Exploring STEM using Art

When I walk into early childhood classrooms, I often see wonderful art explorations. The teachers offer a wide variety of materials and open-ended opportunities to explore and create with the materials. When I ask about what types of STEM explorations the children experience, the responses are less enthusiastic. When I facilitate professional development sessions for KODO Kids, I ask the participants, “who has a background in STEM subjects?” and “do you feel comfortable offering STEM experiences to young children?” The responses are often “No” to both questions, with a few exceptions. The teachers report that they are more comfortable offering art, literacy and dramatic play opportunities. Those teachers are sometimes frustrated because they don’t know how to present STEM explorations in early childhood classrooms. 

 

By employing a few key strategies, such as integrating materials in a different and unexpected way, using “I wonder” statements, and  asking questions that focus on STEM ideas, STEM concepts can be seamlessly integrated into classroom explorations using art.  

 

Kodo Kids has wonderful materials to encourage STEM explorations, and I encourage educators to use the materials in all facets of the classroom. My son and I attend a toddler art class and the teacher is great at using materials in creative and open ended ways. During one class, she used the Kodo Kids arches with paint and cars. The materials were set up for the children to explore and use as they wished.

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To integrate STEM concepts and learning into this art activity, educators can facilitate learning through questions that explore physics, math, and engineering concepts. Here are just a few examples of concepts to explore in this situation:

 

  • Compare and contrast 
    • Speed of cars, which car goes faster
    • Length of tracks
    • Does the color of paint affect the speed of car
    • What, if any, variables affect car’s speed
    • Using the arches convexly and concavely  
  • Counting/measuring
    • How long it takes for the cars to cross arch
    • Length of track
    • How many cars can fit on track
    • Velocity of car

Asking questions that start with “I wonder…” will facilitate exploration of STEM concepts. In order to build an affinity to and level of comfort with STEM, adults and children need to learn how to ask questions in addition to feeling comfortable discovering the answers. It is also important to use real terminology with children. The earlier children are exposed to STEM vocabulary, the more comfortable they will be with it. A few words that are useful in the arch and car scenario:

  • Velocity
  • Speed
  • Incline
  • Hypothesis
  • Theory
  • Estimate
  • Momentum
  • Convex/Concave

I encourage educators to take on new challenges one goal at a time. For example: use one material in a different way than originally intended per week,  ask one question that integrates STEM concepts or introduce one new STEM vocabulary word per week. Practicing and integrating one goal at a time will make the goal approachable and achievable. Integrating experiences and concepts that you might not feel as comfortable with, such as STEM, with experiences you feel more comfortable with, such as art, will also make it more approachable and increase the chance of success. 

 

Capturing Children’s Thinking

Young children learn and process new concepts at an incredible pace. Just think about language acquisition. Children begin speaking, on average, around 12 months. By age two they have about 50 words and by three years old (Johns Hopkins Medicine), most can speak full sentences and express complex ideas and thoughts. Since everything is new to children, they process and interpret things differently than adults. In early childhood classrooms, it is important to capture the children’s learning and thinking.  Documenting children’s learning helps in understanding how children think, this in turn can aid in the plannin process for educators as well as  offer opportunities for reflection, both in student and educators. 

One of the best ways to capture children’s learning and their thinking process right when it happens is to carry sticky notes, or a small notepad and writing utensil with you at all times in the classroom. Whenever I am in a classroom working with children, I always have sticky notes and pencil in my pocket. If I wait to record what is happening, there is a higher chance I will forget or misremember what happend or what was said. If I need to get up to search for a recording device too much time passes, or I interrupt the moment and risk distrupting a child’s thought process and lose the sincerity of the moment.  Ideally, documenting children’s learning should not be intrusive and should not interrupt the child and their thinking and learning. The educator should be able to seamlessly document the children’s learning while still engaging with the children. Taking a picture of children  to help document their learning is only the beginning. It is important to have multiple means and use varied media, such as recording conversations, to help document learning.  

I recorded a conversation I had with a child who was between 3-4 years old.  I used short hand notes while recording the conversation and was careful and deliberate when taking notes to keep my focus on the child and not lose the connection I had with her. This takes  a lot of practice. It is important to be able to take notes that will be short and concise while still being able to decipher them at a later date. It is also important to be able to take notes while not always having to look at what you’re writing. You want to make sure the children know that they are your main focus. 

Here is my conversation with Iris (I changed her name for this post) and the accompanying pictures:

Background:

This took place at the “painting Matzah table”. Iris was painting the Matzah with a roller brush, I noticed there was paper as well. I said “I wonder if I paint the paper will there be a different pattern than when I paint the Matzah?” I used the brush with many strands to “stamp” the paper producing dot like shapes and then I said “I wonder what the pattern looks like when I do long strokes and use the brush like this” creating two different patterns on separate papers. I was just speaking out loud, not necessarily speaking directly to Iris. She was painting her matzah while watching me. This is the conversation that followed:

Iris:  pointing to the one that resembled dots) “this looks like prints” and, (pointing to the one with long strokes) “this looks like tracks”.

