How to Incorporate STEM When Playing with your Toddler


16 Dec

We have another guest post! Let me introduce Robin, who is in my August Bumpers ‘17 online mom’s group! I joined when I was pregnant with Anais and now the women in this group are both my online friends, and many are also my friends in real life now (I’ve even vacationed with some of them!). But the great thing about having this type of group is that you can learn so much from others who have different experiences and skill sets than you do! Last week, Sadie, who is also from the same group, did a guest post on Fitness as a New Mom, and this week Robin is here to tell us all about STEM and how to incorporate it into play with our little ones!

Tell us a bit about yourself! How did you get Into STEM learning? 

I’m pretty sure I was born a science teacher, but didn’t realize it until I had already graduated from college. After I got my Master’s in Biology, I got a job in a Nobel Laureate’s biology lab - and I hated it. After three weeks, I realized that science was not the career for me. I didn’t like the paperwork and politics, which got in the way of doing my own experiments, and probably would for my whole career. Since I wanted to move out of my parents’ house, I needed a job, and figured that teaching wouldn’t be too hard. I was wrong in that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I was hooked. I love watching a student’s face as they finally made a connection, discovery, or new understanding; I love the “Aha! moment”. 

After having kids of my own, I liked the flexibility of working for myself and appreciated the opportunity to have a greater impact than I would in one classroom, so I started STEMsmart Consulting. I’ve been working my dream job ever since, designing science, math, and STEM programming for individuals, schools, and digital resources that are used by millions of students.

So, what does STEM stand for anyway, and why is everyone always talking about it?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. These four areas have a lot in common, especially when it comes to how we approach questions and problems. They also have differences, although they complement each other. STEM is an approach to learning that involves questions and problems that have solutions requiring an approach that integrates science, technology, engineering, and math. This is exciting because in the real world, questions and problems often involve more than one kind of knowledge. Moreover, the STEM fields are growing so quickly right now, and we want our kids prepared to lead them even further!

Why is it important to incorporate STEM activities for toddlers and young kids?

As I said previously, we want our kids prepared to join exciting (and profitable) STEM fields one day. Even more important, though, the skills students learn in STEM are helpful in so many other ways! STEM teaches kids to ask questions, make predictions, and test out predictions. It teaches them to make a plan, test out the plan, and then improve it for next time. It teaches them to look for evidence and evaluate arguments. It teaches them to think critically about the things they see, read, and hear.

What is the earliest age at which you can incorporate STEM activities and learning?

Here’s the fun part: kids are born scientists and engineers. They do STEM activities on their own! Have you ever watched your toddler throwing food off their high chair tray, repeatedly and methodically? They’re running a series of experiments on gravity. You’ve spent your entire life dropping things and tripping on things, so you are pretty confident that things fall towards the ground. Your toddler has only seen it happen one, ten, or a hundred times. How many times do they need to see it before they are confident in their predictions about gravity? How many times did you see it before you were certain what would happen?

As they get a little older, they start to understand the idea of asking questions and making predictions. Once they are talking in complete sentences, you can begin talking through the scientific inquiry process or engineering design cycle. Once they are reading and writing, the possibilities are endless!

How can you take a regular activity, and try to incorporate STEM principles?

The most important thing we can do is let your kids do their own exploring. Even though it is frustrating when kids drop things, make messes, and ask questions, they are developing these important STEM skills. You can also encourage STEM thinking by prompting them with questions and ideas.

You can recognize STEM thinking by listening for phrases like “I wonder…”, “What if…”, “How does…”, “Can I make…”, “Can I fix…”, and “What can I do with…”. If you hear these things, or notice your kids experimenting or building, you can encourage them by asking them questions like “Where can you look it up?”, “Why do you think that is?”, “How could you test it out?”, “What would you need to…”, and “What is a better way you could…”. You can also remind them that an experiment or a design is the beginning of something, not the end of something. It is never going to be perfect and the best thing we can do is learn from our mistakes for next time.

That’s all there is to it! Let kids be, and maybe point them in the right direction if you want to. There’s no need to be a scientist with a PhD or an electrical engineer. If they want to learn more about the phenomena they’re observing, they will do it on their own!

Your blog has some great ideas on STEM activities for kids! Can you share your favorites?

I developed a series of STEM activities for kids during the early part of the pandemic. All of these are pretty easy to set up and require minimal-to-no additional materials.

Home Experiments

Home Engineering Challenges

Home Math Activities

Integrated STEM Activities

Additional Resources

Other low cost, low effort ideas

  • Tinkering at home (Exploratorium in SF): https://www.exploratorium.edu/explore/tinkering-at-home
  • Turn anything into an experiment: Ask a question, make a prediction, test the prediction, see what happened, communicate what happened
    • Some ideas: How many species of tree are in my backyard? How long does it take to go down the slide wearing different material pants? How do the cookies come out differently when I use different amounts of ingredients? 
  • Engineering design cycle: ask, design, create, test, improve
    • Some ideas: What useful devices can I make with old toilet paper rolls? What little problems do I notice at home and how can I fix them (such as: door gets stuck, desk wobbles, drawer gets stuck)? How tall a tower/strong a bridge/fast a vehicle can I build using only materials from the recycling bin?

Not that I’m suggesting screen time, but if you are going to do it, do you have any STEM friendly activities or shows you’d recommend?

I think you should suggest screen time! It allows our kids to share in STEM (and other kinds of) experiences all over the world, without ever leaving home! It allows our kids to learn directly from experts in many different fields, see models of phenomena we could never observe for real (who remembers “The Magic Schoolbus” in Arnold’s digestive system?), and even simulate experiments that they wouldn’t be able to do without access to , say, the Large Hadron Collider buried deep underneath Switzerland. Plus, now that many museums and libraries are closed, you can find virtual tours and field trips too. Screen time opens up so many opportunities to kids who otherwise couldn’t logistically, or financially, get to experience them. It also allows parents (especially moms, who are often responsible for a disproportionate amount of childcare responsibilities) time to work, cook, and model self care for their families.

Here are some wonderful free resources and suggestions for TV shows from popular streaming apps.

Free Resources

STEM shows you can stream from popular streaming apps

  • Netflix: “Ask the StoryBots” (2+)
  • Netflix: “The Magic School Bus” and “The Magic School Bus Rides Again” (3+)
  • Netflix: “Emily’s Wonder Lab” (5+)Hulu: “Doc McStuffins” (2+)
  • PBS Kids: “Dinosaur Train” (3+)
  • PBS Kids: “Peg + Cat” (2+)
  • PBS Kids: “SciGirls” (8+)

Looking for more info, or have a question? You can find me at @stemsmarttutoring, stemsmartconsulting.com, and robinsatty@stemsmartconsulting.com.


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