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Preschool STEM

By Peggy Ashbrook

Posted on 2010-03-01

Science, technology, engineering and math are linked together in what is called “STEM” curriculum. If we break down this (possibly unfamiliar) term into it’s parts, we see that much of it is already happening in early childhood programs. Science can be planting seeds, mixing materials together to make a change, rolling objects down a ramp, sorting rocks by color, and touching objects with a magnet to test for attraction to the magnet, all the while recording and thinking about what happened. Technology—computers, but also using other tools such as flashlights and digital cameras. Math can be counting and matching shapes, and making patterns. Engineering in preschool and kindergarten is easy to, uh…, engineer, in the block area. There children are planning and designing structures every day with little teacher direction. Measuring is easy too, especially if the blocks are unit blocks where every two make one of the next size up. Add the experience of recording the process by asking children open-ended questions (Tell me what you are working on now. If you don’t like the tipping, what can you do to stop it? What else can you use since all the long blocks are being used?) and writing down their thoughts. Put paper on clipboards or trays in the block area and invite children to draw their structure, or just the “best” part of it.

Building a structure-sculpture with wood and glueThis documentation can be reflected on later as can permanent structures made with wood scraps and glue. Can the children tell you how they built it, analyzing why they chose certain pieces? Do they compare heights and strength? Can they say why they chose certain scraps to create the whole?
Sand, a common early childhood building material, changes properties depending on whether it is dry or wet. Arrange for your class to explore the materials of sand and water separately and then together,  (see the March 2010 Early Years column in Science and Children). There is a place for lengthy, unstructured exploration and for shorter, teacher-led activities in early childhood. When we observe and document children’s work—what they do and what they say—we may more easily understand their thinking and provide experiences that help them learn more, and change misconceptions.
Writing down children’s comments as children explore is, of course, subject to recorder’s attention remaining focused and interest level. I often wish I had video recordings to review, revealing more, possibly nonverbal, exploratory behavior that would suggest additional directions to pursue. If only the means and time were available!
Here is what I recorded over several sessions at the sensory table:

With water What this suggested to me…what do you think?
It’s cold. Using senses and language to make an observation.
You got me wet! Social communication.
Pour it in here. Planning and social communication.
Oops. Recognizing an error in implementing their plan.
It’s floating! Making an observation and using appropriate vocabulary.
It’s [water] going through. Describing the relationship between two materials: water and sieve.
Pour some for me. Describing a property of water.
Don’t splash me! Describing a property of water and social communication.
Want some coffee? Imaginative play recognizing the similarity between water and coffee.
With dry sand What this suggested to me…what do you think?
I need a scoop. Recognizing a property of sand: it’s made of tiny, solid pieces.
It filled over. Describing an amount in relationship to a unit (the cup).
I’m making a pile. Using language to communicate a plan.
I got sand in my eye. Recognizing a property of sand: it’s made of tiny, solid pieces.
[Pouring the sand.] Recognizing a property of dry sand.
I’m hiding all the marbles. Using material playfully, making use of the properties of sand.
Get the earthmover truck. Making a plan.
I need some sand! Deciding to explore the material.
I can’t make a snowball. Noting limitations of the material, or how it is different than expected.
I can pat it to the side. Noting limitations of dry sand as a building material/
The dry sand goes through. Describing the relationship between two materials: dry sand and sieve.
With wet sand What this suggested to me…what do you think?
Make it full. Making a comparative measurement, and a plan.
Find a spoon. Choosing a tool.
Push it over here. Recognizing a property of wet sand, that it sticks together in a clump.
It’s wet. Using senses and language to make an observation.
I want to wash my hands. Using language to describe a sensory experience and noting that wet sand sticks to our hands.
I’m making a castle. Making a plan for imaginative play.
I’m scooping ice cream. Imaginative play recognizing that wet sand can be scooped like ice cream.
My handprint! Making an observation about the property of wet sand being able to hold its shape.

Building (such a useful word!) on previous sandbox and beach experiences, the children learned that both dry sand and water can be poured, and that because wet sand sticks together, it can make a much taller tower or deeper hole than dry sand. With maturity, encouragement, or direct instruction children can quantify their experiences with dry and wet sand: “This” much water added to “this” much sand makes good building sand and we build a castle tower “this” tall.
Here are a few books about building with sand.
Sand Castle by Brenda Yee (Greenwillow Books, 1999). On a sandy beach a girl accepts the help of one child after another to build a sand castle, working with wet sand.
From Sand to Glass (Start to Finish) by Shannon Zemlicka, photos by Randall Hyman (Lerner, 2004). With table of contents, glossary, and an index, this book teaches early readers how to use non-fiction while telling the interesting story of how sand becomes glass, another familiar but very different material.
Or read the similarly structured book with less text, Sand to Glass (Welcome Books) by Inez Snyder. (Children’s Press, 2005).
Sand (Rookie Readers) by Pamela Miller, illustrator Rick Stromoski. (Children’s Press, 2000). With 61 words on the word list, this early reader covers the places we might see sand and the conditions we find it in—beach, desert, in piles, wet and dry.
Jump Into Science: Sand by Dr. Ellen J. Prager. National Geographic Children’s Books (April 25, 2006). Illustrations include close-ups of a magnified view of sand.
Super Sand Castle Saturday (Mathstart Level 2 ) by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrator Julia Gorton (Steck-Vaughn 1999). Larry the Lifeguard starts a sandcastle building contest and the children measure with shovel lengths, steps, and inches to determine the tallest, longest, and deepest.
Engineering is also evident in the design of clothes we wear and the special equipment used by community helpers such as firefighters. In the February 2010 issue of Science and Children, I wrote about one class’s exploration of how a firefighter’s helmet protects its wearer from water spray and falling objects.
What STEM explorations have happened in your classroom?

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