May 17, 2023

What is STEAM learning in the early years?

Jane Magnani
Jane Magnani
What is STEAM learning in the early years?

STEAM is more than simply an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics; it is an educational approach that incorporates all of these areas.

It was introduced to address concerns that these skills and subjects are often taught separately, despite the reality that they are all interconnected. Instead, it is a unified approach based on hands-on experience. For instance, science and math led to the development of technology, combined with engineering, art, and design, to make it usable in our daily lives.

STEAM puts the children at the core of the experience, making them active learners. It promotes problem-solving and critical thinking, boosting children's curiosity and making the learning process fun, relevant and everlasting!

Now think of your little ones learning and development as a structure under construction. You cannot begin developing a strong, sturdy structure from the fifth or sixth floor. Instead, it would be best if you began constructing a robust foundation. Once a solid foundation is created, adding the top floors will be easier, and the floors will be sturdy. The same is true for your little one's learning and development.

Children are born scientists.

Children are born scientists and curious learners who love to explore and learn. Every new thing your little one does is a new and exciting adventure. So, strengthening these innate abilities should begin at the earliest level rather than reserving them for later years!

Your little one has been learning about the world around them through their experiences and using their senses. Their senses are essential for discovering and understanding their world.

They have been communicating with you and other caregivers through touch. All those moments of holding, touching and soothing your baby teach them about the world around them.

Babies and toddlers love looking at faces, especially yours and other caregivers. When babies see them, they react by smiling and making gestures. Putting things in their mouths is another sign that your little one is curious. Mouthing objects helps your baby further explore and learn. A baby's mouth is more sensitive than its fingers!

Encouraging science from an early age.

Your baby or toddler will enjoy learning experiences if you give them opportunities to play, enhance their senses, and talk to them in meaningful ways.

So, provide opportunities for your little one to explore different textures, sounds, movements, positions, problem-solving and cause and effect opportunities.

Make a treasure basket.

Treasure baskets with everyday objects are great for enhancing your little one's sensory experiences and engaging them with the world around them! They are easy to make, and you can include any item.

Start by collecting items around your house that you might use with your baby., here are a few examples:

  • Add things that make noise so they can explore noise by tapping and banging (stimulating cause and effect).

  • Use items such as wooden and metal spoons, pots and pans, empty small water bottles, keys, etc.

  • You can also add some noisy materials, such as tin foil, greased paper, wrapping paper, etc. 

  • Incorporating boxes with lids will help support their problem-solving skills.

Make a texture basket.

This type of play is excellent for stimulating your little one's sense of touch and learning new vocabulary!

Your little one will love exploring all the different textures and learning about objects and the world around them. All you need to do is to collect a range of materials with different textures and put them in a basket or box:

  • Use materials such as sponges, loofah, leather pieces, sticks, fake grass, bubble wrap, felt, faux fur, pine cones, scourers, etc.

  • Support their learning by describing what they are holding, observing and feeling.

  • Talk about the textures and explain them using words and sounds.

Floor time builds spatial awareness

Young children need plenty of opportunities to explore their bodies, and floor time is a wonderful way for your baby to explore their physical self. Experiencing floor time allows your little one to build an internal map of their environment. They do this by learning where they are in space — under the table, on the bed, next to a teddy bear, etc. which helps children understand more where they are in a space, feel more competent navigating the playground, and enjoy play that involves large movements, like running and jumping.

  • Your little one will enjoy their time on their floor or any other comfortable firm surface that allows your baby free movement.

  • You will notice when you put your baby on their back, they will soon begin to move their arms and legs as they explore body parts and learn all about them.

  • Then they will extend their learning by trying to hold onto their feet. This is also great for them to develop their sensorimotor skills too!

Position changes help them learn how to move their body in different positions, use their muscles differently and interact with their world from a new viewpoint. Babies and toddlers need space to stretch, roll, crawl, etc., and time to observe and explore their environment (indoors and outdoors) at their own pace and independently.

Messy play

Messy play is a great early science learning activity that promotes engagement with all your little one's senses.

  • Every sensation they experience is sent to the brain to be interpreted, which will help their cognitive and creative development.

  • Hands-on activities will encourage babies and toddlers to compare textures, smells, sounds, and temperatures.

Asking questions help young children learn new words and connect new information to what they already know. Support your little one's learning by using language to help them make sense of their experiences by describing what they see and do. Your baby might not be able to answer, but you are helping them to develop their scientific thinking. You can do this by:

  • Using open-ended questions such as, "I wonder why…?" "What do you think will happen if...?" "What else can you try?"

  • Commenting, describing, comparing objects and materials

Jelly Messy play

The outdoors

The outdoors and the natural world stimulate children's curiosity and imagination. This sensory overload experience encourages observation, experimenting, material manipulation, and testing abilities.

Use the outdoors to stimulate your little one's sensory development from the beginning. For example:

  • Go on a listening walk, and listen to the environment with your little one.

  • Encourage them to stop and to listen carefully, giving them time to hear, make links, respond, name and repeat the sounds they heard. 

  • Create an outdoor exploration tool kit! Add digging tools such as rakes, sticks, spades, and different size buckets with handles

  • Add some discovery tools, such as a sturdy magnifying glass and binoculars, to support exploration.

  • Explore the mini beasts, go on a worm hunt and look for spiders! Describe the weather, and explore all those excellent natural resources only found outdoors!

Books and stories

Books are an excellent way to expose your child to STEAM learning. Everyone enjoys a good book, especially children. As your little one is guided through the storytelling experience, they will learn to notice patterns in language and rhythm, play and manipulate words and sounds, which helps develop their phonological awareness.

Stories also teach children about taking chances and attempting new things. The characters provide a foundation for children to investigate how things work and the world beyond their homes.

So build a library with picture books about nature, people, animals, transport, space, landscapes, and art! The books you select ideally include fiction and non-fiction that cover a variety of interests, topics, and characters!

What other activities can you do at home to promote STEAM learning?

I bet you have been exposing your little one to STEAM learning throughout their early years, but you didn't even know you were doing it!

  • Cooking and baking can teach young children early mathematical concepts such as size, shapes, space and measure and scientific concepts such as chemistry.

  • At the same time, children can also learn about biology and agriculture through cooking.

  • Create a shopping list and go to the shop to get the ingredients with your little one, then read the recipe, describing and explaining what you need to do and how much of the ingredients you need.

  • Involve your little one with each recipe step, talking about numbers, shapes, measurements, sizes, colours, textures and tastes!

  • Make sure your little one can see the raw product going into the oven or pan; this is the best way to observe chemical reactions.

  • You can also try making play dough together. Allow your little one to be involved with measuring the flour, salt and oil, tipping ingredients in the bowl and using tools such as a spoon to mix, as well as using their hands and fingers.

In conclusion, science in the early years can lead to a lifelong love of discovery. It relates to attention, curiosity, information gathering, memory, persistence, and problem-solving—helping to develop early cognitive concepts and build the foundations for school readiness:

  • Object permanence (people and objects exist even when you can't see them)

  • Cause and effect (actions make things happen)

  • Spatial awareness (where bodies and objects are in space; recognising the environment has three dimensions—that things have tops, bottoms, and sides)

  • Symbolic thinking (using objects, actions, and ideas to represent other objects, actions, and ideas)


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