Learning through play

Pt 3. - STEM for Early Educators on a Shoestring


For our third and final installment of our interview, we asked about the practical — how do we implement recent findings on STEM educators?

Q: The report dives into a number of policy and messaging recommendations for better prioritizing STEM in early learning. One obvious constraint is education spending. How can we better integrate STEM, technology in particular, into early learning environments with tight budgets?

McClure: In the early childhood setting, more (and more expensive) technology isn’t always better. In fact, one of the best pieces of technology a teacher can use with very young children is a simple digital camera! Children can use it to record and research bugs and plants they find outside, or document the growth process of plants on the playground. They can take pictures of their body parts and make a puzzle out of them. They can document steps in their daily routine and use the pictures for sequencing activities. The possibilities are endless, and the technology doesn’t have to break the budget.

I think it’s also important to remember that technology isn’t just media or digital media. Technology is about tools and tool use. That can be something as simple as using scissors, or kids figuring out that they need to use a stool to reach something. So, again, this doesn’t need to be an expensive or complicated endeavor. It can be about pointing out to children when they can use a tool to help them meet a challenge they’re facing. So, let’s say a child is trying to get something she can’t reach. Instead of just reaching it yourself and handing it to the child, talk through the situation with her and work through a problem-solving scenario: “Hmmm, let’s stop and think why you might not be able to reach it … Oh, you’re not tall enough? What can we do to make you taller?” And sometimes a child might find a solution like getting a stool, or other times they might surprise you with a really creative solution you hadn’t thought of. So there’s this creative element woven into that problem-solving as well. So by simply scaffolding the child’s critical process during this challenge moment, you’re encouraging math by comparing heights, science by encouraging experimentation, technology by helping her think about tool use, creativity in imagining a solution, and engineering by letting her make her imagined solution into a physical reality. And, on top of all of this, you’re giving her great practice in executive function skills! It’s STEM and so much more.

Courtesy of the Cooney Center,  STEM Starts Early

Courtesy of the Cooney Center, STEM Starts Early

Q: The report touches on a few examples of holistically integrating STEM into the classroom. Do you have any resources for where teachers can see full lesson plans with tool kits and standards met?

I think a great example of a starting point for teachers or administrators that feel a little uncertain about how to incorporate STEM into their classrooms is this program called STEM from the Start. It’s a series of short videos, supported by PBS, that are meant to be used in the classroom. These video segments are used along with a free teacher guide, which can be downloaded free from the website – and what you do is you show the kids these few minutes of video that get them interested in a STEM question or challenge. Then the teacher follows the teacher guidebook to engage the kids in that STEM activity. After that they return to another follow-up video, etc. It requires very little preparation or expertise on the part of the teacher, and preliminary research is showing that it is really engaging for kids – even those who are English Language Learners or have attention problems. It also is great for teachers who are anxious about teaching STEM and don’t really know where to begin – by walking through the steps in this scaffolded way, it gives teachers an opportunity to experience success and to see how easy it can be to incorporate STEM into their classrooms in an exciting, hands-on, engaging way. It essentially gets their foot in the door so they can start imagining and creating their own ideas. It’s also great because it uses technology that teachers are pretty likely to already have in their classrooms.


We're so thankful to the Cooney Center and Elisabeth for sharing their expertise on STEM with us - and hope y'all got some helpful, creative tips for "engineering" (see what we did there?!) STEM into your daily interactions with little learners.

Pt. 2 - Overcoming STEM Anxiety with Adults

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America Foundation just released their STEM Starts Early report, exploring science, technology, engineering, and math learning for young children. We had the chance to ask lead author Elisabeth McClure a few questions about the report, for a three-part blog series.

In Part 2 - It's not just little learners that have anxiety around STEM topics. Parents, and even teachers, don't always feel comfortable diving into science and math.  

Q: How can parents and educators effectively check on our biases (and maybe anxieties!) about science and math in approaching these topics with young children?

