Children are naturally curious. In fact, children are capable of understanding science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects before they’re even a year old. But, like other concepts, STEM skills need to be intentionally developed as a child grows.
Children are capable of complex thinking skills prior to being able to speak, but different types of play are critical to develop skills related to STEM fields. These skills include questioning, analysis, and curiosity.
Unfortunately, many children in the U.S. aren’t getting the play and stimulation they need to develop these critical skills.
Up to 40% of American children aren’t ready for kindergarten and only 34% of kids in Grade 4 were proficient in science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
These numbers don’t reflect the child’s interest in learning. According to the National Research Council, children have developed their own ideas about the social, biological, and physical worlds and how they work before they enter school.
Educators, including teachers and parents, can develop these ideas by taking the child’s thoughts seriously, listening to the child, and building on what they already know and are able to do.
But why is it important to get your child interested in STEM in the first place? Isn’t it enough for a child to go to school and learn about STEM fields in class?
Setting the Stage for a Successful STEM Education
STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Although your child learns about science and mathematics in school, STEM isn’t a single educational program or subject.
General STEM subjects are often included throughout your child’s school curriculum, but programs in engineering and technology are lacking. It may not be until middle or high school that your child learns about engineering and technology.
Researchers say that an early education in mathematics and other STEM fields can improve a child’s learning abilities and narrow the gaps between children’s educational achievements. By making STEM interesting to a child at a young age, you can improve their chances of greater success later in life.
Since 1990, employment in STEM fields has jumped from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, or 79%. And, compared to non-STEM occupations, those in STEM occupations earn up to 26% more on average.
Unfortunately, adults may curb or even crush the enthusiasm a child has for exploring STEM fields. This is often done in one or more of three ways including fear, disapproval, and absence.
When a child is afraid of new things, they’ll stay in their comfort zone and be unwilling to explore the world around them. This effectively crushes their curiosity.
Disapproval such as biases and attitudes can also keep a child from exploring and developing STEM skills. In fact, disapproval is one of the top reasons why there are so few women in male-dominated areas of STEM.
Only 14% of those in the field of engineering and only 15% of those in computer science are women. Compare these numbers to the 47% of those in life science and 75% of those in healthcare that are women.
Because these areas of study are often lead by men, girls are often pushed to stop developing STEM skills and to turn to other areas. Even those who don’t receive disapproval may be affected the absence of an invested and caring adult or role model.
A caring adult provides a sense of safety to the child to explore new things. It also gives them the ability to share their discoveries, thereby giving them the positive reinforcement they need to continue making those kinds of discoveries.
How can you be a caring adult to your child and cultivate their curiosity and other skills that would get them interested in STEM?
Stimulate Your Child’s Curiosity With Science
One of the best things about getting your child interested in science is that there are many different kinds of activities you can do together that are not only fun but also simple.
Here are a few activities you can do with your child to get them invested in science from a young age:
- Explore the great outdoors. You don’t need to be a fan of camping to teach your child about the great outdoors. Kids love to explore and you can find plenty of things to teach them about right in your own backyard. From grass to water, soil to rocks, there are plenty of natural materials they can learn about.
- Let your child safely interact with animals. Some animals don’t do so well with small children, but others are kid-friendly. Consider teaching your child about the biology of your family dog, the fish at their doctor’s office, or the sheep at your local petting zoo.
- Encourage your child to ask “what” questions. You may be tempted to encourage your child to think about science by asking “why” questions, but this isn’t always the best idea. “Why” questions can give the impression that there’s a right or wrong answer, which can keep them from wanting to answer at all. Instead, encourage your child to ask “what” questions such as “What happened here?” and “What have you changed?”
- Give your child four ways to play. There are four different types of play that can help to boost your child’s science skills. These include pretend play, exploratory play, guided play, and free play. Pretend play is when your child uses their imagination and exploratory play is when your child can experiment and take things apart. Guided play is when you, an adult, interact with your child, and free play is when an adult isn’t involved.
- Conduct fun experiments with your child. Some science experiments your child can’t do on their own. The good news is that they’re fun and simple to do together. Consider making a lava lamp with your child, creating a leak-proof bag, and even walking water.
Teaching Tech Through Technology Activities
Technology activities are activities that help children learn how to use technology to solve problems. They teach kids how to use technology for logical and helpful reasons rather than just to socialize and have fun.
