Making STEM colorful and real helps kids branch out

An ever-louder chorus of voices say, “It’s never too early to start “STEM ed.” For kids who seem to naturally love math, science, and all things tech, that’s a natural extension. But for others, it’s decidedly more of a reach.

In a fun and informative post to LifeHacker a year ago titled “How to Get Your Kids Interested in STEM (Without Forcing It on Them),” Melanie Pinola, wisely observed that “Kids who don’t like math or science have come to think of them as bad words, much like the word ‘taxes’ leaves a bad taste in many adults’ mouths. They don’t realize that outside of the classroom, these subjects live in every aspect of our lives.”

Pinola offers some great ideas and insights. For example, she suggests that cooking (food science) is the best science because it offers up “experiments you can eat!” She also notes that “poetry is really music in text form, and music is tightly connected to math.”

Getting STEM-resistant kids to enjoy such everyday pleasures is a little like hiding bits of broccoli beneath the mac and cheese. They will be more likely to gobble it up if the main dish looks tasty. For example, in volume 1 of the preschool series Charlie & Company, Levi Cottonwood shows how to measure and build yummy snacks. Along the way, kids also learn some fun food facts. “Can you believe popcorn has existed for more than 5,000 years?” asks Miss Ellie. Or count the jugs of milk and hear a cow moo! Ta-da. Math “disguised” in moos! Let a Levi Cottonwood plush toy add to the charm.

As for rhyming and music, the 3-level Start to Read! Early Reading Program 18-Book Set combines both. Most of the stories use rhyme, as it’s one of the most basic and charming ways to lock in early reading and language skills; plus each level in the series includes a Read-Along & Songs CD, offering Two Great Ways to Learn®.

While we may never turn today’s anti-math kid into tomorrow’s calculus and trigonometry champ, experts suggest part of the problem is that kids are often underexposed to math and science or even steered away from it, including via gender-based teacher bias, present as early as preschool and kindergarten.

Last October the Huffington Post focused on a study reported in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. Drawing from the findings, Bahar Ghollpour noted that “The gender gap in math may start at kindergarten―and preschool teachers may unintentionally play some role in it.” The study also found that the gender gap hadn’t changed much among kids who entered kindergarten 12 years apart—in 1998 and 2010.

Here again, showing how numbers and math are an important part of life, and involving kids in calculations while cooking, shopping, and making spending/saving decisions makes for subtle, seamless “lessons.” Learning tools that make early math fun, such as the Giant Math Readiness Workbook and the Math 1 On-Track (iPad App) also go a long way toward embracing vs. shying away from the numbers game.

Connecting kids to the natural world is another important and often subtle way of connecting them to math and science. Back in 2013 Joshua M. Sneideman, an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, writing for the Natural Start Alliance, noted in “Engaging Kids in STEM Education Early!” that “STEM is a way of thinking about how educators at all levels—including parents—should be helping students integrate knowledge across disciplines, encouraging them to think in a more connected and holistic way.”

Tools such as the Giant Science Workbook (ages 7 to 9), packed with fun-filled activities and simple directions for hours of learning can help. Kids can travel a maze to the eye of a hurricane. Study bugs up close or look inside a seed. Label the parts of a plant or identify mammals by their tracks. Simple experiments such as Condensation on a Can or Fantastic Cloud Maker teach kids the joy of hands-on discovery. Science also gets paired with creativity: “Suppose you have a restaurant just for spiders. What do you serve?” Next up? Decipher the Lizard Code. Along the way, find handy definitions, supplemental reading lists, and fun facts, such as how birds repair their ruffled feathers after a rough flight.

The “connected and holistic way” of thinking that Sneideman describes can be lots of fun for both kids and parents as they explore the stretchy boundaries and sturdy branches of STEM.