Columns, Imagine That

Passing the sandbox test

Little Annie spends 3 days a week in a wonderful in-home day care setting. Her father is wondering if it is time to put her into preschool. The local preschool is contemplating offering STEM curriculum for 4- and 5-year-olds.

STEM, an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, is an acronym associated with an emphasis on teaching these subjects in schools. It stems (no pun intended) from the comparative decline American kids are experiencing in these subjects.

Parents can feel helpless when it comes to helping kids learn STEM subjects. Many of us weren’t very good at math or science or we have just forgotten a lot of it. Yet we want our kids to love math and science and we want American kids to catch up.

Building blocks

Gaps in STEM scores start appearing as early as preschool, resulting in some educators favoring STEM curricula in preschools. When we first heard about this, we were astonished. What next, we thought, can you flunk sandbox? However, early childhood educators who favor STEM in preschool say not to worry.

Laura Mann

Preschool STEM focuses on helping kids hone their logic, reasoning, and curiosity skills in a free-play setting.

STEM in preschools looks very different from the science and math classes in elementary schools. Preschool STEM focuses on helping kids hone their logic, reasoning, and curiosity skills in a free-play setting.

When children build a house with blocks, they think critically about the placement of certain blocks so they might engineer a taller, more solid structure. A child who collects leaves outdoors notices that they come in different shapes and colors. Teachers who explain to the builder why her block house collapsed, or show the young naturalist which trees correspond with certain leaf shapes, are encouraging STEM.

“What STEM does is give a label to what you’re already doing: helping children to explore, observe, ask questions, predict, [and] integrate their learning,” explains Dr. Sherri Killins, Massachusetts Commissioner of Early Education. “It’s what we’ve always done in early childhood education.”

Curiosity reared the kid

Parents can easily participate and help their children get a leg up on STEM. Next time your preschooler is engaged in an activity, observe her carefully, and notice when she is using her thinking cap to overcome problems. In an article for the National Science Teachers’ Foundation, educator Peggy Ashbrook observed the STEM-related thoughts and actions in children at play in a sandbox. She recorded their dialogue, and found that kids use scientific thought processes even in the sandbox. The kids noticed the properties of sand (e.g., the sand is made up of tiny granules, which must be scooped in order to move it). They explored how sand reacted to water, noticing the difference between wet and dry sand. The kids drew comparisons between sand and other materials, with one child remarking that he was “scooping ice cream,” thus drawing parallels between the properties of seemingly unrelated substances.

When you watch your child at play, ask him questions about his surroundings. Kids often use toys ingeniously; if she is using toys for something other than their intended purpose, ask her what makes that toy suitable for its new purpose. Books and certain TV programs where the characters use STEM skills offer another way to help.

In a 2012 study, the Concord Evaluation Group gave 155 families a package of Curious George books and DVDs, while a control group received nothing. Of the families who viewed and read the Curious George materials, an overwhelming majority reported better understanding of basic STEM topics.

Talk with your kids about characters in their favorite books and television programs. What happens when a character does a certain thing? Would that happen in the real world? Why or why not?

The foundation of STEM is curiosity: a need to know how things work, where things came from, and how the world around us is organized. Awakening this curiosity in the preschool years can have marked benefits throughout a child’s education. Imagine that!

Laura Mann recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. Her father Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”
© Michael Mann, 2013, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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