Young children are surrounded by STEM learning opportunities both at home and in early childhood classrooms. But parents need support to help their children in these subject areas, and teachers require “more robust training and professional development” to weave STEM throughout the curriculum, states a new report supported by the National Science Foundation.
Released last week by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and New America, “STEM Starts Early” asserts that because of the technology revolution, it is just as important for children to learn STEM skills as it is for them to read. “To support the future of our nation, the seeds of STEM must be planted early, along with and in support of the seeds of literacy,” according to the report.
The report’s authors sought to better understand the barriers parents and teachers face in making STEM topics more central in their children’s lives, such a lack of confidence in their own understanding of those subject areas and a perception that STEM is for older students.
“Young 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,” said a researcher quoted in the report.
Supporting ‘playful learning’
Moreover, libraries are part of the microsystem of environments that serve as “charging stations where children can power up and extend their STEM learning,” the study affirms. Along with museums, libraries can provide opportunities for parents to learn STEM skills along with their children.
The authors also stress that children in preschool and the early grades gain STEM skills through “developmentally informed playful learning,” such as building with blocks, gardening, and working puzzles.
The Pierce County Library near Tacoma, WA, for example, launched its block program five years ago after state assessments showed that skills in math and other STEM subjects were lagging among incoming kindergarten students. Classrooms from the Head Start program and the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program—which both assess preschoolers in these areas—are invited to gather in branch meeting rooms equipped with blocks and other building materials. The children hear stories about building things and spend the monthly hour and a half creating their own structures.
Both library and preschool staff members “have been trained in how to scaffold the child’s building. There are no rules on what to do, no right or wrong,” says Judy Nelson, the library system’s youth services director. “Conversations take place around what they are working on, how it is going, asking ‘what next’ questions, asking what the story about their construction is.”
The participating centers are required to have their own blocks so they can continue the learning outside of the library, and families in those programs receive tip sheets, a set of blocks and a book each month to take home. Branches also offer open block play to families not in those programs.
In New York, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) branches incorporate STEM activities, such as sensory bins, and color and light explorations into “big playdates” for infants and toddlers. In addition, BPL shares ideas with caregivers for at-home experiences through Beanstack, an online portal where parents can find recommended books, apps, and other educational programs matched to their child’s age.
In BPL’s “Ready, Set, Kindergarten!” program for preschoolers, two of the six sessions focus on STEM, and school-age children are introduced to the basic concepts of engineering, electricity, aerodynamics, sound, and light in Library Lab sessions. The Lab program is also used to train children’s librarians on STEM topics.
“We’ve found it’s been most effective to demonstrate simple STEM activities librarians can work into their programs,” says Rachel Payne, BPL’s coordinator of Early Childhood Services. “Usually they are surprised and delighted that many of the activities they are already doing are STEM related.”
Messaging is important
The report notes that misconceptions about STEM learning in the early years—such as a belief that STEM is only for children who are gifted or driven in these areas—can be addressed by helping STEM proponents to “infuse better narratives into the public discourse.”
Susan Nall Bales, one of the authors of the report and a senior fellow at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, writes about this process in a paper that is part of the report. Bales is the founder of the FrameWorks Institute, which uses communications research to change public conversations about social issues, particularly in the area of science. Bales discusses how to “reframe” discussions on STEM for young children by blending policy with meaningful metaphors about learning. One example is comparing STEM to learning a foreign language. “Just as people need to be immersed in real-world situations to best acquire a language, when children and youth explore STEM in their lives outside of the classroom, they can master these subjects.”
The researchers also analyzed NSF grants for STEM learning directed toward children from birth through age 10 and found more awards focusing on math and science than for technology and engineering. “The NSF has a powerful role to play in helping to set the research, policy, and reform agendas by targeting funding toward particular topics,” the report says. “Furthermore, the NSF has made the largest financial investment in STEM education of all the government agencies, so its funding priorities are of vital importance to the future of early STEM learning.”
The report’s authors spread the responsibility for increasing opportunities for STEM learning across multiple sectors. They recommend increased efforts to build parents’ confidence and comfort level in STEM, call for strengthening teacher preparation and professional development related to how young children learn STEM topics, and advocate for funding and efforts to “expand the web of STEM learning ‘charging stations’” in the community.
“To effectively seed STEM development for young children, we must mobilize leaders from every pivotal sector—research, practice, industry, philanthropy, and policy—to work together,” they write. “Only then will America’s most precious asset—its youngest children—grow and bloom in a world where STEM learning is no longer a luxury but a necessity.”
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