Last month I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker at an event for Weekdays a childcare start-up in Seattle. I was speaking to early childhood educators, both seasoned and brand new, about STEM activities. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Many people don’t know how vital STEM is for early childhood development because we see these areas of learning in their fully developed forms, but no one is expecting or suggesting that we teach three-year-olds complicated math, to engineer a bridge, or to write code. Like all the things we teach our students, we need to break topics down to get to the core and find ways through activities and free play to lay a solid foundation. In early childhood education, STEM is about critical thinking and problem-solving. While children design and build with Lego, they learn that a tower with all the blocks line up perfectly is going to fall more easily than one were the bricks are staggered. That’s STEM learning. One of the things that emerged when I was speaking to these early childhood educators was that for many that work in amazing outdoor programs, they didn’t think STEM was accessible to them. They saw it as a traditional classroom offering, but that isn’t true at all. There are so many outdoor STEM activities that preschoolers can play with and explore.
Simple Outdoor STEM activities
Science is all about observation and discovery, two things that occur naturally in nature. Here are some specific ways you can explore science outside with preschoolers:
Look for and watch how your local birds fly, what color they are, and what they sound like. Bird watching outside inspired this indoor bird watching activity in my class.
Shadow Follow The Leader
On a sunny day, invite your students to play follow the leader with their shadows. While playing, explore what happens if you line up, and move closer and further away from the surface, the shadows are on.
Checking the weather while you are experiencing it makes sense. Sing this song outside and have your students be meteorologists.
Go for a little walk around your playground or in the forest if you teach at an outdoor school and listen to EVERYTHING, construction sounds, birds singing, rain dripping. This is a lovely calm activity for any age group.
The five senses are a fantastic way to explore science with children because it is science they can relate to. This smell safari is simple – go on a walk and explore things by smelling them. Flowers, gardens, grass, trees – whatever you have available works!
I don’t think this one needs any explanation.
When we think of technology, the first thing most of us think about is a screen – an iPad, iPhone… something with internet and an adult screaming “No more screen time!” but technology is so much more than that. Technology means using tools and machines to help you with a task. Tools like hammers, pulleys, shovels are all examples of technology and are all wonderful tools to use outside with your students. Here are some simple ways to use them.
Using shovels to make piles of gravel, dirt, or snow.
Using pails and shovels to explore in the sandbox.
Using hammers to drive nails into a stump or large block of wood.
Giving children access to tools and allowing them to explore.
Engineering is all about designing, building, and trying out new ideas. It can be as complex as aerospace engineering or as simple as a sink and float experiment in a playground puddle. These activities all start with a question.
What can you build with sticks? I know we often take sticks away from children, but we can also teach them how to use them safely.
How many rocks can you balance in a tower?
Sink & Float with bits of nature in a puddle ( or tub of water)
Do you think this rock will sink? What about this leaf?
Loose Parts Outside (think rocks, glass beads, sticks, wood remnants)
Provide loose materials for children to explore creatively.
Math is so much more than just counting, but counting is a great and accessible place to start with math outside. Shapes, graphing
Counting Walk <– print out a printable for this here!
Measure items with natural items like stones. How many stones long is that stick? How about we measure it with leaves.
Gather & Count
Gather all the rocks, all the leaves, and sticks, then count.
Gather & Graph
Gather items and make a simple graph on the grass or dirt by lining them up like a bar graph.
I -Spy Shapes in Nature
I spy an oval leaf, and I spy a rectangle stick, I spy a triangle rock.