Library programs about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are being developed for all ages, including preschoolers. Those of us who hold early literacy enhanced storytimes by modeling intentional activities and explaining to parents and caregivers why early literacy is important are well-positioned to give ongoing attention to both STEM thinking and early literacy.
When we were writing our book Storytimes for Everyone: Developing Young Children’s Language and Literacy (ALA, 2013), we turned their attention toward ways to incorporate science and math concepts into traditional storytimes. Here are some of the things we learned and have implemented.
The STEM concepts
Science and math concepts can each be broken down into two areas: content (facts and information) and process (ways of thinking). Science concepts can be divided into four content areas: life sciences, physical sciences, earth and space sciences, and use of tools. Scientific process includes observation, exploring and questioning, making a prediction, experimenting, collecting data, making a conclusion, and communicating findings. Even very young children experiment informally; their explorations should be encouraged and talked about. Giving words to textures that a baby is touching is a way to focus on observation.
Math content includes numbers and operations, patterns and relationships, geometry and spatial relationships, comparison and measurement, and time and sequence. Math process includes problem solving, representation, communication using math language, and making connections applying math to different situations.
The early literacy components of vocabulary (knowing the meanings of words including objects, concepts, feelings, actions, and ideas) and background knowledge (what children know about the world through experience or instruction) like math and science concepts, support later comprehension as children read.
How to incorporate them
Informally incorporating math and science concepts into storytimes helps both staff and attending adults who are a bit intimidated by science and math to see how these concepts are part of daily life, including storytime.
We believe that every storytime theme has a math and/or science strand in it. By highlighting and playing with those concepts, we are enriching children’s storytime experiences. This approach, rather than a more staff-intensive, occasional program, is sustainable and enables all children to learn about math and science as long as they can, at a minimum, go to storytime, thus reaching the largest number of children. For example, a storytime book such as The Napping House (HBG, 1983) by Audrey Wood offers opportunities to talk about any number of concepts of science and math, such as the weather we see out the window, the rainbow, weight, sequence, measurement and comparison, and prediction by observing the animals in the pictures.
Here is a quick start guide help you incorporate math and science into storytime.
- Add a factual book. Don’t worry about reading the whole book. Choose a page to share or use a photograph to point out some science-related information. For example if a picture book on picnics mentions ants, you might include the book Ants by Melissa Stewart (National Geographic, 2010) to show a photograph of an ant and/or read a page or two about ants.
- Go beyond mere counting. Parents and caregivers often reduce math thinking to counting. You can expand on this by talking about other concepts including patterns (repeated phrase comes after a certain occurrence in a book, or visual patterns in illustrations, sound patterns with shakers or clapping activities), size, shape (geometry), matching, and categorizing (the beginnings of algebra).
- Use science or math words using phrase such as “What do you think will happen next?” or “What do you predict will happen?” Here are some examples of science/math vocabulary.
- Add a writing/recording activity by graphing things you have sorted. For example, if you presented a storytime on dinosaurs you could make a graph based on one trait, like length of neck. Graphs give children a visual representation of the results of grouping things by a trait.
- Include matching activities. They support math concepts of categorizing and grouping, such as a flannel board mitten match activity.
- Use time before and after storytime to talk about the concept you are exploring. Use rich talk that includes new vocabulary words and that models asking the children open-ended questions.
- Tell parents/caregivers about a simple thing you have done that supports science and/or math thinking. Then, offer adults ideas for ways to support science/math thinking throughout the day. For example, at meal time, parents can point out that each person has one plate, cup, etc., which teaches children one-to-one correspondence. Here are more examples.
- Encourage adults to ask their children open-ended questions to help them explore and solve problems on their own and enjoy a sense of discovery about the world.
- Talk enthusiastically about the topic with children and adults. It is good to remind parents that children are naturally interested in math and science and that, although they are young, they are capable learners.
- Include information about the science or math concept in your take-home activities to further extend the learning outside the library.
One of the most rewarding aspects of including new content and ways of thinking about math and science in storytime is that it helps us see and think about things we used to regard as common in a different light. We now see one of the most familiar and well-loved children’s songs in a different angle:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high.
Like a diamond in the sky
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
This children’s song is an opportunity to talk about light and stars, how things that are faraway look smaller, about high and low, the shape of a diamond versus that of a square. None of these things detract from the sweet rhyme. It is the perfect combination of poetry and science, the embodiment of a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity. It is this—wonder and curiosity—that we feed when we help children understand and talk about their world through rich language and diverse experiences. When we help adults encourage the young poet and scientist in their children, we are supporting the development of the whole child.
Saroj Ghoting and Pamela Martin-Diaz are co-authors of Early Literacy Storytimes @ Your Library and Storytimes For Everyone: Developing Young Children’s Language and Literacy” (both American Library Association, 2006 and 2013). Ghoting is an early childhood literacy consultant who presents early literacy workshops, including one on science and math in storytimes, around the country. Pamela Martin-Diaz is branch manager and early literacy coordinator at Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.