“The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers: creative and empathic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”

— Daniel Pink

In recent years STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has grown nationally as an approach to prepare youth for 21st century careers. With the addition of “art,” the potential to stimulate the creativity of youth, preparing them for jobs where innovation and invention is key, is multiplied. With STEAM, students have opportunities to explore, investigate, pursue their curiosities, and draw conclusions about: how things work, how to build or develop and how to improve their designs. STEAM also provides an excellent way to engage young children in learning and to help them express their understanding in creative ways. STEAM and early childhood approaches are complementary. 

Lilian Katz is often cited for her description of how to implement STEM at the early childhood level. Katz describes the difference between academic and intellectual instruction:

“Academic goals are those concerned with acquiring small discrete bits of disembedded information, usually related to pre-literacy skills, that must be practiced in drills, and worksheets, and other kinds of exercises designed to prepare children for later literacy and numeracy learning … Intellectual goals and their related activities, on the other hand, address the life of the mind in its fullest sense, including a range of aesthetic and moral sensibilities … intellectual [goals]emphasize reasoning, hypothesizing, predicting, the quest for understanding and conjecturing, as well as the development and analysis of ideas.”

STEAM at the early childhood level is supported by many organizations. The National Association of Science Teachers, for example, references the National Resource Center (NRC) in a recent position statement on Early Childhood Science Education: “Current research indicates that young children have the capacity for constructing conceptual learning and learning the practice of reasoning and inquiry.”

The Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) offers an array of Early Childhood workshops on STEAM, approaching STEAM from the perspective of six models (Nature, Imaginative Play, STEM+ Art, Maker Spaces, STEM Learning Centers, and Involving Parents and Community).

Perhaps one reason it has taken a few years for STEAM to reach the early childhood level is that many adults, including educators, underestimate the skills, abilities and potential of young children. At a recent CEI workshop, when asked how they may have underestimated the ability of children, participants gave many poignant examples, including instances where children were able to simply explain to other children about how to complete a complex task. And of course, most of us are familiar with how rapidly young children seem to use technology, such as apps like Angry Birds, or even their amazing agile use of iphones and the Internet to view videos. We suggest that educators keep the prowess of these young children in mind as they plan early childhood STEAM lessons.

Nature and Imaginative Play. Many creative ideas for implementing STEM/STEAM are available. For example, outdoor activities provide opportunities for investigation to further understanding of plants, animals, weather and the environment, and even an understanding of ourselves. Adding a few props such as magnifiers and “bug cages” can deepen children’s understanding of this world. Ken Finch from the Green Heart Institute describes how a nature-based curriculum can incorporate structured projects to further student engagement, imaginative play, and an understanding of nature. One of the activities he suggests is creating plant houses.

A good source for planning and monitoring children’s imaginative play is an article by the Director of Tools of the Mind Project, Deborah Leong, and a McRel researcher, Elena Bodrova. Drs. Leong and Bodrova developed a rubric for measuring levels of imaginative play. The rubric is a tool for measuring a child’s planning; use of roles, language, time, and props; and creation of imaginative scenarios.

Art. Lilian Katz provides an instructive reminder of the way to implement art with STEM. “In our preschool and kindergarten practices we are not caught between formal academic lessons or cutting and pasting ‘refrigerator art’ activities.” While these have their place, they are often over utilized to the detriment of structuring art in ways that allow students to display their understanding or creative interpretation of what they have observed or what they are thinking.

Maker Spaces. The use of maker spaces is trending in schools right now. At the middle and high school level maker spaces may include saws, hammers, and other tools for students to use with an engineering process of imagining, designing, creating and refining. At the preschool-kindergarten level, maker spaces incorporate cardboard boxes, blocks, and recycled objects so that students can create as they learn about science, math, engineering and art.

Learning Centers. Learning centers can be transformed into STEAM labs by incorporating STEAM art and maker spaces as STEAM labs, with purposeful activities that stimulate creativity, problem solving and discovery learning. AT CEI, we help teachers understand how robotics can be included in early childhood curricula by considering the elements of simple robotic functions and simple machines, and programming robotic function using coding.

Involving Parents and the Community. Schools are often advised to reach out to engineers for their assistance in implementing STEM. Parents and local businesses can help with planning and implementing STEM. Teachers can involve parents as volunteers to assist with: organizing and managing STEM labs or maker spaces, field trips and outings into the community, visits to parks and nature centers or museums, bringing simple demonstrations into classrooms.

Teacher Workshops

At workshops CEI conducted this past year in Washington, D.C., teachers learned through highly engaging, hands-on activities, which they were able to turnkey with their students.

The Washington Yu Ying Charter School in Washington, D.C., one of the top-tier schools in the district, serves as a demonstration site for our work. Amy Quinn, Co-Founder and Director of the International Baccalaureate program at Washington Yu Ying, describes the contribution that STEAM makes to their preschool-kindergarten program:

“It is important for young children to explore STEM concepts. The hands-on activities involving art help children learn about what they are observing, what they are thinking about. These are important skills that children will use into adulthood.”

In an interview with Ms. Quinn, she described how her early childhood teachers used the information gained at the CEI:

“As a Chinese Immersion school, teaching language skills can be challenging. Our teachers talked about how the exercises they did at the CEI workshops helped them realize the value of teaching observation and thinking aloud to their children—about how this gave them more tools to help young children develop conceptual understanding.”

Dr. Ramona Edelin, Executive Director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools has helped to sponsor the CEI STEM workshop in D.C. According to Dr. Edelin, “The District of Columbia’s decision to establish universal, high quality early childhood education has resulted in robust learning environments for three- and four-year-olds in both its school and community-based programs. Readiness for kindergarten is the explicit goal of these programs. Complementing the cognitive development thrust with a creative and developmentally appropriate STEM infusion is a vitally important component of the city’s vision of world class education for all students, beginning with early childhood success.”

Christine Mason, Ph.D., is Executive Director at the Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) in Vienna, Virginia. Dr. Mason has a background as a school improvement specialist, educational researcher, and director of teacher mentoring programs, and Associate Executive Director of Research and Professional Development at the National Association of Elementary School Principals.Orinthia Harris, M. Ed., is a dynamic educator with over 10 years of experience both inside and outside the classroom. She taught for over seven years in various elementary school classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade. She is currently an associate for CEI where she trains teachers how to implement fun STEAM activities in their elementary and early childhood classrooms.

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