Apr 1, 2016

#STEM Starts at Home: Spoon aka Tools and More

What to do 

Give your little one a baby spoon. It can be plastic, metal with smooth edges, or that fancy rubber-metal combo. It should be big enough so your tyke can’t shove it too far into his or her mouth (and choke) if very young. Be prepared for banging, drooling, and dropping to ensue!
image by debsch, via rgbstock.com

What you are doing 

While the spoon could be a first introduction to materials (see Touch!), it is a great introduction to many more skills required in STEM.

Typical infants will develop sophisticated observation skills (see Go Outside), but their world can drastically change when they realize that they can influence what happens. If they drop the spoon off the high chair, it disappears. It clangs. And if you’re lucky, someone will pick it up, and you can start all over again.

As your infant grows, he or she may peer over the edge and watch that spoon fall—gravity in action. Your curious child will need to see if gravity always works: Will it work now? How about now? How about in the living room? At the restaurant? At Grandma’s? It can be grating, but try as long as you can to help your tyke realize the larger concept. My family likes to say, “Yes, gravity still works. It works the same as it did yesterday. And it works the same at Grandma’s house as at ours.” But to your little one, that’s a big discovery. When the evidence is overwhelming that this force of nature can be relied upon, your little one will stop the incessant dropping (and probably not a moment too soon for your sanity). The dropping of the spoon phase will segue into a new aspect of STEM skills. 

The spoon is often the softest “first tool” for a baby. After appreciating its material properties, your little one will start to appreciate its design. It can carry (food into the mouth), it can scoop. It can catapult. It can stir. It’s the first introduction to using things in the environment to change the environment.

Tools are needed by all STEMmies: Engineers make prototypes with tools. Technicians manufacture, troubleshoot, and maintain products with tools. Scientists design new experiments with tools to test their hypotheses. Mathematicians use tools that are a bit more abstract: Calculators and slide rules in the old days for calculations, but today, the computer is one of the most versatile tools, allowing them to solve equations, graph to find patterns, and even animate to visualize surfaces or test models. Learning how to use different tools helps kids learn to leverage the latest material, manufacturing, power, and information technologies!

How you can grow 

A natural progression from the spoon is the ladle, and then the shovel. Beach time or bath time provides natural motivation to learn these tools – and practice time! Later, sticks will become the all-purpose tool that lays the foundation for your little one to appreciate more specialized tools: forks for poking, tongs (and chopsticks) for picking up, spatulas for lifting and flipping, and knives (plastic ones) for slicing.

A well-known Montessori activity is “banana cutting” where kids learn not only tool use (and safety) but also life-skills. Preschool children want so much to be like adults which explains why cooking sets appeal to both boys and girls at this age.

Let your kiddo help where possible in the kitchen (wash, tear, pour, stir, mix, cut) or in the workshop (pounding boards – no nails necessary, putting screwdrivers in holes, ratcheting). These experiences not only develop tool skills but also spatial skills (see Turn!) and construction-know how. And the positive experience with you is great for emotional development.

Progress to drawing and writing tools (pencils, pens, crayons, chalk, brushes) and construction tools (scissors, stickers/tape, glue in all its forms, sewing needles, knitting needles). Calculation tools can be a fun and concrete way to see numbers and their relationship with each other: Standard abacus for one-to-one relationships, Chinese abacus for borrowing concepts when subtracting, and mathematical balances for multiplication equalities. I personally recommend using the computer after learning how to do processes by hand. The power of spreadsheets make more sense when you have had to apply an operation or formula to a series of numbers by hand and then tried to graph them by hand. Personally, I enjoyed using drawing triangles, protractors, and compasses which bridged drawing with geometry and was amazingly helpful in my drafting and CAD exercises.

You know you are successful 

With tool knowledge and skill, you empower your little one to see how to fix, maintain, and improve his or her world. You’ve made tool masters when “uh-oh” is followed by a request for a tool to fix the situation on their own. Frustration when something doesn’t work can be mitigated by a fix that makes it easier or even better. 

Tool usage was said to be the turning point of human evolution (homo-habilis). It’s an important step in developing the STEM “can-do” attitude and skill set as well. If you’re uncomfortable with tools, it’s a good time for you to develop your skills as well and be your child’s “learning partner” as well as role model.

See also:
  • The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments: For you, the adult to see how scientific "truths" were discovered through observation and experimental design and how they contradicted what people thought was the truth at the time.
  • Sewing School: With all the tech and STEM toys, people sometimes forget that early STEM experts (especially of the female persuasion) developed tool skills, spatial skills, and material property knowledge from crafts like sewing.
  • Coordinate Graphing: Do math problem, get the coordinates, plot by hand. Or if you master the computer tool, you can use a spreadsheet to do your drawing.
  • How to Fix Damn Near Everything: Especially good for women who never quite knew why some (men) seemed to just know how to fix things. Instead of saying "do this, do this, do this", this book describes how things like electrical wiring and plumbing are systems that all share certain essential parts, and how you can figure out what's happening and what may be missing.