STEM in Early Childhood: Catch Phrase, Cause for Concern, or an Opportunity for Something Amazing?

Stem

Having a conversation about early childhood curriculum these days is almost impossible without STEM being mentioned. What started out as a focus for reversing apparent educational shortcomings in preparation for success in the global economy has migrated to our very youngest as a “never too early” ideology.

There is a lot to be said for making sure young children have liberal exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math, so all children feel comfortable participating and can experience excitement and success in these areas. I love all of it and I never missed an opportunity to share my enthusiasm with the children I taught, with my own children, and now my grandchildren. With that being said, I would also submit a cautionary remark or two… or three.

It all has to do with developmentally appropriate application and expectations. Unfortunately, both of these can stray out of whack in short order.

The trouble can stem (sorry!) from parents, programs, or practitioners. Today’s educated, career-oriented parents stay on the cutting edge of research-driven initiatives. They’ve learned about the critical need to infuse educational programs with STEM competencies from TED talks, Internet research, and even the nightly news. As a result, their children’s early childhood program undergoes scrutiny and may no longer appear to align with what their children need to succeed. Play-based, inquiry-driven, child-focused curriculum suddenly comes up short and open to criticism.

Teachers and directors are pressured to make changes towards a more academic focus that will compromise philosophy and ethics. And, if some sort of compliance is not agreed upon, families look elsewhere for programs that will meet their expectations.

worksheet

Programs that acquiesce and bend to the pressure often end up disappointing other families who appreciate what was going on before. The new academic approach can sometimes come with baggage, such as worksheets and assessments, both of which take time away from what is most important in the early childhood classroom- creativity, exploration, and teacher-child interaction… the vehicles by which children actually learn.

Sometimes, a program’s attempt to introduce STEM becomes a debacle. There is a corporate-managed group of child care centers in my locale that has created new STEM “laboratories” in each of them. I was invited to take a look around one of these by the proud director.

No expense was spared and I was duly impressed! There were child-sized, stainless steel lab tables and stools, countless containers of natural items and liquids, conveyer belts, scales, computerized measuring, weighing and sorting devices, nine kinds of blocks, real bricks, grinders, catapults, glass cases filled with preserved specimens, and more. This was literally a hands-on fantasy land for children.

But then, I was immediately taken by the fact that everything looked so orderly and untouched. I asked how this could possibly be, given so many fantastic items that begged to be handled. (Heck- I wanted to explore some of it myself!)

“Oh,” the director replied. “So far, the children have only been able to walk through here and look around. A couple months ago, we had a group sit down at the lab tables with the magnets and they ended up scratching the stainless steel table tops. We can’t have that! This is expensive equipment. We haven’t quite figured out how the children will use this room.”

So, the center has a STEM laboratory, but for all practical purposes, it’s a hands-off showplace to impress adults. Hmmm. It seems to me the money would have been better spent on STEM materials placed into every classroom that the children could actually use. I’ll bet every teacher reading this has his or her own wish-list with better ways to spend a fortune.

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Our work as early childhood educators most certainly involves preparing children for successful futures. If our well-educated staff has been providing the kinds of materials and activities that promote thinking, experimentation, inquiry, and use of technology in a variety of subject areas, then incorporating STEM has probably been part of the plan all along.

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