• academic language: words about specific topics and subjects that children must learn in order to be successful in school
  • engineering: the process of designing tools, systems, and structures that help humans meet their needs or solve problems
  • mathematics: the study of quantities (how many or how much), structures (shapes), space (angles and distances), and change
  • open-ended questions: questions that require critical thinking, invite opinion or explanation, and result in more than a one-word answer
  • science: the process of finding out about the world and how it works by exploring, gathering data, looking for relationships and patterns, and generating explanations and ideas using evidence
  • STEM: an interdisciplinary approach to learning where students learn and apply concepts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
  • STEM vocabulary: words that relate to the processes of science, technology, engineering, and math (e.g., categorize, change, classify, collaborate, communicate, compare, construct, count, describe, design, discover, discuss, draw, experiment, explain, graph, identify, investigate, listen, measure, notice, observe, plan, predict, problem-solve, question, record, share, sort, use senses, watch)
  • technology: the tools that have been designed to meet human needs, such as balance scales to compare weights, lenses to look closely at living things, and digital tools like computers and tablets

Use Learning Centers to Engage Children In STEM

Before watching this video, read the text below. When instructed, watch the video from the beginning to end.

Young children build their knowledge and understanding of the world by observing, asking questions, and investigating. These are natural inclinations that form the foundation for early science, technology, engineering, and math exploration. You can nourish these tendencies and utilize the learning environment to develop them. 

  • Recognize that STEM experiences can be planned and unplanned. Good teaching is intentional teaching, but teachable moments can happen at any time. Carefully planned activities and materials can inspire and incite children’s natural desires to explore and can lead to spontaneous teaching and learning.
  • Engage children with thoughtful and intentional learning center activities that invite them to engage in STEM. (e.g., building ramps, constructing a marble run, planting a garden, using a magnifying glass)
  • Plan activities that prompt investigation and exploration. (e.g., rolling different kinds of objects down ramps, comparing weights of objects using a balance scale, using blocks to build structures that fit within a boundary)
  • Guide exploration with open-ended questions. What, why, and how questions have the potential to encourage deeper thinking, thoughtful answers, and continued exploration.
  • Understand that the STEM disciplines are closely intertwined. For instance, when a child examines a piece of fruit, he or she may taste it, classify its shape, and count its seeds, engaging in both science and math exploration)
  • Integrate skills that go beyond STEM. Best practice in STEM education includes a focus on critical thinking, collaboration, and language and literacy. Intentional educators create purposeful opportunities for children to communicate their ideas through talking and writing—e.g., by collecting data, recording observations, and sharing their ideas with others.

In this video, you’ll see educators as they thoughtfully and intentionally plan activities that engage children in exploration, observation, and inquiry. As you watch, look for effective strategies used by the educators in the video and jot down answers to these viewing questions in your Learning Log.

  • How does the learning environment support STEM explorations?
  • What questions and comments do educators use to support children’s STEM explorations?
  • How do educators integrate literacy to deepen children’s explorations and understanding?


Why is STEM education an important part of the early childhood experience?

  • STEM exploration happens naturally: educators can refine and further help develop these skills for children’s lifelong learning.
  • Children need to have opportunities to ask questions, explore, and investigate.
  • Children can explore objects and materials directly, learn how to collaborate with others, and use technology in authentic ways.
  • Children benefit from engaging in problem-solving, critical thinking, and discovery.

How can the learning environment be designed to support STEM education?

  • Offer activities and materials that give children opportunities to find out how things work—to observe, explore, ask questions, solve problems, design, collaborate, build, and think critically
  • Offer activities and materials that encourage children to explore with their minds and senses. Engage children in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics together or separately. For example,
    • Use the Sensory Table Center for sinking and floating investigations. Children can sort, count, and compare the characteristics of items that sank and items that floated.
    • Use the Block Center for developing children’s math and engineering skills by inviting them to build structures and notice the materials, sizes, and shapes that make their structure sturdy.
  • Offer activities that pique children’s interests so that they will participate actively and talk about what they are thinking about and doing.
  • Provide opportunities for children to explore with peers and educators, one-on-one and in small groups.
  • Utilize the outdoor environment. For example, in the springtime, you might provide small shovels or spoons and encourage children to dig holes in the dirt and observe and record what they find.

What kinds of questions and comments can you use to support children’s STEM explorations?

  • Use open-ended questions to guide children’s explorations. What, why, and how questions can encourage deeper thinking, thoughtful answers, and continued exploration.
  • Model how to ask questions. Scientists, engineers, and mathematicians all ask questions, so encourage children to become expert question-askers by modeling your own thoughts and questions. (Is the pencil going to roll or slide? I wonder if that rock will float or sink?)
  • Respond to children’s ideas and suggestions with questions that will extend the learning. (Interesting idea! How could we test it out?)  Responding with questions encourages further inquiry by children and develops their critical thinking skills.

How can you make literacy a part of STEM explorations?

  • Read fiction and nonfiction picture books on STEM-related topics.
  • Have children collect data by drawing or writing.
  • Record ideas, opinions, estimations, and predictions on group charts.
  • Encourage children to share ideas verbally with others (such as when they describe the structures they’ve built.)


Think about the learning environment at your own program as you answer these reflection questions in your Learning Log.

  • How do you use your existing learning centers to engage children in STEM?
  • What did you learn that you will put into practice in your learning environment?
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