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Preschool STEM

Preschool STEM

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I have become very interested in preschool math since helping with the activities described at and reading the National Research Council’s "Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity.” I highly recommend “The Block Book,” edited by Elisabeth S. Hirsch,to anyone in this group with interests in Early Childhood Education. The chapter in it by Kristina Leeb-Lundberg titled “The Block Builder Mathematician” contains wonderful memories from Frank Lloyd Wright about unit blocks. The chapter begins as follows. “A Child’s artistry in – and feeling for – block building is closely related to the true mathematician’s view of mathematics as a creative art. The aesthetic pleasure that adult mathematicians experience when they contemplate shape and form and their properties is similar to the pleasure and joy that children experience when they build. Blocks give children an entry into a world where objects have predictable similarities and relations. They can be explored and experimented with and, because of their specific shape be absolutely relied upon.” Does anyone else have experience with or ideas about the intersection of early childhood and STEM education?

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Eleanor Luken's picture

We have had some success in teaching natural science with young children age 3-5. As a laboratory preschool at a university we partnered with a nature center to offer professional development to Head Start teachers. We talked about incorporating nature in the classroom, emphasizing investigation and teaching techniques that support child-initiated learning, and going outside and learning from the immediate environment (no matter how deprived it is).

I really like the book by Chalfour and Worth Discovering Nature with Young Children. They also have a good book about discovering structures and discovering water.

Jessica Hahn's picture

You may be interested in a new online math readiness game called Waza - It's correlated to all Core, NCTM, and all 50 States learning standards, and is an "intergalactic journey" through basic math that builds critical pre-math competencies including visual recognition, comparing quantities, estimating, 1:1 correspondence, sequencing, order, and counting.

Cindy Hoisington's picture
Cindy Hoisington
Early childhood science and teacher educator

I'm so happy about this thread. I also love doing outdoor explorations with children also, particularly inner city kids (see "A Walk in the Woods" in the October issue of Science and Children) but I'm especially excited by doing physical science with kids and teachers (water, blocks, balls and ramps) because the early childhood classroom is so full of opportunities for physical science investigations and curious young kids are such naturals at exploring. The block area really is a place where science, technology, engineering, and math can all intersect for young children and their teachers... As children build structures using available materials they explore how the characteristics of the materials (size, shape, texture, material kind) and "natural" forces (like gravity, tension, compression) influence the stability of their structures. Building also helps them think about form, function, and design. Which materials work better for the foundation and which work better for the roof? Should I overlap the blocks or build straight up? ? How many square blocks will balance a rectangle block? What kinds of spaces do i need for a house? a barn? a garage? These types of explorations lead to more specific ones (which materials/designs make the strongest/tallest/best towers? bridges? houses? They introduce children to important science concepts and offer lots of opportunities for inquiry (predicting, investigating, collecting data, analyzing results, collaborating) and the chance to think, talk, and act like scientists. When the teacher introduces design challenges (how can you make a bridge that will span this bucket of water?) or design constraints (build a tower with only foam blocks) children engage in engineering. They design their structures on paper or using 3-D materials, build based on the design, and then make design changes based on the results. Math provides the language for both science and math as children collect data, count, compare sizes and shapes, sequence, order, identify 1:1, etc. for a purpose and in context of meaningful building experiences. Teachers and children can integrate technology as they take photos and make short videos of children's building experiences for later discussion and analysis, and for sharing with families and others. I also highly recommend Chalufour and Worth (Building Structures) not without bias as i'm lucky enough to have worked with both of them at Education Development Center! One of the things we've found in our recent work is how important it is for teachers to prepare themselves for science by getting down on the floor, playing with the materials themselves, doing some research, and talking about their own observations and learning before introducing explorations to children. Please continue the great conversation and i'll stay tuned in!

Bill Marsh's picture

Thank you all for your comments.

Thank you for the reference to the Six Red Marbles folk. I just finished a one hour webinar on Waza and two other programs in which there were two wonderful presenters and I was the lone participant. (FWIW, I do aikido, and I believe waza means technique in Japanese.)

Eleanor and Cindy,
Two people independently highly recommended "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv to me. I have not read it, but I greatly enjoyed his "America II." Then I read a good review of the book that sticks up for some of what Edutopia does:

Have you seen NCTM's new "Number and Numeration: The Big Ideas and Essential Understandings"? The "comparison of quantities" alternative to the more common "counting first" approach to number concept development that is developed in the book fits perfectly with the following description of block play.

"In their early years, children are in what Eileen Churchill calls the "age of comparisons." They find out about the world around them through an infinite number of comparisons. Their constructions permit them to compare height, length, width, shape and number of blocks. To describe their world, children begin to use the language of mathematics."


Sarah White's picture

Thrilled that you enjoyed learning about the neuroscience-based STEM based online programs from Six Red Marbles. A bit of background on the names: Part of the strategy in creating these programs included not only neuroscience but also the idea of how tribal cultures learn without formal education - story-telling, modeling behavior, exploration and discovery, etc. With this inspiration we named the programs: Waza (Zulu for "to think"); Juba (Swahili for "fearless"); and Cabanga (Zulu for "Imagine").

