Aug 4, 2015

#STEM Starts at Home: Go Outside!

Parents ask me, even before they become parents, what they can do to keep STEM open for their children. I always emphasize that they don't technically do anything different than what early childhood folks have been saying for years. Rather, they should make sure those activities are rich enough so that they can build STEM foundations. Here's one example: 

Go Outside! aka Starting Observation Skills

what to do 

Pack up your little one, even if an infant, and head out of the house. It could be to the park, to the zoo, to a mall, or to a restaurant. The latter may be especially good if its furnished with the ceiling fan.

image by Richard Sweet, via

what you are really doing 

By exposing your tyke to new sights sounds and smells, you're stimulating the senses which are essential for observation skills which are important for STEM:

  • Scientists observe how the natural world works, later making precise measurements and sharing these findings with others. Together, these observations are clues that help them uncover the laws of nature. 
  • Technicians use observation skills when troubleshooting systems, whether they are planes, computers, nanotechnology, or gears. 
  • Engineers observe how existing designs work and are keenly observant when troubleshooting their latest product.
  • Mathematicians use observation skills in conjunction with tools like graphs, charts, and computers to discover underlying patterns which they try to describe with equations and algorithms. This is how they can predict future behavior.

how you can grow these skills 

Keep pointing out interesting things that you see, things that catch your eye. Maybe you are drawn to animals, machinery, interesting smells or noises. As you notice things in your world, share them with your little one.

Reinforce your child's own observations. Infants will squeal or turn heads when something interesting catches their eye. Look around and try to see what your little one sees. As your child grows to be a toddler, he or she may start to make grunts, gasps, or even basic words like "bus", "bug", or "baby" to share what falls into view. Appreciate the shared observation with phrases like "Bus, wow, good eye!" or "How lucky we were to see that bug!"

As your child gets older, encourage a closer look, much like the Daniel Tiger song says. By doing so, you help your child see how things are put together or what may be hidden underneath. Lifting rocks, opening cases, or removing panels can show your tyke that there may be more to see than what's on the surface.

You can do this anywhere: looking up (in buildings as well as outside), on a park bench, or even just sitting in traffic. Many parents I work with have found a new appreciation for ceilings as well as road construction. Point out see what goes by, what sounds and smells exist, and what catches your fancy. I personally like pointing out funny shaped objects, things that move, and things with iridescent colors.

My son's squeal as a non-speaking infant/toddler was my signal to look quickly at the squirrel, bonfire, or excavation machines that passed by. I was surprised at how much I had been missing in my own neighborhood.

And being outside may provide even more benefits. Data shows that kids in urban areas have a higher risk for myopic eyes. Though there is debate about whether this is due to the lack of ultraviolet light exposure (for Vitamin D production), the fact that indoor light's intensity is limited compared to natural light, or the fact that looking at objects in the far distance allows the eyes to relax, the findings all encourage kids to get outside at early ages.

So the great outdoors appears to help the brain as well as the body.

See also: