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How to Naturally Support your STEM Learner

by Meghan Fitzgerald

There are many reasons why studying and gaining competence with science is important for kids, especially as our kids will need to work together to tackle the challenges our planet is facing. The good news is, that children are born scientists. We have the opportunity to support their innate curiosity and drive to experiment and research—a drive that, if not nurtured, tends to diminish as kids grow.

Although famous astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson can distinctly recall a visit to the Hayden Planetarium as the moment he fell in love with science, we don’t need to wait for a single, seminal moment for our kids. Instead, we can support science in our day-to-day lives. We’ve found it helpful to establish 6 key mindsets. These mindsets make it possible for us to seize everyday moments to help our kids value and embrace science as an important part of life and, if it’s their path, their life’s work.

Mindset #1: Anyone can be a scientist.

We all want our children to find their own calling and find a way to contribute to the world that matches their passions and their superpowers. But, we need all of our kids to see science as important and as available to them, whether or not it’s the path they choose.

  • Make room for the scientists among princesses and superheroes. There are marvelous stories to weave in the dress-up area of our homes and schools, and there are powerful messages we send about what we value and who our kids can become. Kids often get to pretend to be fantasy characters like princesses or take on important community roles like firefighter, chef or construction worker. Promote science by making sure scientists of various kinds are in the mix, too.

  • Read about a wide variety of famous scientists. Read and learn together about a diverse set of scientists, varying the stories by race, gender, and location around the world. Move beyond the white lab coat to include scientists who study, discover, and invent outside of a lab to give your child the broadest set of possibilities.

  • Look for Local Science Heroes! Who are the scientists in your community, your neighborhood, or your friend circle? Who studies and measures the world around them as part of their work? If the chance arises, welcome them to share their work with you and your kids.

Mindset #2: There are discoveries to make everywhere if we keep our eyes open and our questions coming.

Here are a few ways to find them:

  • Slow down and observe. Science literacy is not built through giant, complicated experiments, but by asking thousands of little questions and trying to find the answers. Plant seeds together as a family, then observe them as they grow. Go outdoors and take a look at the whole yard or just a few square feet. Use all of your senses as you walk in the woods and share what you notice.

  • See simple materials as tools for inquiry. Nature and our recycling bins are full of loose parts that can be used to explore forces and learn about the world.

  • Use inquiry in your play. Build a block tower and wonder about how tall you can make it. Wonder how many passengers a given bath toy can take on before sinking. With preschoolers, wonder how to tell if there are eggs in that robin’s nest without disturbing the robins.

  • Easy ways to spark inquiry and science play: Visit our DIY Activity site to find a wide range of activities that inspire questions and give you a step-by-step method for engaging kids in the process.

Mindset #3: We are always researching.

We can reframe kids learning about the world as “research” and share in that research. In doing so, we can also teach some basic techniques that scientists use to study the world.

  • Measure things: Measuring with little kids does not have to be exact. In fact, it doesn’t even need to require standard tools. We want to help kids learn to ask questions like how big, how hot, how long, or how heavy something is.

  • Document things: Gather samples and specimen and add them to a science or nature corner in your house. Fill up a box of a specimen, if a free corner is hard to give up. Or, turn a sketchbook into a research journal. If kids are really young, enjoy your own journal making, modeling this for them, and invite kids to enjoy cozy time flipping through your journal together.

  • Categorize things: When you can, sort items into like groups. As kids grow, the categories can grow more nuanced. You can start out with a bundle of nature treasures and just start to sort like things together. Put the pine cones with other pine cones, the sticks with other sticks and so on. In time, you can sort by size, weight, color, texture, etc. In time, welcome your little scientist to establish the categories, allowing them to look for similarities and differences between objects.

  • Use many senses: Our senses are the greatest tools we have as scientists. The more senses kids use, the more they can discover about the world and, in turn, the more curious they are to learn more. Using multiple senses also helps develop different regions of the brain and our kids’ ability to integrate the function of different parts of the brain—important for managing various sensory input and for higher-level thinking later.

Mindset #4: The correct content will come in time. Focus on exposure.

Young children are like icebergs who can collect and build much more understanding than they can show us through their words and actions. And, children learn best when they discover and make sense of new information on their own.

In the early years, then, our job is to expose them to situations in which they can discover science concepts, but not rush kids to mastery of these concepts. For example, we love to play with the concept of density by wondering and testing which types of objects will sink and float. We do not even bring up terms like “mass” or “volume,” and we may not even use the word “density.” But we welcome children to notice how different objects “stay on top” of the water or “sink to the bottom,” and we encourage them to make guesses about new objects and test those hypotheses. All along, kids are learning basic scientific methods and gaining experiences that will help them easily formalize the concepts when they are ready.

Mindset #5: Kids believe in themselves when we believe in them.

Our actions support a child in believing that we believe they have the capacity to ask questions, research, and discover.

  • Use inquiry: As much as possible, we can try to inspire children with questions instead of directions. I wonder what will happen if this orange falls in the water? What do you think the birds are doing in that tree? What do you think is special about this tree that makes it like no other tree in this park?

  • Ask your child to take the lead: When you are teaming up, you can keep your child in the driver’s seat by asking them questions like, “What do you think we should do next?” “Can we use this object? I wonder how...”

  • Let them keep the lead: Even if there is struggle involved in their investigation, hold back a bit longer than you think before stepping in. Embrace failure, too. Even if their experiment fails, your young scientist learns as they make sense of why their test didn’t work.

  • If struggle turns to genuine frustration, team up: Instead of stepping in and taking over, offer “teamwork.” Play the role of a teammate who provides comfort and support, but still defers to your child.

Mindset #6: STEM learning is joyful.

This one is our favorite. No matter how STEM learning went for you in the past, openly and unabashedly enjoy playing like scientists together. Cheer when your solutions work, and cheer just as loud when they don’t—you’re learning either way. Have as much fun as you can. It’s really our chance to do problem-solving all over again, and it’s powerful fun!

Join us for a Fall full of Scientist Play!

If you have Tinkergarten classes nearby, join us for the Fall season. Each week, we’ll inspire kids and families to play like scientists both in and out of class. If you don’t have a Tinkergarten class nearby, sign up for our mailing list, and we’ll share more ideas with you throughout the Fall by email. You can also peruse our DIY Activities to find many ways to enjoy inquiry-based play and discover the world with your little scientist!