Peggy Ashbrook's picture
Peggy Ashbrook
Preschool science teacher and writer

On a field trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed "Pope-Leighey House" my kindergarten students were delighted to see Lincoln Logs and learn that they were created by the architect's son, John Lloyd Wright.
Other children, in a once-a-week afternoon science enrichment class at a co-operative preschool, have made great strides in their exploration of the Ramps and Pathways materials that we have made available for about five months, along with some other physical science exploration materials. An hour once a week is not much time to explore a set of materials but the children seem to be able to pick up where they left off the last time. Twice I have asked them to make a set-up with any two wooden (unit) building blocks and draw a picture of it. I wanted to see how the children, ages 3.5-5, would approach the difficult task of drawing the relationship between two 3-D objects. Most of the children made simple line drawings of one face of the blocks with varying degrees of accuracy (some made very wobbly/circular drawings), and a few children traced the shapes. I hoped that this practice drawing would help them begin to think of how 3-D objects can be placed together.
Last week I challenged the children to draw a set-up that included at least two ramps and two blocks, and then go build it. There were also sponges and plastic quart containers available in the set for building. The children got to work drawing, some rushing to finish and some working more methodically. As they finished they picked out materials and began building. Most of the 14 children referred to their drawings as they built, whether the structure closely matched the drawing or not. Two of the youngest children left off their usual wandering behavior and spent the rest of the time engaged with building and ball-rolling. One child announced that, "Mine's not working!" I asked the group what he should do and they responded, "Make a new plan." He did! He went back to the table, re-drew his plan and then built a revised structure which he was happy with and continued working with for another 30 minutes. Another child had drawn a bridge-like structure with an up-ramp, level section, and a down-ramp. He tried to build it but could not get it to stay up. When I asked him what he wanted to do, he pointed to his plan indicating where he needed two supporting blocks. With a marker he drew in the supports, and then successfully built the revised structure.
To learn the most out of this activity, the children need time to investigate the relationship between the blocks, the slope of the ramps and the size and weight of the balls. They need time to play--did the ball make it into the hole?, time to compare--the heavy ball jumped off the path here but the light one kept going, and time to revise their structures--"I'm going to make it better this time!"
You can read more about the Ramps and Pathways materials in the Zan and Geiken article in the January 2010 NAEYC journal, Young Children.

Brenda Borkoski's picture
Brenda Borkoski
Early Childhood Program Coordinator at The Franklin Institute

What a great discussion! The Franklin Institute has been working on a project, funded by PNC Foundation, called "Grow Up Great with Science" that partners our science museum with Head Start classrooms around Philadelphia. In the first year we focused on the properties of water (helping Head Start classrooms get the most out of their water tables!) and this year we've focused on force and motion (because who doesn't love bouncing, rolling, and spinning balls?).

Preschoolers are already equipped with great science behaviors, educators just need to encourage them by selecting and controlling materials for exploration, asking lots of open-ended questions, and providing an outlet for "science sharing." Far too many early childhood educators rank science toward the bottom of their preferred curriculum areas, due to discomfort and inexperience. But it's not about the having the right answers, it's about asking the right questions!

Some resources I would recommend on the topics above include _Worms, Shadows, and Whirlpools_ by Karen Worth (who is an early childhood science learning rockstar!) and Sharon Grollman and Ramps and Pathways by Rheta DeVries and Christina Sales.

You can see a sampling of the work from our project at

James Mac Shane's picture

I have been teaching for 50 years at all levels from Pre-k thru graduate and adults. Scientifically the most important things that I learned as successful teacher I learned from my student's. In my experience the basic scientific aspect in general education is a growing awareness of student's internal motivation. I have come to understand that there is a different scientific basic understanding between the historical externally motivated education process and the natural internal intellectual development in children that biologically begins it's conscious development at the age of 2 1/2 to 3. This scientific base is not used as a selling point for pre-k. The main psychological reason is that our personal educational success has been only in the historical externally motivated system that is based upon philosophical and political ideals that are not scientifically related to the natural intellectual development process. When the education process becomes based upon the natural positive facilitation of children's intellectual development the educational experience itself becomes scientific. The conflicts in education today is result of scientific and technological development of the past two centuries that are replacing human survival need from physical to intellectual and scientifically this change is evolutionary and beyond improvements. In our human history there has never been a conscious understanding of evolutionary potential. The evolutionary changes were a result of significant generations of negative survival experience. We now have the ability to consciously minimize that historic process.

Stephanie L Eastwood's picture
Stephanie L Eastwood
Biligual PK-6 Teacher

For PK-2, I still recommend the wonderful program, Math Their Way, developed by Mary Baratta-Lorton. If your district has the resources and enough interested staff, you can host a 30-hour week-long Math Their Way workshop with the Center for Innovation in Education. Teachers from neighboring districts can enroll, and it's about $350/person.

If you can't get a workshop, the book is pretty easy to follow, and free to borrow from your public library system.
You will learn how to use those cool hands-on materials, and the book offers you scripts for how to talk so children will do most of the talking and, of course, the thinking together!

They also have a fabulous program for grades 4-6 teachers, that will help you support Algebra for All... although it is a challenge to implement their program without devoting hours a day to Math (and you'll want to and kids would probably love it). It's called Math: A Way of Thinking.

Scienceinplay's picture

I have found when dealing with STEM and young children there is not necessarily a curriculum that works but a lot of great resources that will support a well thought out plan for STEM education

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