The research supporting the importance of laying a firm foundation in the first five years of life is certainly not new. As Early Childhood educators today, armed with brain research and impressive data, I think we have learned to look beyond our classroom to a bigger picture. How a child learns to think and problem solve in the earliest years not only affects the individual child but also on our country’s ability to maintain a world leadership position.
It is no longer unusual to hear a resounding advocacy for investment in early childhood education from leaders in business along with the military and scientific community. This is a tribute to tireless advocates who continue to speak out on behalf of young children.
Rick Stephens, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Boeing was recently quoted in “Ready Nation” as saying, “We need to start early — even before kindergarten — to nurture children’s natural curiosity. It’s a first step in creating the skilled workforce that allows the U.S. to complete globally.” Mr. Stephens’ comments were in reference to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education which has become, rightly so, a major component in 21st century learning in K-12.
Recent scores on the Program for International Student Assessment showed that U.S. students ranked 21st in science literacy, and 25th in math literacy pointing to a critical need to raise the performance of our students in these key areas. Our world today dictates that technology and engineering are also a prime focus area vital to preparing our children to compete in a global society. STEM education has become a workforce issue as our country is challenged by high levels of unemployment while at the same time companies are struggling to find qualified candidates for STEM jobs.
Many agree with Mr. Stevens that we should be embracing STEM education before kindergarten and point to research that indicates that the brain is particularly receptive to learning math and logic during these preschool years. Concepts that are at the heart of STEM — curiosity, observation, experimentation and problem solving — are a natural part of a young child’s world and should be nurtured.
The argument for an emphasis on STEM in early childhood classroom has many proponents. I would agree with those that point out that this acronym needs to be just a bit more inclusive. Several groups created by educators have emerged to support a push for the addition of an “a” to STEM: adding art and design to the equation to turn STEM into STEAM. The thinking is that the best understanding of the STEM disciplines is enhanced by the spirit of creativity and innovation that has always been at the heart of our nation’s success.
During the many years that I have worked with young children, I have been privileged to observe the blossoming of creativity and problem solving that emerges during open ended art activities. What do I mean by open ended art? Open ended art allows children to make decisions and take control of the results. It is art that is invented by the child and allows children an opportunity to explore materials and enjoy the process of creating. It differs greatly from the production of “refrigerator art”: identical art projects that have little to do with a child’s imagination and everything to do with an adult’s preconceived vision.
A national focus on learning standards has driven a rigorous intentionality into all education. It is important to understand why art is an essential ingredient in supporting intellectual growth and can be logically aligned with STEM initiatives in preparing young children for the challenges of the future.
To a child, the world is filled with endless possibilities. They learn through art what will work and what won’t. Because there is not one right answer, art presents an opportunity to be creative problem solvers or “risk takers” and meet challenges in new ways. A majority of young children will most likely NOT grow up to be the next Picasso but being exposed to appropriate art experiences from the earliest years promotes divergent thinking skills — valuable for future scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
Art also fosters creativity that is essential to innovation. The future prosperity of our nation certainly depends on a workforce proficient in the latest technology and with a solid understanding of science, engineering and mathematics but what can set us apart is the ability to:
See things in new ways
Discover how to create something new
Combine things in new ways
The line between subject areas is blissfully blurred in the early childhood classroom. Early childhood teachers tasked with meeting assessment goals with a strong literacy component may be tempted to push experiential learning — math, science and particularly the arts — to a back seat in favor of direct literacy instruction. Language and literacy can easily be imbedded within discovery learning and experimentation, hallmarks of a quality early childhood program. Art, science, mathematical thinking, technology and engineering all lend themselves to the development of important problem solving skills.
Innovation coupled with science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM subjects — along with art and design, are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century.
We need to add art and design to the equation — to transform STEM into STEAM and encourage the “risk takers” within our early childhood classrooms. It is an American tradition that has brought us to where we are today!