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The early years

Preschoolers’ Science Learning Can Be Joyful—Using a Play-Based, Project Approach

Young children are intrinsically curious and generally eager to engage in play-based learning activities. They welcome any opportunity to use their math and science skills and STEM concepts as they work with actual items within real-world applications. Children prosper from play-based STEM opportunities that appeal to their creativity and imagination. One study examining Black graduate candidates enrolled in engineering programs across three leading research universities determined that the students attributed their STEM progress to family members who cultivated and maintained their interest in STEM at early ages, whether curiosity and exploration were modeled purposefully or accidentally by parents (Burt and Johnson 2018). A play-based STEM approach places joy at the center as children explore and investigate actual materials within educational settings where items are readily available for their use.

Children construct a hamster maze.
Children construct a hamster maze.

Educators must use their power of observation on an ongoing, continuous basis to determine which materials spark children’s curiosity and compel them to pursue their interests with their full and undivided attention. According to Piaget (1954), children will not think deeply about concepts and content if the materials and activities do not interest them. In this sense, interest fuels the constructive process while simultaneously serving as a regulatory function by using interesting materials and experiences that fully captivate their attention, focus, and participation. The science branches that are most readily available to young children’s explorations include the life sciences (plant and animal life), physical sciences, and earth science.

Joyful STEM experiences likewise help to promote trusting relationships supported by authentic connections with meaningful, purposeful reasons to communicate and share thoughts and ideas with others. Trusting relationships with adults empowers children to openly explore, question, investigate, and try out their ideas without the fear of failure or making mistakes. When teacher observations of individual children reveal new interests and inqueries they want to pursue, it is critical for the teacher to pause what they are doing to capitalize on these teachable moments whenever possible. A play-based STEM approach to answering questions and figuring out problems children encounter is arguably a strengths-based approach as well. Listening attentively to what children say and the questions they ask empowers them with increased voice and agency to act on their questions and interests, further encouraging STEM identities. When adults stop, look, and listen, the message communicated to children is that their thoughts and ideas matter to them.

Hamster’s New Home Project

Let’s consider a STEM project completed by four- to five-year olds at the Hangzhou Qiangtang Jingyuan Preschool in China. Children expressed concern to their teachers based on their direct observations that the class hamster was gaining too much weight. They asserted that the hamster’s house was too small and the hamster wheel was not providing adequate exercise and metabolism needed to maintain the hamster’s general health and wellness. The children drew possible hamster structures designed with specific architectural elements, such as stairs. When children encountered design challenges, such as a collapsed floor, they were encouraged to look around the school and classroom for ideas (such as pillars providing needed support). To increase the hamster’s mobility, groups of children designed mazes using wooden blocks.


  • Wood blocks, cardboard boxes, cardboard pieces
  • Adhesive materials such as utility or packaging tape
  • Staples and stapler
  • Twine, string, wire
  • Pine shavings


A hamster home with lights added
A hamster home with lights added

Conversations about the need for adequate ventilation and temperature moderation (not too hot, not too cold) would need to be contemplated as well.

  • Classroom pets provide children with many joyful opportunities to learn about their survival needs while always respecting how the animal is cared for and handled.
  • Learning about plants and animals in the classroom can likewise transfer to outdoor settings. Just as children would not want to plaee litter or trash into the pet’s ecosystem within the classroom, children can transfer the need to care for outdoor ecosystems where plants and animals live and survive.
  • Learning about the basic survival needs of living organisms (e.g., water and nutrients) can be used as the criteria to define and discern between the living and nonliving.
  • Children can examine and explore the need for recycling programs designed to keep ecosystems safe and healthy for all living things.

Children experience great joy and excitement when they work to find practical solutions to real-world problems that they directly encounter, observe, and reflect on as they make sense of what is happening. One child’s increased empathy motivated him to add lights to his home structure so that the hamster will not be frightened by the dark.

Various design features provide children with ample opportunities to further discuss various animal’s lifestyles more deeply (such as different sleeping patterns and prefences specifically). This can be extended to include different natural animal habitats observed in the outdoors (e.g., bird nests, ant hills, beaver dams, beehives). After all, humans share the planet with all other life forms. The earlier children respect the survival needs of all living organisms, the greater the likelihood that they will be responsive to the need to care for the planet in ways that all living creatures can enjoy!


Thank you to Mr. Wenming Zhang, Adjunct Professor, Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College, Director of Shanghai Evergreen Child Development Center; Haixia Chen, Director of Hangzhou Qiangtang Jingyuan Preschool; and Ping, J., Preschool Teacher at the Hangzhou Qiangtang Jingyuan Preschool for sharing an example of their current and ongoing early STEM work with teachers and young children.

Shelly Lynn Counsell ( is an associate professor of early childhood education at the University of Memphis.


Burt, B.A., and J.T. Johnson. 2018. Origins of early STEM interest for Black male graduate students in engineering: A community cultural wealth perspective. School Science and Mathematics 1–14.

Piaget, J. 1954. Intelligence and affectivity: The relationship during child development. Palo Alto: Annual Reviews.

Interdisciplinary Teaching Strategies Early Childhood

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