Parents want their children to succeed in a career they are passionate about. Today and in the foreseeable future, that means these children will need to be prepared to jump into STEM (science, technology. engineering, mathematics) careers with all the enthusiasm, energy and excitement they can muster. Oh, and that means having the know-how to succeed in these fields as well.
But how can parents help? As with so many things, a fine balance is important so that we don’t drive them in the other direction. And that other direction, by the way, is NOT the arts. Journalism, choreography, musical composition: all of these careers have deep roots in science and mathematics. I cannot think of a career in the arts that would not benefit enormously from knowledge of the STEM subjects.
If you believe your toddler has the inclination to someday be a mechanical engineer and you are basically waiting until she reaches high school to think about preparation, you’ve wasted a lot of valuable opportunities to help place her on the path to a well-paid career. Children can handle complex thinking skills even before they can speak. Encouraging different types of play can be critical in helping your child develop STEM skills such as questioning, analysis and curiosity. Unfortunately, many children in the United States are not getting the play and stimulation they need to develop these important skills. Waiting until a child starts school to learn about STEM fields in class may explain why so many of our students get low scores on mathematics and science tests compared to other developed nations.
Preparing children for STEM careers is a shared responsibility. Schools need to support teachers and offer STEM courses from the earliest age. Parents not only need to encourage certain types of play but to avoid behaviors that crush children’s enthusiasm to explore STEM fields. This is done in one of three ways: fear, disapproval or absence.
One way to crush a child’s curiosity is to teach her to be afraid of new things. Disapproval through our biases and attitudes also can keep a child from exploration of STEM and development of STEM skills. Simply saying “I’ve never been any good at math” to your child over and over may give the child the idea that you never had any success at mathematics. However, through diligence and persistence you most likely have had successes in math. Things like the ability to run a cash register, create a budget and run on a tight schedule among many other successes require mathematics and mathematics-based planning.
Mothers and fathers can be important active role models for their children when they explore the outdoors, interact with animals and conduct fun experiments with their children. Providing guided play activities that use imagination and pretending and exploratory play where the child can experiment and take things apart are crucial to learning and developing STEM skills. Encouraging free play by themselves and with other siblings and friends is just as important, so don’t think you have to constantly interact with your child every minute of every day to be supportive.
Teach STEM through a Variety of Activities
Activities that encourage “what” questions are very important for young children. “Why” questions tend to make children think there is a right or wrong answer, which can keep them from wanting to answer at all. “What” questions such as “What do you think happened here?” or “What’s changed since last time?” open up more exploration of possibilities and don’t lead to judgements. If your child would ask “Why is the sky blue?”, that would be a perfect opportunity to say to him or her, “What could make the sky blue during the day but not at night or on cloudy days?” Or make it a planned inquiry for your child when appropriate using questioning and investigative thinking.
Building activities strengthen a child’s spatial perception and problem solving skills. A parent might build a block or Lego structure, take a picture of it, then ask the child to replicate it. This is a visual exercise in technology and planning. The child must analyze the picture and determine the size and shape of blocks necessary to reproduce the given image.
Pretend play is great for math activities. Have your child pretend to be a shop owner or a cashier. You can be the customer buying items marked with prices that are age-appropriate. The child can practice totaling the amounts and giving the correct change.
Baking and cooking are also ideal for teaching and strengthening math skills. Just the act of transferring numbers from a page to a measuring cup aids with a child’s number sense. The numbers may seem arbitrary until the child sees just how much flour, chocolate chips or rice those numbers represent. Baking and cooking also encourage a child to work with fractions and parts of a whole, a concept many children struggle with because they don’t normally use them in concrete situations, especially at a young age. Of course, you do not want to place your child in an unsafe situation, so make sure he is always supervised and that he has his own set of non-dangerous utensils.
Your child does not have to wait until high school to learn about engineering. Engineering is simply the science of how technology can be used to solve problems. A child will naturally want to learn how things work. She will look for ways to make things work when they aren’t. Levers, pulleys and gears make good learning tools for engineering, and you don’t need any fancy equipment. A string draped over a spool makes a handy pulley substitute and levers can be found in any toolbox. Gears are a bit harder to find, but they are fairly common on toys that crank. Bicycles can easily demonstrate simple gears, but be careful of small hands and fingers.
Once again, having your child build things with blocks, cards or Legos can lead to discussions about engineers and engineering. Children just naturally want to design and build structures so encourage them in their building and even give them specific goals to incorporate, such as building the tallest structure possible using straws or building a bridge out of toothpicks that will support a brick.
School Needs to do Its Job as Well
It’s important for parents to know exactly how their child’s school plans to incorporate STEM ideas. It’s too important to leave to chance. As you can see from the activities listed above for parents, simply labeling a lesson as a STEM activity does not make it one. The school needs to make the activities interesting and exciting. They must start providing these activities at an early age - as early as pre-school. Most of all, the lessons need to be rigorous and challenging - especially as the child gets older - and include the skill sets appropriate for STEM such as problem solving, thinking outside the box and using nontraditional approaches.
But it is not just a minor annoyance if a good dose of STEM is not being applied at her school. Be a positive support for your child’s teacher by offering to purchase STEM supplies, suggesting and assisting with age-appropriate STEM field trips and sharing STEM activities you have used at home with teachers and other parents.
STEM learning can and will open doors for your child in his or her future career. Even if you feel uncomfortable with certain STEM subjects or are “terrible at math”, your support and encouragement can make all the difference.