Can I Really Teach STEM to Preschoolers?

Perhaps you’re not so comfortable with teaching math and science, let alone technology and engineering, to your preschool students. First, realize that you are not alone. According to a 2010 survey, “nearly a third of Americans (30 percent) say they would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem” (Change the Equation, 2010). And many studies corroborate that early childhood educators struggle over how to engage children with STEM learning (Gerde, Pierce, Kyungsook, & Van Egeren, 2017; Stone-MacDonald et al., 2015; Zan, 2016).

Take a moment to think about the different math and science skills you see your preschoolers use every day in the classroom, placing the right number of napkins for place settings at lunchtime (mathematics: one-to-one correspondence) or figuring out that adding water to snow makes it melt (science: drawing conclusions and communicating ideas). STEM learning is similar in this regard.

Early childhood educators should think of STEM as “mutually inclusive of their other teaching domains” and be “encouraged to weave STEM seamlessly into their existing curricula and play times” (McClure et al., 2017, p. 6).

If you are someone who shudders at the thought of a new upgrade to your computer system and are reluctant to incorporate technology into your classroom, try to think of using technology as a learning process for both you and the children (Heroman, Brahms, Moreno, & King, 2017). What a great experience it could be for both teacher and students if together — as colearners — you navigated the school’s smartboard to take a virtual field trip to a planetarium or a zoo.

STEM does not require more work; rather, it requires that teachers think of STEM learning as a mindset, encouraging children to use this scientific perspective in their play and helping them make sense of their world as they navigate their physical and natural environments (Torres-Crespo, Kraatz, & Pallansch, 2014). What STEM does, in fact, is give “a label to what you are already doing…helping children to explore, observe, ask questions, predict, [and] integrate their learning. It’s what we’ve always done in early childhood education” (Stewart, 2016, p. 1).

What’s the Research Behind STEM in Preschool?

We’ve looked at the individual components of STEM and have seen why it’s important to introduce young children to math, science, technology, and even engineering, because it puts them on the path for stronger skills in those individual areas (see the sidebars on pp. 4–7). But what’s the research supporting STEM — as a whole — in preschool?

  • Starting STEM early helps children develop positive attitudes about the science and math fields because it allows them to engage in those content areas in new ways (Early Childhood STEM Working Group, 2017).
  • Children develop habits and behaviors (e.g., asking questions, making observations, identifying problems, sharing solutions) when participating in STEM experiences, which they will carry with them as they continue their educational journey (Zan, 2016).
  • STEM learning has a positive impact on communication and vocabulary skills because children use language when they are exploring and experimenting with materials and collaborating with peers, (Moomaw & Davis, 2010).

A report supported by the National Science Foundation, titled STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood (McClure et al., 2017), sums up what researchers have found in regard to STEM and early learning:

In fact, just as the industrial revolution made it necessary for all children to learn to read, the technology revolution has made it critical for all children to understand STEM. To support the future of our nation, the seeds of STEM must be planted early, along with and in support of the seeds of literacy. Together, these mutually enhancing, interwoven strands of learning will grow well-informed, critical citizens prepared for a digital tomorrow. (p. 4)


STEM Made Simple: 25 Activities by Preschool Teachers 

STEM Made Simple introduces early childhood educators to the exciting world of STEM. It includes 25 small-group activities developed by preschool teachers from diverse settings, ensuring that you too can learn how to build STEM topics — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — into your curriculum.

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Real Science in Preschool: Here, THere, and Everywhere

Wondering how to "do science" with preschoolers? This book shows you how authentic, hands-on science learning takes place every day throughout the classroom as well as outdoors. You'll learn to recognize and support the six behaviors that are part of the preschool scientific method that you'll see in all types of children's play. Also includes information on creating science-related group-time activities based on children's interests and templates for developing your own group-time activities.

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Meaningful Math in Preschool: Making Math Count Throughout the Day

If you are looking for a way to make math fun for your preschoolers — and yourself — this book is for you! It shows how to provide "math-rich" learning experiences full of opportunities for children to explore, discover, and expand on various math concepts. Starting with the latest research in early mathematics, it introduces HighScope's approach and key development indicators (KDIs) for math. It offers innovative ideas for incorporating math into daily routines, classroom layout, and adult-child interactions. It also has real-life anecdotes and hands-on strategies to support math learning.

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Numbers Plus® Preschool Mathematics Curriculum

This comprehensive set of teaching resources makes math exciting! At the same time, it helps children develop key mathematical skills. It includes detailed plans for small- and large-group activities, with ideas for extending learning throughout the program day. What's special about Numbers Plus is that all children, regardless of developmental or ability level, can participate and learn together, because each activity has built-in progression. Drawing upon research and practice in early mathematics learning and teaching, Numbers Plus actively engages young children's mathematical aptitude with appealing materials and ideas. 

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