress growing on cotton wool, or a sunflower seed sprouting and growing over the weeks.

There’s also life cycles with the spring/summer being a great time to learn about caterpillars and butterflies. Growing Family reviewed a set you can buy so you can care for caterpillars and watch the whole process. This is great for exploring and if your child is ready for literacy skills then you can document the process in a diary of some form.

TABLETS

I know screen time is often frowned upon for early years but I believe it does have its place. J certainly spends time on his Ipad but I am careful which apps I download to make sure there’s some sort of value to them. One of our favourites is Nina and The Neurons. It’s a great simple coding game where the user has to navigate the robots pathway by selecting the appropriate actions it needs to get through.

We also like the many preschool maths games you can find as they have fun ways of learning numeracy, shape names, matching skills etc. The Lego Duplo train game is also another one we like as J has to select what resources he needs, make the train go fast/slow etc and there’s problem solving sections too. I will add that I turn ‘airplane mode’ on when he’s playing games just so I know he can’t accidentally buy add ons, interact with anyone or click on something that might not be e-safe. Most times I am with J whilst he plays but if I’m doing my own work (next to him) or nip to the loo then I need to know he’s safe. Make sure of parent features on all devices!

Lately, I’ve extended his technology to using the laptop too. So much is now ‘touchscreen’ that I wanted to J to have a go on more of a computer. He was practising using the keyboard and the mouse pad. He really enjoys it, and although it’s quite challenging I can see the hand eye coordination needed for it developing. Letting children exploring things like printers, scanners and plugging in cameras or other such devices is important for children to see the ‘everyday’ uses of technology.

ROBOTS

One of my favourite resources are programmable toys. I love things like Bee-Bot (my preschool brought ours from TTS Group and they were so much fun), Remote Control Cars and various robot toys such as Gadget or Beat Bo, These all teach children the cause and effect of pressing buttons. They often have to plan ahead and think about what they need to do to achieve the goal. Lately J has been exploring Gadget from Vtech. There’s one game where you have to find the piece that completes the robots circuits. J watches and then tries to find the right piece to click on. He knows that to get to this game he needs to turn the robot on, put in the right game card and they to press the buttons to select the right piece of puzzle.

It’s important that adults be on hand to talk about the process of using the resources. Yes, children do need time to sit and explore by themselves but adults can scaffold the play and exploration to bring in language, problem solving and be a role model on how to use the resources safely.

I could write for hours showing all the different activities you can do which encourages science, technology, engineering and maths. Most are games you probably already do but don’t associate them with STEM. Our children have been scientists, technology experts, engineers and mathematicians the whole time.

I’d love to hear your ideas on STEM and what  activities have worked for you. Let me know in the comments on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.

DISCLAIMER: I do not receive any financial payment for any links in this blog. I am a Twinkl blogger and so I receive my subscription for free in return for blog posts showing what we get up to. All views and opinions are my own. I wouldn’t share anything that we didn’t genuinely enjoy or feel was helpful to us. 

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