What’s your child’s favorite subject in school? The common answer is recess or PE, but science, math and other STEM-related subjects aren’t often cited as favorites. Changing how kids feel about STEM can make a world of difference as they move through elementary school and into middle school, high school and college. Learn how to get your kids into science to reap the benefits down the road.
What Is STEM?
Before we dive too far into how to get kids interest in STEM, it’s important to define what it is. STEM is a buzzword that gets tossed around a lot, but some parents and kids may not fully understand what it means.
STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Your child likely has math and science class. They may even have an occasional technology class at the elementary level. But STEM isn’t necessarily one specific subject, degree or education program. General STEM concepts are often included in the elementary curriculum, although technology and engineering are often severely lacking in the regular school day.
While STEM can be taught as specific coursework, the concepts surround us in everyday life. We use math at the grocery store. We use engineering concepts to rig up a solution to a problem with a shelf or the home’s exterior. Science comes into play when cooking, evaluating the weather or figuring out how to remove ice from the front steps. Most of us can’t go through a single day without encountering science in some form or another.
Reasons to Get Kids Interested in STEM Early
It’s never too late to help your child discover a love for STEM, but it’s much easier to encourage your young child to embrace the concepts than it is to convince older kids that the subjects aren’t as boring or difficult as they think. Making STEM interesting for kids at a young age can help with success later in life.
Consider these reasons to inspire your little learner in these subject areas:
- Natural Curiosity: Little kids are naturally inquisitive. Think of the millions of questions you hear from your child. Why is the sky blue? Why did that sink? Can people live on the moon? Who invented cheese? Hearing those questions gets a little old, but they’re a sign of the innate curiosity that defines childhood. By making STEM education for children fun and exciting, you capitalize on those natural scientist tendencies before they fizzle.
- Willingness: Young kids are often excited about learning, especially if that learning is disguised as fun, engaging activities that mimic play. When you start with STEM education at a young age, you don’t have to fight your child to try an experiment or convince her why she should enjoy learning about it.
- Positive Attitude: If kids learn to appreciate STEM at an early age, they develop positive attitudes going forward. This positive outlook can help your child stick with the subjects even as they get challenging. Kids often say they hate science or they’re bad at math. By changing the attitude toward the subject matter, you can help your child overcome that in the later years.
- Foundational Skills for Success: Kids need STEM skills to succeed not only in their schoolwork but also in life. The concepts are all around us, so the more exposure your child has to STEM, the more prepared they’ll be when they encounter the concepts in real life. Early STEM education builds a strong foundation for the future, even if your child doesn’t choose a STEM career path.
- Problem Solving: STEM concepts rely heavily on problem solving. Those problem-solving skills your child gains can be applied in any area of life, even if it isn’t STEM-related. By making these topics fun and encouraging that problem-solving mentality, you help your child reframe challenging situations into problems they can figure out how to solve.
- Potential Career Path: Elementary school is a long way from college, but teaching STEM at an early age plants the seeds for pursuing a career in a related field when your child graduates.
Involve Your Child in Everyday STEM Activities
You might not think about the different ways you implement STEM in your daily life, but there are examples all around. How often do you involve your kids in those real-world uses? Instead of handling all of “grown-up” work yourself, let your kids help out to see how the things they learn in school apply to the real world.
Get your kids involved with these tasks:
- Cooking and baking
- Playing musical instruments
- Balancing your checkbook or playing bank with fake money and a fake checkbook
- Growing a garden
- Operating appliances at home
- Fixing toys or other items
- Using education apps on smartphones
- Using a computer
Load up the kids, and head to any local museum to inspire fun learning about STEM. Museums are full of exhibits about these subjects past and present. You don’t have to limit yourself to science museums – although they’re an obvious place to start. History museums show examples of early engineering and science in action. Aquariums and zoos let kids see natural animal behavior right in front of them.
Make the most of your time at the museum with these tips:
- Research the exhibits at the museum before you go. Get your kids talking and thinking about the topics before your trip.
- Look for interactive exhibits, and let your kids explore them as long as they want.
- Encourage kids to read the signs and display information to understand what’s going on in the exhibit.
- Ask kids questions about the display. Encourage them to make hypotheses on different things they see.
- Write down questions they have or topics they want to explore more. When you get home, research those topics to extend learning.
- Let your kids lead the way and focus on things that interest them.
- Relate the things you see at the museum to previous experiences your kids have had. Building those connections strengthens understanding and helps them see how things are related.
- Give your child a journal or field book where they can write down interesting facts or things they want to remember.
- Take photos, so your child remembers the things you see.
Turn your kitchen into a science lab, so your kids can put their STEM skills to good use. You might be surprised how many items you already have that work perfectly for experimenting. Kids are great at coming up with their own experiments simply by testing out different items and trying different things with them.
If you need some simple science projects to get you started, try these:
- Exploding Soap: Microwave a bar of Ivory soap. Watch as it grows into a fluffy snow-like pile.
- Milky Colors: Pour whole milk into a shallow pan. Drop food coloring on the milk. Squirt dish soap into the milk. The dish soap affects the fat in the milk and makes the color spread.