McClure: The first step is just to be aware of those biases! Parents and teachers are some of the most influential STEM guides in a child’s life, so when parents and teachers show that they are anxious about STEM topics or demonstrate that they don’t think they’re as important as other domains, or that they are more important for boys than girls, the children quickly pick up on these attitudes and carry them with them into the future. But, conversely, when parents and teachers are confident and enthusiastic about STEM topics and engage the children in developmentally tailored STEM activities, they pass along that excitement to their children.

In terms of what you can do right now, today, I would say: just start feeding your own curiosity! It’s a little like the old “stop and smell the roses” idea. Start being more aware of all the amazing things around you, encourage your own wonder, and then openly express that. Be vocal about saying “Wow!” and, instead of feeling pressured to answer all your students’ “Why? Why? Why?” questions, start asking “Why?” back, and start answering with, “I don’t know! I wonder if…” and then collaborating with students to find ways to answer your questions together. STEM isn’t just a set of topic areas – it is, fundamentally, a way of thinking. So, as a teacher, when you model those ways of thinking as a co-learner (rather than an information-giver), you are nurturing that way of thinking in them as well. If you can cultivate that wonder and curiosity in yourself and in them, then children will have the tools to acquire the content they encounter.

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Q: We loved that the report highlighted STEM work already happening in preschool classrooms! How do we better close the loop between longstanding "engineering" and scientific exploration taking place in early childhood settings (fort building, block play, etc.) and building a classroom culture of scientific inquiry that represents what we now know children are capable of?

McClure: The key here is to notice when it’s already taking place, to realize that the child is not only capable of attaining the goal (getting the object) but also of meeting the challenge (solving the problem) with your support, and then take advantage of that opportunity by engaging the child in an interaction that encourages their scientific inquiry. Children already have that natural curiosity – we say they are “born scientists” – but they need your support to grow that curiosity into true STEM skills and habits of mind.

Q: So much STEM early learning happens at home. How can teachers use documentation to illustrate STEM learning and encourage parental buy-in? 

McClure: It can be really helpful, when talking to parents, to explain it in this way: STEM learning is a lot like learning a language. If we want our children to become fluent in STEM, they need to be immersed in STEM learning and be able to practice it across all areas of their lives.

Parents have an enormous opportunity as their child’s first teachers, as well as a consistent presence as they grow and across their environments, to help connect the dots between separate learning experiences and make their learning truly immersive.

And it’s so important for parents to understand that we’re not talking about doing massive science fair projects at home every night. We’re talking about things like keeping an eye out for opportunities to ask their children the “WH” questions – “Who, what, when, where, why?” We’re talking about noticing when their child is experimenting with something, in all those thousands of ways they do every day, and helping to scaffold that process and make it more explicit. Parents don’t need to be experts – they just need to be willing to learn alongside their children, encouraging them to ask questions, and to participate with their child in trying to figure out the answers.

In Part Three of our interview, we'll explore policy and curriculum recommendations for better incorporating STEM holistically into early learning environments.

Pt. 1 - Why Does "STEM" Start Early?

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America Foundation just released its STEM Starts Early report, exploring science, technology, engineering, and math learning for young children. We had the chance to ask lead author Elisabeth McClure a few questions about the report, for a three-part blog series.

In part one of our conversation, we discussed why now is the time for exploring STEM early learning, and why we should think of early childhood education as an "ecological system."

Q: What was the genesis for coming together to work on this report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) early learning?

In December 2013, several members of our team attended a STEM Smart workshop, cohosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Smithsonian Institution, and Education Development Center, with the intent of reaching early childhood practitioners. We saw that participants were delighted to learn of evidence-based practices and tools, but many declared that they felt too constrained by current school structures and policies to apply what they were learning. They voiced concerns about the misapplication of new education standards, disconnects between preschool and elementary school practices, and an underprepared workforce.

