by Mary Beth Gibson
STEM activities are a major component of the lessons taught in school classrooms, and they are surprisingly simple and fun to do at home, too. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, and these activities are intended to foster a hands-on approach to these fields for children. STEM might seem like the sort of thing that would be appropriate for an older child, but introducing the basic concepts in each of these fields is simple—even for the youngest children. Let’s take a look at each field and how some simple concepts translate to toddlers, and then we’ll go over a handful of specific STEM activities.
Science asks what, how, and why. Science observes the world and seeks to categorize, label, understand, sort, and dissect everything. And doesn’t that sound just like a child growing from baby to toddler? Babies and toddlers are some of the world’s best scientists, and it takes little to no effort to foster this natural curiosity—aside from the effort to refrain from cleaning up endless messes. This is the category that will be the most intuitive and simple with a child. Whether it’s meal time or bath time, talk to your child about the world around them, what they see, and events that happen. Ask them questions that encourage them to observe and ponder before giving them all the answers.
STEM activities teach children to utilize technology as a tool to accomplish a task. This is the concept a baby or toddler is least likely to utilize; however, teaching a child to use tools to help accomplish a task is important.
Engineering requires a child to consider concepts such as gravity, cause and effect, making predictions, physics, creativity, and imagination. Common baby and toddler toys like stackers, blocks, balls, puzzles, and ramps are excellent ways to incorporate engineering into everyday play.
Even a basic math skill like addition is an incredibly complex concept for children younger than school age, so math components of STEM activities are quite simple. Stick to generalized concepts like many, none, more, and less. Count with your child any time you do something more than once, or point out that you will only do something one time. Counting can be incorporated into any STEM activity, making a math component easy.
Now that we’ve detailed the four component of a STEM activity, here are some simple and fun activities to do with your toddler.
Depending on how messy your child usually gets, this activity can be done in a clear, plastic storage tub on the kitchen floor or in a bathtub. Gather an assortment of white or clear bowls, cups, pitchers, vases, and anything else that can hold or pour water. Leave the bowls or food storage containers (the items that will catch the water) empty, and fill the water-pouring items with as much water as you feel your child can safely lift. Add a couple drops of red, yellow, or blue coloring to your pouring items (only add one color to each item!). Now, ask your child to observe what colors they see. Have them pour one color into a bowl, and then ask them what they think will happen if they pour a different color into the same bowl. When they pour a second color into the same bowl ask them what new color appeared and what they think of it. Repeat this process as many times as you can, and refill and reset the pouring station as many times as you want. Your child will have to use some basic engineering ideas to perfect their pouring skills and their aim. Incorporate math by counting how many different colors you create. Grab a mini flashlight and shine it through the colorful water to observe what it looks like for a technology element.
Note: Be sure to use old towels and clothes (or a smock) because food coloring will stain things.
This activity is lots of fun and veers more toward the engineering aspect. Using old cardboard boxes, create ramps of various lengths and heights. Try to make predictions about which ramps will go the fastest or the farthest. Gather up balls, blocks, cars, stuffed animals, and anything else you can think of that might be fun to push down a ramp. Observe together which toys worked best on the ramp and which didn’t work as well. Problem solve together if any of your ramps collapsed or didn’t work properly. Add a math element by having your child release toys down the ramp on the count of three, or count how many toys managed to roll past a certain mark in the room. Incorporate technology by using a measuring tape to determine which toy rolled the farthest, or use a stopwatch to time which toy rolled the fastest or the longest.
Arguably, the simplest activity of the three listed here is sorting various fruits into groups based on whatever characteristics you choose. Your child will have to observe the fruit carefully to look for the traits you ask for, whether it be color or texture or size, etc. Your child will then need to compare different fruits against each other and determine which ones go together and which do not. They will then need to sort the fruit into different places (bowls, baskets, pieces of paper) and together you can count how many pieces of fruit end up in each group. If you feel your child is ready you can easily incorporate a technology element by using a magnifying glass or microscope to observe your fruit, or you could use a simple balance scale to determine which fruits are heavy and which are light. Add an engineering element by asking your child to create a neat pile of fruit as they sort—a complex task at that age.
STEM activities can be as complex or as simple as you want. For the first two years, focus on building a foundation of individual concepts and skills. The most important thing is that a child learns best through play and intentional time with their parent or guardian. Try out some of the activities mentioned above, and have fun together!
Mary Beth Gibson graduated from Wichita State University in 2007 with a BA in Creative Writing and blogs at Bright Sycamore. She enjoys most things natural, but with a healthy dose of practicality and affordability. You can most likely find her at Target chasing her toddler with a baby strapped to her chest. She lives in Kansas with her husband and her two children, ages 3 and 10 months.
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