STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a subject that keeps popping up in the news, ranging from implications for our future workforce to addressing the gender gap in STEM education and professions. While the focus often seems to be on secondary and tertiary education, STEM skills are important to early childhood education too – in more ways than you might think. As picturing STEM education may conjure up more traditional ideas of children sitting at desks studying the names of the planets or learning their times tables, you may wonder how this would benefit the children in your care.
This outdated notion of science education is not what Little Scientists is about at all. We advocate for early childhood inquiry-based STEM learning – not rote learning, but skills. I don’t mean skills like counting or how to pipette vinegar, although both can be fun in the right play-based setting. I’m talking about the soft skills; those skills that you often hear university lecturers, employers and politicians say are lacking in our education system today. So, how does inquiry-based STEM help children develop self-confidence?
1. Being heard
Age-appropriate, inquiry-based STEM is about helping children take that next step towards discovery.
Imagine this: A child comes to you and says, “Listen, the trees are talking to each other, I think that’s what is making it windy.” Would you say, “Don’t be silly; trees can’t talk,” or, “Since when do trees have mouths?” Or do you take a step back and say, “Love your idea. I can hear them too. It’s so windy. But I know you were at the beach last week – was it windy then? Were there many trees?” We could search the internet for explanations and read them out but that would shut down the conversation. Instead of giving the children a factual explanation that is not age-appropriate about strong wind being caused by air flowing from high pressure to low pressure, try gently steering the conversation to a discussion about what else produces air currents. How does the air come out of a pump, a balloon or a soda stream? You could investigate with the children by using a plastic bottle to fire a pom-pom, or by watching the clouds.
A child being heard, listened to and allowed to explain their ideas is a gift – and inquiry-based learning gives that gift. Googling the answer doesn’t. Sure, a factual answer may increase the child’s STEM knowledge but they didn’t get the chance to put forward another idea. Being heard and validated – that is the foundation of confidence.
2. Finding answers as a team
Why does the tree make that noise? You could explore by collecting leaves and investigating them. You could rustle a bag of leaves. What else can the children find that makes a noise? What comes first, the wind or the noise?
We can suggest an activity or we can ask the children how they would like to investigate this. It’s a matter of practice, both yours and the children’s. But encouraging the children to take that role as the leader, being able to decide what to investigate and how is important. We help them grow by valuing their critical thinking skills and allowing them to develop them. It is also important for children to experience that they can take different roles. Maybe in this investigation they are the leader, in another exploration they could be an observer or the recorder. By being the leader one day and the next day providing the idea that someone else investigates, the children construct their investigations and their learning together.
3. Resilience is the key
But what if we fail? What if we don’t ever discover the answer? It’s important to let children (and ourselves) fail and to learn to pick ourselves up and carry on. Look for the next line of inquiry. Try something else. Sometimes an experiment doesn’t work. Sometimes you don’t find the answer and we learn that that’s ok. It’s the process not the answer that builds skills. Just think about what happens if we never experience failure. What if we always have the answers and then, one day, we don’t? What if we have never had the chance to fail? The confidence to know that failing is ok and we can start again is an invaluable life skill.
4. Research skills
Children conduct research all the time in their daily play and activities by
- letting a toy car roll down an increasingly steeper slope and finding out that this makes it go faster
- watching the wind in the trees and forming your own ideas
- looking closely at the toy dinosaurs and noticing that the ones with sharp claws are the carnivores.
Observing, recording, discussing and forming opinions are really important research skills. Searching for answers on the internet isn’t hard. What’s hard is knowing whether that answer is correct. In an age of fake news knowing what questions to ask and thinking about the answers are skills everyone needs to develop.
While all these skills will help children’s ability to solve problems, we also need to create an environment that encourages them to practise their problem-solving skills. We can do this by setting age-appropriate challenges, then taking a step back and giving them space to tackle them on their own. Or better still, we follow the children’s interests and support them in finding and defining the problems that they want to solve.
This is what it is all about. We believe that early childhood education can lay the foundation for children’s confidence in posing and solving their own problems, confidence in working as a team to solve them and in starting the problem solving process even though they might fail, the confidence to fail at problem solving and picking themselves up and trying again. And developing those research skills and those critical thinking skills to know how to solve a problem and think about those answers.
THAT is why Little Scientists are committed to early inquiry-based STEM learning and why we want it for every child.
Article author: Hayley Bates
National Certifications Coordinator
This passionate mathematician and former science teacher will inspire you with her enthusiasm for inquiry-based learning and her determination to provide high-quality hands-on and fun professional development.