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Language & Learning

9 Simple Ways to Raise a STEM-Loving Kid

How cooking, walking, and yes, even sorting laundry can help teach science, technology, engineering and math

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It goes without saying that STEM disciplines-namely science, technology, engineering, and math-are becoming more and more important in early education. And experts say that it's never too early for kids to be introduced to these ideas. Here's how to do it: 

1. Make a meal together. Cooking is a great way for you to help your kid learn several STEM skills at once-not to mention a great way to bond (and for you to multitask). "Following a recipe, mixing, measuring, and learning about proportions and conversions are just some of the cooking activities that relate to STEM," explains Chip Donohue, Ph.D., director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. Ask your kiddo, for example, to measure half a cup of flour and then help him figure out how much he'd need if he were making half the recipe. Teach how many cups are in a pint. Or you can ask a younger kid to count out ten cherry tomatoes to put in a salad. 

2. Ask a lot of questions. A big part of developing STEM skills is encouraging your kid to be inquisitive, to make predictions, to come up with ideas she can test to solve a problem, and to figure out alternative ideas if the first approach doesn't work. One way to do this is by asking your kid her thoughts on aspects of everyday life, says Cora Carey, school-age learning manager and STEM educator for Boston Children's Museum. You could ask: "How long does a red light last? Let's time it." "How many people do you think would fit in that minivan?" "If we roll two different-sized balls down the staircase, which will hit the ground first?" or "If we roll the balls a second time, will the results be the same?" "The answers don't have to be accurate," says Carey. "The exercise is in thinking about them and creating a theory based on experience and prior knowledge."

3. Take a walk. Yup, you can help your kid develop math and science skills by taking a nature walk or even just strolling around your neighborhood. Collect fun objects together along the way such as leaves, sticks, flowers, and rocks, suggests Donohue, and encourage your kid to sort the collection into categories such as type, size, shape, color, and texture. This provides an opportunity for you to talk about various quantities and measurements.

4. Look around your house. Everyday materials such as puzzles, paper, recycled materials, magnifying glasses, and art materials can help boost engineering and math skills. "Ask your child to look at the clouds in the sky, build a tower with stuff from the recycling bin, or estimate how many stuffed animals fit in a backpack," says Carey. Block play is particularly helpful. "With blocks, children can gain fine-motor skills needed to manage keyboards and screens," explains Dr. Donohue. "Also, block play and engineering go hand-in-hand as children experiment with different designs, talk about stability and balance, and figure out why some designs fall down while others stand up." 

5. Make sorting laundry a family activity. "When folding laundry with your child, explore the concepts of 'same' and 'different' through attributes such as color and size," suggests Dr. Donahue. "Help your child create a sequence of socks from smallest to largest, make a pattern by lining them up smaller, bigger, smaller, bigger, smaller, or have your child help match the pairs of socks together." Who knew?

6. Develop a STEM-friendly vocabulary. Many words associated with coding and computational thinking have always been part of early childhood activities such as 'directions,' 'patterns,' 'matching,' 'combining,' 'measuring,' 'planning,' and 'communicating,' says Dr. Donohue. Adds Carey: "Explore different textures, scents, sounds, sights, colors, and tastes with your kids and help them expand their vocabularies-words such as 'crispy,' 'bright,' 'rough,' 'loud,' 'wavy,' and 'round' are all early STEM words for littles." 

7. Take full advantage of grocery shopping. The grocery store is full of opportunities to explore science and math skills. Help your kid learn the difference between fruits and vegetables, count the number of cereal boxes that contain the color red, or compare the shapes of varieties of produce. "At home, encourage your child to compare flavors of various foods, talk about how different fruits look on the inside, and compare amounts on each family member's plate," suggests Dr. Donohue.

8. Encourage early coding skills. Kids are learning how to code at younger ages than ever before. "Like other STEM skills, coding can be introduced to young kids, but it looks different for this age group," explains Carey. "At its core, coding at this age is about encouraging logical thinking and learning how much sequence and process matter. Early coding also encourages children to manipulate technology and be creative with it instead of just consuming media created by others. Familiar childhood games like Simon Says get kids thinking like coders."

9. Allow for mistakes. Almost any kind of open-ended play that a kid initiates without concern of what's correct or not can help build important STEM skills. "Giving a kid the freedom to build with lots of loose parts will develop their motor skills, questioning skills, theorizing, and understanding of how different materials behave and interact," explains Carey. So if their creation comes tumbling down, this will only help them investigate and learn how to build a more stable structure next time.