 

Natalie: Those area great words! I wonder what the difference between tracks and prints is? Hm….

Iris: hm… those are footprints and those are tracks (pointing to the respective papers) (she knows that they look different and she labeled them differently but she can’t explain it yet, my goal is to get her to explain her thinking and reasoning behind why she labeled them differently)

Natalie: Oh so those are FOOTprints…feet made that pattern

Iris: Yes, people made those. I make footprints in the snow when I walk

Natalie: And what made these tracks?

Iris: someone dragging something

Natalie: so there is a difference between footprints and tracks

Iris: Yes, someone walks to make these and someone drags something to make these (pointing to respective picture).

Natalie: hm, I see

Iris: yes, and someone can drag their feet to make the tracks.

Natalie: oh so a person can use their feet to make footprints and tracks?

Iris: Yes

Natalie: I wonder what else can make these tracks?

Iris: (pausing to think, continues to paint matzah, about a 20 second silence) A stick! If you drag a stick you can make this track!

Natalie: I think that would work too! I would love to test out your theories!

Iris: I have a dinosaur path (described a carpet at home with dinosaurs and walking paths and footprints)

 

We then tried the roller brush on the paper that she was using on the matzah and it made a different pattern. She said that if you drag your feet sideways it would make that track.

 

In capturing this conversation, I was able to discover a few things about this child and her thinking. I get insights into her previous experiences and knowledge of snow, dinosaurs, footprints, and tracks. I also get to know her better since she shares some facts about her home, specifically her dinosaur-path rug.  I can use this knowledge to plan curriculum for the students such as experiments with footprints and tracks, comparing different  materials to make the tracks in, snow, sand, ice, paint, grass etc., and track making materials (sticks, feet, shoes). This investigation could last weeks or months depending on the interest of the children.

  

Choosing the Right Preschool for You and Your Family

Choosing a preschool is stressful. Often this is the first time your child is in someone else’s care or away from you for an extended amount of time. Adding to that stress, in some communities the competition to send your child to the “best” preschool is fierce, motivating parents to put their child on a waitlist the moment the child is born. The decision is not just about the child it is about the parents, too. Preschool is a place for the family to build a community. Parents interact with peers, meet new friends and build a community for their whole family. Just think about how much more willing you are to take your child to an event or activity when you know your friends will be there.

As an educational consultant, I get phone calls and questions from families about where they should send their child. Families are hoping that I will share the inside scoop and give them the “real story” about each school. Sorry to tell you that this article isn’t a TMZ style gossip column about each school’s dramas or successes. Instead, I will share some simple tips to help you choose the right school for your child and family.

I tell everyone I speak with to start with a list; Write down all of the elements you want in a school. List everything. It doesn’t matter how seemingly crazy or far fetched it might be, just list it (see below for some suggestions). Once you have a list, number each element either by a number system from most important to least important, or label each element with “must have”, “nice to have”, or “not crucial”.

Once you have created and labeled the list, look at all of the must have elements and see if any of the schools you are considering would automatically be cut from your list. If, for example, a kosher school is a must have for you, then remove all non-kosher programs from your list. Take each element and work your way through your list of schools. If you really don’t have any must have parameters, then you can do the same thing with the “nice to have” list and review the schools using that list.

Once you have a list of schools you are considering, call each school and visit. Visit once without your child (so that you can have an uninterrupted experience) and visit once with your child. It is important to see how your child interacts with the staff and surroundings and vice versa. If the school will allow you, the best way to really see how a classroom and teachers operate is to spend at least 20 minutes in the classroom. If you do this, you have to follow certain protocol so you don’t disrupt the classroom. The best way to observe a classroom is to place a chair at the perimeter of the class and sit quietly and “disappear”. Do not interact with the teachers or students, unless a child approaches you. In that case don’t ignore the child, but don’t initiate the interaction. This enables the children and teachers to interact as usual and is minimally disruptive to the classroom.

Many directors won’t allow families to observe for an extended period of time because it can be disruptive to the classroom community. If this is the case, respect the director and the school’s policy and don’t demand or push your agenda.

Once you have chosen your school be happy with your decision and don’t second guess. Each child and each family is different. What works for your friends or even your first child might not work for you or your other child. Take a deep breath, relax and if it doesn’t work out, homeschooling at their grandparents’ house is always an option. Just kidding mom and dad.

Here are a few examples of items for your list:

  • Proximity to your home or work
  • Religious affiliation
    • Jewish
      • Denomination
      • Kosher
  • Classroom size (number of students per class)
  • Size of school (how many total children)
  • Student teacher ratio
  • Allergy Sensitive school
    • Nut-free school
  • Provide lunch
  • Provide snack
  • Educational philosophy of school (Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Constructivist, Emergent, Play)
  • Tuition
  • Hours of school
  • Whether they offer enrichment programming and classes such as music, yoga, art specific teachers, science, cooking etc as part of the daily schedule
  • Outdoor classrooms and outdoor space
  • Flexible schedules
  • Family engagement programming
  • Potty training
  • Staff education and professional development opportunities
  • Staff turnover rate
  • Year-round options