Sunday, February 25, 2024

Supporting STEM Learning in Young Children - Embracing a STEM Mindset


STEM learning for preschoolers and toddlers
Images from freepik at

As many of us know, "STEM" programming for school-aged kids and teens spread from the educational system to libraries a decade or so ago (although science and nature programs have been a part of library program for longer than that), and it should be no surprise that now it has trickled down into programming for preschoolers, toddlers, and even babies!

But, does this mean we are having toddlers do full-on chemistry experiments and microscopy as the images above might suggest? Absolutely not! For one, there is the obvious safety issues, for another many advanced STEM activities are not developmentally appropriate for younger children for other reasons. In fact, you do not have to have separate, official "STEM" programs at all in order to support STEM learning in young children! Many of the things we already do in storytime or other programs for the very young support STEM learning; we may just need to be more intentional about it and adjust our mindset.

STEM for the very young is all about the mindset and approach, and the good news is that children are born scientists! Babies and toddlers are already hard-wired to explore the world around them, to be curious, and to experiment. When a toddler stacks blocks, they are learning about spatial relationships; when they knock them down they are learning about cause and effect. A baby explores their environment using all their senses: touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell. Unfortunately, this natural sense of curiosity and wonder is often stifled rather than encouraged once they start school, where they are expected to conform, play is discouraged, experiential learning is less available, teachers are forced to "teach to the test", and science education often falls by the wayside, which is why it's so important to encourage it now.

Embracing a STEM Mindset

A "STEM mindset" is a growth mindset. It is all about being curious and open to learning. By embracing and modeling a STEM mindset in our approach we are not only supporting and encouraging children's natural sense of wonder and desire to explore, but also *empowering the caregiver* to do so at home. Some characteristics of a STEM mindset are:
  • It's the PROCESS, not the product! Repeat this often, as many caregivers become focused on the product and things turning out or looking "right".
  • "Failure" is an opportunity for learning through critical thinking and problem solving! As Pete the Cat says, "there are no failures, only lessons". Repeat this often as well.
  • Encourage and model curiosity, wonder, and exploration.
  • Question everything! Model asking and exploring What? How? Why? Where? When? questions
  • Let kids do as much themselves as possible! Another mantra to repeat often as caregivers tend to take over in their focus on doing things "right".
  • Make sure you are presenting scientifically accurate information, no matter what kind of program or activity. So no 4- or 8- pointed snowflakes; no polar bears hanging out with penguins!
  • Model making observations and noticing details, colors, shapes, patterns, etc.
  • Activities for young children should be play-based. Play is how young children learn!

STEM elements that can be incorporated into storytime or any other programs, and for any age (also see my previous article specifically on incorporating math literacy):
  • Counting up & down
  • Sorting & grouping
  • Shapes
  • Measuring (rulers, tape measure, measuring cups & spoons)
  • Estimating
  • Graphing
  • Making observations
  • Making predictions
  • Including factual information, introducing non-fiction
  • Asking questions
  • Finding or figuring out the answers
  • Point out scientific process in art, cooking, other activities
  • Stacking, building
    • Blocks; foam, wooden, cardboard
    • Magnatiles
    • Bristle blocks
    • Star builders
    • Bricks
    • Stacking cups
    • Many others
  • Sensory exploration
    • Sensory toys
    • Sand/water tables & toys
    • Sensory bin
    • Nature
  • Open-ended activities
    • Process art
    • Small parts play
  • Incorporate at least one STEM activity into multi-station or "party" programs
  • Include STEM careers in "community helper" days, career fairs

And a few tips for STEM programming in general:
  • Be sure you are highlighting and explaining the STEM principles involved
  • Research in advance to be sure you understand and can present accurate information and explanations
  • Test all activities in advance to be sure they work, look for difficult steps, safety concerns, etc.
  • Basic science is the easiest, most budget friendly, and IMO the most fun.
  • Invest in basic equipment and multi-use items
  • Vinegar & baking soda are your friends!
  • Only change one variable at a time
  • Do your research before buying expensive gadgets, be sure they're appropriate for the intended age & goals, try to share with other libraries or schools
  • Technology is often over-emphasized at the expense of the other three areas, and often most expensive (for more about this, see "STEM is a Four-Letter Word").

Here are a few resources for embracing a STEM mindset and STEM activities specifically in regards to younger children (see part 2 of my "STEM is a Four-Letter Word" series for more STEM resources):
  • Let’s Talk, Read and Sing about STEM! Tips for Infant/Toddler Teachers & Providers, great for tips to pass on to caregivers
  • S.T.E.A.M. for Infants & Toddlers!?! Slide show with info on development & several activities
  • Baby Steps to STEM: Infant and Toddler Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Activities - I HIGHLY recommend this book! Especially good if you do not have a strong background in child development. It provides a solid foundation in understanding learning and brain development, and how to support it with STEM concepts in mind, lists of supplies and materials, advice on modeling wonder, curiosity, & exploration, and more.

    This is followed by many activities, with clearly outlined concepts, learning outcomes, tips, materials, steps, questions to ask/model, vocabulary, ways to expand the activity, and children's books that relate to the activity/concepts. Though it focuses on babies and toddlers, many of the concepts and activities are good (maybe even better) for preschool and primary grades.

I hope this article helps you to be more comfortable and confident with your ability to support STEM learning in general and specifically with young children. I also hope that it empowers you to be able to demonstrate to your superiors, admin, community stakeholders, and caregivers how you already are supporting and will support STEM concepts and learning within the framework of storytime and other programs you already offer so you hopefully will not be pressured to spread yourself even thinner by adding yet another program to your roster! 
[Of course, if you have the time, desire, energy, staffing, and funding to add the occasional preschool STEM play program, go right ahead! Just know that it is not a necessity, and STEM can be supported within existing programs.]

And to close I will quote someone who truly embraces the STEM mindset, followed by photos of young children engaged in developmentally appropriate STEM activities:

"Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" - Ms. Frizzle


STEM activities for young children, STEM for preschool and toddlers
Images by (l to r) freepik, prostooleh, and freepik at


  1. That idea of a STEM mindset being a growth mindset is so important - I have so many kids at my programs that really struggle when faced with any challenge. "I can't do it!!!!" is a commonly-heard refrain.

    1. I have noticed that, too, especially in the last two years, with all ages - even adults. People seem to be losing their natural sense of curiosity and wonder, the ability to problem solve, and are less able to deal with any difficulties, and less able to follow directions.