Educators and researchers agree early literacy experiences are important for children’s cognitive and language development. For the past 30 years there has been a strong movement to foster children’s literacy skills. This has resulted in an abundance of information on how parents can do this by reading books, singing songs and nursery rhymes, playing word games and noticing print.
This is a good thing and should continue, given the importance of early literacy skills in learning to read, and how this leads to later success in school and life.
But in addition to early literacy skills, we should also be promoting early STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills. Early childhood is the natural starting point for STEM learning, as young children are curious and want to explore their environments.
Children are very capable STEM learners, and their knowledge and skills are often greatly underestimated by educators and parents.
1. Encourage children to notice things
Notice things in your environment such as changes in the seasons, new buds on plants, or the way things move in the wind. Children are often more observant than adults, especially when we are busy thinking about work and all the other things we need to do. Share your observations with your children and use the language associated with observations, such as noticing and observing.
Observation is the most fundamental scientific process. We form hypotheses and gather data from observations. With practice, children can move from noticing general features to more detailed or scientific features.
2. Encourage children to describe things they see and do
Ask children to describe the attributes or features of things they see and do. When your child sees a ladybug, ask them to describe it—what colour, shape and size is it?
Similarly, when your child is building something, ask them to describe what they are doing (or did). You can restate what they describe and extend on their words, increasing their vocabulary and confidence in using STEM language.
Only children who have had certain types of language socialization are likely to choose to study or learn STEM in later life. Use words like predict, experiment and measure.
3. Ask ‘what’ rather than ‘why’ questions
Ask questions that focus on what your child can see or do, rather than why. This will allow your child to confidently answer questions and experience success. “What is happening to the bubbles?” is much easier for them to respond to than “Why do bubbles stick together?”, and promotes further discussion between you and your child.
We want to extend conversations and learning, not shut it down with questions that children (and often parents) can’t answer. It’s fine to later find out why bubbles stick together or any other why question, but in the first instance, ask questions children can answer.
4. Encourage children to count using one-to-one correspondence
Children need to be able to do more than count. Children need to know one-to-one correspondence: that “one” equals one object, “two” equals two objects, “three” equals three objects, and so on.
Parents can easily develop this skill by asking children to, for example, collect five pegs for the washing, or two eggs for the cake mixture. Or by asking how many bags of shopping there are or how many letters are in the mailbox.
Board games are great for helping children understand one-to-one correspondence—especially when they move their counter along the board according to the number rolled or spun. Think back to arguments you may have had over where Monopoly tokens were supposed to be!
5. Encourage children to think about space around them
Encourage children to think about where they are in space. If they are looking at a map of the zoo, ask them where they are in relation to the kangaroos or lions. When driving to swimming lessons, ask them to give directions on how to get there.
Or, ask them to remember landmarks when driving somewhere you go regularly, like grandma’s place. Could your child recognize your house from a picture taken from the road, can they describe where their bedroom is in relation to the kitchen. Research has shown clear links between spatial skills and STEM skills.
Children can develop complex understandings about the world around them with the right guidance from adults. Early STEM experiences can set children up for later STEM learning. In line with the Early Years Learning Framework , we want children to be confident and involved learners. We need children to feel that they can “do” STEM, as well as understand and speak the language of STEM.
Unlike literacy materials, there are still very few resources available for parents on how to develop children’s early STEM skills. But there are many opportunities in everyday life for parents to develop these skills – they simply need to be made aware of them.
Parents don’t need to buy expensive toys, science kits or workbooks for children to fill in. Nor do parents need to have degrees in STEM to teach their children.
Waiting for children to begin school to learn about STEM is too late, just as waiting for children to start school to learn about reading. Parents can help their children be capable and confident STEM learners from a young age.