May 28, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Surprise—It’s STEM for Toddlers!


Twins stacking cups at the North Bellmore (NY) Public Library with Renee  McGrath, manager of youth services for the Nassau (NY) Library System.   Photo by Michele Rudzewick.

Twins stacking cups at the North Bellmore (NY) Public Library with Renee
McGrath, manager of youth services for the Nassau (NY) Library System.
Photo by Michele Rudzewick.

A friend recently posted this as her Facebook status: “Oh man. The barrage of ‘Why?!’ has begun!!!” I chuckled, and then discovered this statistic in a Boston Globe editorial by J.D. Chesloff, a member of the Massachusetts Governor’s STEM Advisory Council’s Executive Committee: “Young children are inquisitive learners who ask an average of 76 questions per hour.” Assuming the average toddler is awake for 10 hours a day, that can mean 760 questions a day—5,320 questions in a week. Roughly 21,280 questions in a month.

These nonstop queries are doing important stuff for a developing brain. Every time toddlers or preschoolers ask a “why” question, visualize your answer creating a neuron pathway in their brain. That is what’s happening.

Research confirms that the brain is particularly receptive to learning math and logic between the ages of one and four. “The link between early childhood and STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] is indisputable,” Chesloff writes in the Globe article. “Early exposure to STEM—whether it be in school, at a museum, library, or just engaging in the natural trial and error of play—supports children’s overall academic growth, develops early critical thinking and reasoning skills, and enhances later interest in STEM study and careers.”

Simple things parents can
do at home to encourage math

Put measuring cups and spoons in the bathtub for play.

Use a growth chart or scale to measure a child’s height/weight.

Let a toddler put money in a piggy bank (good for fine motor skills, too).

Sort laundry together.

Sort toys into their correct containers.

Blocks and geometry

Are libraries embracing this data—and making early learning, math- and science-based programs the norm? Resoundingly so. Rachel Payne, Brooklyn Public Library’s coordinator of early childhood services, observes that toddlers do math all the time. “They are learning about geometry when they play with blocks. They are learning about measurement/volume when they fill and dump out containers,” she said in response to my query on the topic on the Association for Library Service to Children listserv. “They are learning about patterns when they sing songs or listen to cumulative stories.”

When playing with puzzles, they learn about shapes and one-to-one correspondence (each piece has its own spot). Shape sorters are an early math toy; even clean-up time is a great time to practice sorting the toys into containers.

“Some parents don’t understand all the logical, mathematical thinking and problem solving that goes into play,” Payne says. “Children’s librarians can help them connect the dots.”

Librarians can encourage parents by modeling how to talk to tots about math concepts during play-based programs and storytimes in libraries. Parents can use mathematical language around their toddlers by counting out loud together or discussing quantities: “Do you have more apple slices or broccoli pieces on your plate?”

Good old stacking cups are also great for STEM learning. Renee McGrath, the youth services manager at the Nassau (NY) Library System (NLS), had an idea for an early earning giveaway item using Family Literacy Services Grant money awarded to her library system and my neighboring one, Suffolk Cooperative Library System. Renee proposed that we purchase sets of colored stacking cups to give out as end-of-summer incentive prizes to libraries that ran early literacy summer reading programs. Libraries distribute the sets to their patrons, along with a printed index card with early learning suggestions for using the cups at home with toddlers.

A STEM station at Montgomery County (MD) Public Library. Photo by MCPL.

A STEM station at Montgomery County (MD) Public Library.
Photo by MCPL.

Library STEM stations

The Montgomery County (MD) Public Library (MCPL) demonstrated its commitment to STEM this spring with STEM Mini-Stations designed to provide children as young as two and their caregivers with hands-on science activities whenever the library is open.

The stations provide informal, exploratory learning activities for children—and were created with limited resources, says Angelisa Hawes, branch manager of MCPL’s Aspen Hill Branch. The learning can happen any time, since use of the freestanding stations isn’t dependent on a scheduled event. Tots explore the activities at their own pace, and with a caregiver following along and reading the simple signage at each one, they learn about topics such as fossils, scientific observation, gears, colors, and even natural disasters. Children experience science through sight and touch in a highly interactive manner.

Librarians at the Damascus branch, which developed the stations, researched and designed them based on availability of space and safe, affordable, and sturdy supplies. Staff placed differently themed stations at the bookshelves’ end-caps and at the information and circulation desks. Each station had a hands-on manipulative, an informational poster about a STEM topic, activity instructions, interesting facts and open-ended questions to encourage curiosity, and related materials to circulate, including books and DVDs. Activities offer a range of complexity to serve ages beyond the toddler and preschool set.

Since the stations were launched at the Damascus branch, 22 branches now have them in place. System-wide training brought children’s services staff up to speed on incorporating the STEM stations into their own branches, complete with a toolkit and video resources. This included developing templates to illustrate the stations, equipment supply lists, and best practices/lessons. (More photos of the STEM stations.)

Next time a very young person asks you a question or two, turn the conversation to math or science. Better yet, lead them to the STEM activities at your library.

 “STEM topics naturally flow into toddler times, because literature and math are such natural companions,” notes Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Andersen Library. These titles are excellent introductions to math concepts in toddler and preschool storytimes:

Big, Bigger, Biggest by Nancy Coffelt (Holt, 2009)
Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker (Harcourt Brace, 1994)
Count! by Denise Fleming (Holt, 1992)
Have You Seen My Monster? by Steven Light (Candlewick, 2015)
Go, Dog, Go! By P.D. Eastman (Beginner Books, 1961)
Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert (Red Wagon Books, 2004)
Have You Seen My Monster? by Steven Light (Candlewick, 2015)
My Heart is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall (Greenwillow, 2010)
My Shapes=Mis Formas by Rebecca Emberley (Little, Brown, 2000)
Perfect Square by Michael Hall (Greenwillow, 2010)
Quack and Count by Keith Baker (Harcourt, 1999)
Rah, Rah, Radishes! By April Pulley Sayre (Beach Lane, 2011)
Round Is a Tortilla by Roseanne Greenfield Thong (Amicus Illustrated, 2015)
Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews (Scribner, 1968)
10 Hungry Rabbits by Anita Lobel (Knopf, 2012)
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox (Harcourt, 2008)
Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang (Greenwillow, 1983)
Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen (Coward-McCann, 1983)

This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Lisa G. Kropp About Lisa G. Kropp

Lisa G. Kropp is the assistant director of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst, NY, and a forever children’s librarian.

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  1. Donna O. Butler says:

    Oh, wow! I love this! We’re a tiny, tiny branch that does lots of STEM programming. In the past, I’ve done tons of preschool and school-age STEM programming using recycled materials. Now, I’ll concentrate on infant-toddler, as well. As for the cups, I’ve used packs of colored plastic cups for ages with my babies. They love to experiment with building, nesting and knocking them down. Library little ones are so much fascinating fun!

    • Lisa Kropp says:

      Thanks Donna! I agree that the little ones are fascinating to watch play in libraries! And STEM programming seems to fit that niche nicely!

  2. Rachel Payne says:

    Great piece! When I posted that to the ALSC blog, I didn’t realized you might quote me. You did an awesome job of putting all this together and I love all the great resources.

    • Lisa Kropp says:

      Thanks Rachel – how could I not quote you with that great information you gave me?