STEM has become something of a buzzword in recent years. It is an integrated approach to learning, that links together the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
How do you teach STEM in early childhood education, though? Our STEM resources, STEM Detectives and Bringing STEM to Life, both agree that STEM learning occurs naturally through play. Are children not engaged in science, engineering and mathematics while mud pie making?
Play is how children learn. Our resources help early childhood educators recognise STEM experiences within children’s play. And scaffold and model STEM concepts when these learning opportunities arise.
‘STEM’ stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Instead of these four disciplines being taught as separate subjects, STEM education creates a multi-discipline approach to learning – where the STEM subject of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are integrated into an interdependent unit.
STEM focuses on developing higher-order thinking skills, which are needed for success both inside and outside of the classroom. Skills like collaboration, communication, problem-solving, research and creativity.
STEM education is important in early childhood because it teaches children creativity, to ask questions, initiative, communication and critical thinking skills. These are skills and dispositions children will need to later engage with the New Zealand Curriculum.
Consequently, by engaging in STEM during early childhood education, children are preparing themselves to transition into higher levels of education.
Furthermore, the global economy is changing because of technological advances. Current jobs are disappearing due to automation, and new jobs are emerging. Today’s young children are anticipated to need transferrable skills relevant across disciplines to be prepared for future societies.
These skills have not historically been seen as necessary for transition into school and later career paths.
Therefore, teaching should involve “real world, contextually relevant learning,” which will support our children’s future education and careers.
As the co-author of STEM Detectives, Niki Buchan says:
“As the world moves and changes at an ever-increasing pace, STEM thinking provides our children with the skills to not only survive but also to thrive.”
Fortunately, creating STEM experiences in early years settings is relatively simple because children are naturally curious. Young children want to explore, question, investigate and experiment with the world around them and create their own ‘working theories.’
The authors of STEM Detectives, Niki Buchan and Bronwyn Cron, say STEM education begins with providing children with time, space and lots of loose parts.
“If children are given large periods of uninterrupted time to play with objects and resources that don’t have a set purpose and that they can change and manipulate in any way they choose, children will naturally explore complex STEM thinking and concepts.”
“Saturating” the learning environment with resources for inquiry-based exploration creates STEM learning opportunities. Our blog, "How to incorporate STEM learning in early childhood," provides a comprehensive list of STEM resources.
Educators can help children work through the STEM processes by modelling STEM language or scaffolding STEM activities. For example, the early childhood educator could ask while making mud pies, “What happens if we add more or less water?”
As Buchan and Cron say, “The adult is the mentor and guide; the children are the scientists.”