In response to these concerns and the growing scientific consensus about the importance of early STEM learning, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America embarked on an exploratory project, funded by the NSF, to: (a) better understand the challenges to and opportunities in STEM learning as documented in a review of early childhood education research, policy, and practice; (b) make recommendations to help stimulate research and policy agendas; and (c) encourage collaboration between pivotal sectors to implement and sustain needed changes. We also accounted for new research on widely held public assumptions about what young children need and how they learn, assumptions that may be barriers to progress. This report is the culmination of those efforts, and it was, at its heart, inspired by the struggles voiced by early childhood practitioners themselves. 

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Q: Why describe early learning as an ecological system? How can we apply that framing to other areas of early childhood development?

In education, the impact of multiple, interrelated environments and systems on the child is considerable and affects everyone involved. Educators cannot successfully teach without adequate training and resources, the support of their schools, and parent engagement; researchers cannot produce relevant studies without the support of available funds, the contribution and support of educators in the classroom, and an understanding of the political systems in which their work will be applied; policy makers cannot institute effective policies without the comprehension of the public, the cooperation of teachers, and the support of solid research; and children cannot learn at their full potential without the alignment of all these factors.

 Ultimately, we felt that we couldn’t discuss any one of these factors without addressing them all. We chose to use Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems model, which deeply influences our thinking across all areas of child development at the Cooney Center, as a way to discuss the whole child and the complex, interrelated environments that affect them both directly and indirectly. This model and the idea that, to understand child development fully, we need to consider the child within a series of interconnected and nested systems, can be applied to literally any area of child development.

For those who are curious, the nested systems are defined as follows (best understood in conjunction with Figure 1 on page 13 of the report):

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report


The microsystem is the first circle around the child, the environments in which he or she is rooted. These include the home, classroom, childcare or after-school program, and church or other local community settings—and, of course, the people and experiences within those settings. The next circle is called the mesosystem, which acknowledges the relationships between the microsystem environments. For example, the ways that the child’s schooling affects his or her home life and vice versa, directly or indirectly, or the ways that an adult’s training and level of stress could affect that person’s ability to make a positive impact on the child would be included in this system. The exosystem includes the societal structures and institutions that do not directly contain the child but can directly or indirectly affect him or her—for example, government policies and the research that spurs those policies. Finally, the outermost circle, called the macrosystem, consists of the cultural frames, paradigms, values, and models that shape the environment within which the child learns.


Q: The report focuses on STEM, as opposed to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). What led to that decision in framing? How can teachers, parents, and non-traditional educators use a STEAM framing to enhance the learning experience?

We believe that STEM is already present in just about everything. STEM is about a way of thinking, not just about specific content – so it is present in the arts, in literacy, in play, in music, in history, you name it. For that reason it’s already problematic, in a way, that we’ve isolated S, T, E, and M for discussion in the first place, and our main goal was to reintegrate those letters back into all the rest of children’s learning experiences. If we were only to add an A, we would be excluding all the other letters in the alphabet! So rather than grabbing just one additional letter/domain and pulling it into this isolated moniker, we tried to focus instead on immersing these four letters back into the process of holistic learning.

Learning is a process of weaving skills together: no single strand can do all the work and all need to be present, strong, and integrated. As we learn new skills, our brains weave these strands together into braided skill ropes. We use these ropes to do all the complex things that we need to be able to do to function well in school and in life: solve problems, work with others, formulate and express our ideas, and make and learn from mistakes as we grow. Solving problems using data, and experimenting in science, technology, engineering, and math, help us develop strong strands that we can then use in weaving many different kinds of skill ropes. At every age, children need opportunities to practice and learn how to weave these STEM strands into different ropes, depending on the needs of a given task or situation. When kids have strong STEM strands, they can use them for all kinds of things that they will need to be able to do throughout their lives.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview — on how parents and educators can address their own anxieties around STEM (eek!) and incorporate STEM learning into everyday play.