These activities can include weather technology, science equipment, computers, and more. You can help your child learn more about technology and how they can use it in the following ways:
- Cut out shapes with scissors. There are several shapes drawn on a piece of paper. How can your child get these shapes out? By carefully using a pair of children’s scissors, your child can learn how to use technology to cut out different shapes from the paper.
- Build a house of cards. By building a house of cards, your child can learn about what holds the cards up (friction) and why they might slip or fall. You can also conduct experiments with the cards. For instance, would using baby powder on the cards increase or reduce friction? Sprinkle baby powder over the cards to see how it changes your ability to stack them. Try adding small weights like coins, too.
- Play logic games. Fun brain teasers, puzzles, and logic games can help your child develop greater problem solving skills. They’re learning about different ways to solve problems, both physically and mentally, which can help them develop solutions to similar problems later in life and in other activities.
- Take a picture of a block structure and have your child replicate it. This is a visual exercise in technology where your child uses replication. They’re able to look at the structure in the picture, analyze it, and determine which blocks go where to problem solve and build the structure themselves.
- Create a scavenger hunt with a map. Kids like scavenger hunts, but you can make the game that much more educational by using a map. Your child can learn how to use the map to find different locations, where the objects are relative to their spot, and how to get to them.
Entertaining with Engineering: Learning How Things Work
Your child has learned how to use technology to solve problems, but now it’s time they learn about why that technology solves their problem. Engineering is crucial to teach your child at a young age because they won’t be exposed to it until their later years in school when their interest in STEM may have already been crushed.
Here are a few ways you can get your child into the interesting and entertaining world of engineering:
- Teach them about levers and pulleys. Levers and pulleys are some of the first things you’ll learn about engineering as a child. They’re also some of the most simple types of engineering projects to make and learn about. Consider introducing your child to gears, wheels, and pulleys. Then make a pulley system with your child using string and a spool. One of your child’s smaller toys can be used as a weight.
- Plan and design a structure with blocks. In the previous section, we mentioned an activity where your child looked at a picture of a block structure and replicated it using their own blocks. Now, have your child design their own structure on a piece of paper with the blocks they have. Using their own instructions, have your child build the structure they’ve designed.
- Build a ramp. Like building with blocks, help your child design a small ramp structure for one of their toys. This works best for small remote control cars. With a ramp, you can not only design and build the structure but you can also determine which heights and angles work best for the ramp.
Don’t Miss Out On Math Activities
Many children don’t like math when they get older. This is often because mathematics can be challenging. Unfortunately, math’s difficulty can often cause children to become frustrated and believe they’re not good at the subject even if their grades are fair.
You can help to curb this frustration and make math more manageable using certain activities to stimulate their problem solving skills. Here are a few math-centric activities to give your child’s skills a boost.
- Baking. Concepts are always more fun when you can see the end result. Through baking, you can teach your child the importance of counting and using the right measurements of certain ingredients to bake a cake, cupcakes, or cookies.
- Pretend play with monetary value. Pretend play is great for math activities. Have your child pretend to be a cashier or a waiter/waitress and you pretend to be a buying customer. Have certain objects set up for the game with specified prices. Your child can then sell an item to you and give you change or add the prices together.
- Play addition and subtraction games while waiting. Oftentimes, your child will want to play a game with you in the car or while you’re waiting for food at a restaurant. Rather than playing the classic I-Spy, consider playing an addition and subtraction game. Take turns so your child feels on equal ground with you in terms of problem solving. Not only will this help your child with their own math skills, but it can also keep your mind sharp as well. You never know when your child will ask a hard question!
It’s never too late or too early to help your child discover a love for STEM. The earlier you encourage your child to embrace their natural curiosity and wonder about the world, the easier it will be to create a positive attitude about STEM and forge their foundational skills for future STEM success.
You can keep your child involved in STEM by engaging them in everyday STEM activities like cooking, buying food, building with legos, and more. Do fun experiments, go exploring, and visit museums that encourage your child to learn and grow.
Whether or not your child decides to go into a STEM career later in their life, they can use the problem solving skills and techniques they learn through STEM activities and concepts in every aspect of their lives. After all, the goal of STEM isn’t to push your child toward any one career but to get them ready for the future lives they want to lead.