At national levels of education, we are currently seeing a push to educate and graduate students with a strong core knowledge in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math. Some experts in the field of education claim that without a STEM foundation, we as a nation cannot thrive in the modern workforce. STEM is everywhere, and it is here to stay.

It’s natural for homeschool parents to wonder how early is too early to start teaching STEM and what is the best way to go about it. In this article, we’ll explore some ways to include STEM in your early learning curriculum. But first, let’s talk about approach. How you go about teaching STEM is important, and knowing about your child’s developmental stage is vital. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your early learner is a natural explorer, so your approach to these subjects will be most effective when you provide a variety of play-centered learning opportunities.
  • It’s all about the multisensory experience: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching are the ways your child brings meaning to his or her learning experiences.
  • Project orientation integrates subjects and creates real-world experiences. Give a reason for doing—a problem to solve.

Let’s break the acronym down into each of its parts and explore some natural and gentle approaches to STEM for your youngest learners. You will be encouraged to know that you are already doing a great number of these things, you just didn’t know it was STEM!

Science

Science activities include those wonderful nature activities—the messier the better—that our early learners seem to naturally gravitate to.  For early learners, the science part of STEM can include exploring water, sand, dirt, and rocks, as our little children naturally do every time they are outdoors. We tend to think this is just play, with no value beyond entertainment, but remember all play is the work of our youngest children: the work of learning.

Don’t undervalue informal science exploration for your young learners. However, you can add intentional learning by comparing and contrasting natural materials, building on your children’s natural curiosity and increasing their working science vocabulary. Ask questions like, “What do you see that is different about the sand and the rocks? What is the same? What makes this feel different? What do you think would happen if we add sand to this dirt? What if we added water to it?”

Notice these are all “what” questions. Educational research indicates that at this level, asking what instead of why leads to a greater sense of exploration, because there isn’t just one correct way to answer the inquiry. We are building interest and curiosity in our children, creating environments that encourage further exploration.

Technology

This is one of those areas where I will show my age! When my children were young (in the early 2000s) they did not use technology at all, aside from occasional TV or movies. But technology is everywhere now, and most parents of very young children today were themselves raised on it, so technology will likely be incorporated in your early learning plans as well. My caution is that technology should never be a substitute for warm, loving real-life interactions and should always be balanced with plenty of time outdoors, hands-on activities, and real conversations with real people.

The best use of technology is as another outlet for your child’s creativity and communication. When my children were young, I tried to instill in them the benefits of being creators instead of consumers. For example, they practiced handwriting not by writing in a workbook (consumer), but by writing letters to their out-of-town grandparents to say hello (creator).

One fun way to incorporate technology with your child could be to create electronic books to showcase their learning, which can then be shared with others. Technology also refers to using tools. Using a magnifying glass to look at tiny bugs outside is a great example of incorporating both science (the bugs) and technology (the magnifying glass).

Engineering

Playing with Legos, Duplos, Lincoln Logs, wooden blocks, and other building materials helps children learn about gravity, balance, and shapes, all with a problem-solving focus. Engineering is as natural a fit to children as messy outdoor play is. We can take advantage of the natural desire to build and problem-solve at this developmental stage.

You can add learning intentionality here too by asking open-ended questions. Challenge them to:

  • build as high as they are tall
  • create specific shapes
  • add particular features to existing structures
  • copy a structure in a picture
  • build something within a set time frame
  • build for a specific purpose, to solve a problem

Math

Counting, sorting, matching shapes, and making patterns are all great ways to develop skills in logic, classification, and ordering. Sometimes we get hung up thinking that math is only about learning to count, memorizing math facts, and filling out endless worksheets, but that is not all there is to it.

Math skills have a predictable developmental sequence. First is the structure of math and then the vocabulary and symbols. It does little good to know “3” if your child doesn’t yet understand the concept of “how many.” We often get ahead of our children’s developmental stage when we emphasize memorization of numbers before they learn what the number symbol means. So how do young children learn about the basic structure of math?

One way is by seeing the relationship between things. Matching games that point out items that are the same or equal is one example. You can use music in this way too, by matching a beat, a tempo, or a pitch in the songs you sing together and clap to; or you can introduce comparisons by inviting your child to do the opposite of what you do.

Math is one of those subjects that historically has been taken in isolation instead of being integrated with other subjects, but that approach isn’t necessarily the best. When you ask your child to build you a structure (engineering) in the shape of a hexagon (geometry) as he explains to you his building process (language arts), multiple subjects are woven together in an integrated approach that will enhance your child’s understanding of math and the world.

Turn STEM Into STEAM

“A” represents the arts, and it is recently being added to the familiar acronym. The idea is that art helps students express the STEM concepts in creative ways, further solidifying their learning. My suggestion of using technology to create an electronic book is an example of how to incorporate art in technology learning. One of the strengths of the homeschooling movement is that we can incorporate art in greater ways for our children than can teachers in public schools with limited budgets and time.

Home educating lends itself beautifully to the natural and gentle introduction of STEM/STEAM concepts because of the ease with which we can encourage project-based learning for our children simply through their own exploring, discovering, and curiosity about the world around them.

This article was published in the March/April 2017 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.

Gail Heaton and her husband Randy live in Missoula, Montana. Their seven children, ages 25 to 16, have been homeschooled from the start. Just when life starts to go smoothly with three in college and the teens now launching into young adulthood, along comes the toddler, grandbaby number one, reminding her how much excitement the early learning years can bring.