You don’t have to look very hard to find young children using the spatial reasoning, logic and problem solving skills that are critical to careers in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Children use these skills naturally as they build with blocks, run cars down a ramp, complete a puzzle and even figure out how to get from one end of a play structure to the other. The curiosity that lends itself to thousands of questions, the intentionality that screams, “I’ll do it myself!” and a fascination with putting things together and taking them apart (often over and over) are the foundation of scientific thought and process.
The way children look at the world, without the preconceived notions of adults, makes them natural scientists, programmers, engineers and mathematicians. Our job, as parents and preschool teachers, is to nurture the curiosity and independence that are crucial to a way of thinking that feeds on problem-solving and creativity – not to show off that we know “the” way to do things. Despite the fact that it can take a very long time to transition from block play to putting on a coat and getting out the door, those design skills are important.
Toy companies have long capitalized on the way young children learn. Some, like LEGO and unit blocks, have supported this kind of open-ended experimentation for a very long time. Unit blocks, still vital to preschool classrooms, were developed in 1913. Others, like K’Nex and Rokenbok and apps like Kodable and Minecraft, are newer. But they all support the kind of learning that nurtures STEM skills. They require flexible thinking about cause and effect and are naturally suited to encourage the kind of reasoning and designing that allow children to build and fail and build again – the way scientists work to test theories. The language and social skills that are practiced in a classroom block corner exist alongside the math and geometry concepts that evolve from grouping, adding and subtracting those halves, doubles and quadruples. The design and spatial reasoning skills evolving from the columns, ramps, curves and buttresses exist alongside new understandings of gravity and balance. And the perseverance and resilience that develop from tackling a challenging problem are valuable in all aspects of life.
As an Early Childhood educator and Head of Garrison Forest School’s coed preschool, I look at the research lamenting the small numbers of college students going into the STEM fields, especially women. Then, knowing the way children learn, it’s easy to see the kind of thinking that happens naturally in great preschool classrooms and how to support it. At Garrison Forest, the time our preschoolers spend in a dedicated pre-engineering class, which we call Imagineering and is taught by a specialist, has more than proven its value in two important ways. One, it ensures more time specifically dedicated to spatial reasoning, building and problem-solving, in an atmosphere that encourages children to work together and try and fail and try again. Second, it has become an important first step in laying the groundwork for dedicated Imagineering classes from Kindergarten through fifth grade, giving children the time and space and encouragement to keep thinking like preschoolers – with open-minded curiosity and the motivation to solve problems that require math, spatial reasoning and creativity.
Think how much joy (and how many STEM skills) you will give your own children if you get out the blocks and LEGOS and sit on the floor with them. As you design your own structures, maybe you’ll be able to get back to that kind of thinking yourself – unless you’re already an engineer, or an architect, or a teacher, or a musician, or a programmer, or an artist, or…