- Colored Flowers: Put white flowers in water colored with food dye, and watch the petals change colors.
- Baking Soda and Vinegar Art: Tint white vinegar with food dye. Sprinkle baking soda on watercolor paper. Use droppers to squirt the colored vinegar onto the baking soda, which fizzes as it dissolves, leaving behind the color on the paper.
- Dancing Raisins: Pour clear soda into a clear cup. Drop raisins in the soda, and watch them “dance” as the bubbles move them up and down.
- Egg Drop: Design a protective container for an egg. Drop it from different heights to see if it cracks. Test different containers to find the designs that work the best.
- Oobleck: Mix cornstarch and water to make this non-Newtonian substance. When you squeeze it, the oobleck becomes a solid. When you release your grip, it flows like a liquid.
- Senses: Do a blindfolded taste test or smell test to test the senses.
- Rube Goldberg Machine: Challenge your kids to create a Rube Goldberg machine, which is essentially a chain reaction. A ball might roll and knock down a row of dominoes. The last domino hits something else to cause another action to happen. See how many components they can add.
- Bake or Cook: One of the easiest experiments you do every day is cook. Plan a specific baking or cooking activity, so your child can test out the science of cooking. Baking bread is a good option, but any cooking activity works.
There’s nothing like an adventure to pique your child’s curiosity. Head outdoors to find examples of STEM all around. A walk around your neighborhood is a great way to get started whenever you have a few spare minutes. Slow down more than normal, and point out things you notice, like flowers blooming in the summer or seeds on a plant. In winter, watch icicles melt or play in the snow to learn more about its properties.
You can also explore beyond your own little corner of the world. Head to a local park, nature area or hiking trail to find an ideal spot to explore. Bring back a few nature items to investigate more when you get home. Leaves, rocks, seeds, flowers, acorns and pinecones work well.
Solve a Problem
What problems do you around your home? Perhaps you have a squeaky door or a downspout that always floods your flower garden. What problems plague your neighborhood? Maybe the visibility at a busy intersection is poor, or there is no nearby recycling facility. Help your kids brainstorm some ideas in your area.
Then, encourage them to come up with solutions to improve those situations. If your downspout is the problem, the kids might look to see if there’s a clog or a pinched area in the downspout. They might try repositioning the downspout. Replacing it with a rain barrel might be a suitable solution. This idea is more about engaging kids in problem-solving techniques than fixing the actual problem, although you may be surprised how many home improvement projects your kids handle for you.
Building is a favorite activity of young kids. That simple play activity uses STEM principles to make it just as educational as it is fun. Gather several different building supplies to make the activity interesting. Some options include LEGOS, wooden blocks, magnetic cubes and empty boxes.
You can also make your own building materials. Cut pool noodles into small sections to make inexpensive blocks. Build structures with toothpicks and marshmallows. Cut squares of cardboard with notches along each edge. Kids can build by sliding the notches into one another.
Some kids like to follow the directions on things like LEGO sets. Encourage them to try building their own creations. Create marble mazes by attaching LEGO pieces onto a large flat piece, or build LEGO cars and test them on a ramp. This encourages creative thinking and problem solving. It can also help kids be a little more flexible in their thinking and be better at seeing things in different ways with different uses.
Buy STEM-Related Gear
Instead of buying your kids more toys that will quickly grow boring, stock them up with STEM-related toys and gear. Those tools help them apply their STEM skills and become even more inquisitive. Gather several items, and put them in a large container, so you can pull them out easily when you feel like exploring.
Consider these options:
- Magnifying glass
- Building kits
- 3D puzzles
- Science experiment kits
- Science experiment books
- Science board games
- Marble maze
- Magnets (for older kids)
- Test tubes
Talk About It
Bring STEM into the conversation daily whether directly or indirectly. The more you talk about the concepts, the more natural and comfortable they become to your kids. These conversations are also a great way to help kids realize just how important STEM is to everyday life. Point out examples you see in daily life. Ask about the things your kids are learning in school.
Change Your Outlook
How do you feel about STEM topics? Do you love or hate science? Do you feel like math is difficult? Do you feel like you know nothing about engineering and always mess up with technology? Your personal beliefs on the subject could affect your child’s thinking. Parents sometimes unintentionally project negative feelings about STEM subjects on their kids.
If your child has a negative attitude toward STEM education, help develop healthier attitudes toward the subjects. Kids often either love or hate a subject – or at least they think they do. When you show them fun ways to learn those subjects, they realize it’s not necessarily the subject matter that they dislike.
You can also help by not forcing kids into STEM learning. Instead, extend the option with hands-on activities that they enjoy. They may not even realize they’re engaging in an engineering activity or a science experiment. After the fact, help kids make that connection.
When it comes to actual schoolwork related to STEM subjects, avoid putting too much pressure on your child. Instead of focusing on the grades your child gets in math or science, emphasize the process of learning, problem solving and exploring. Encourage your child to stick with the work even when it seems challenging. Mastering those difficult concepts becomes a little victory that rewards the effort.
Sign Up for Science Clubs and Camps
Teachers are often limited in the STEM concepts they cover and the methods they use to teach them. Kids may also have a negative attitude toward learning the subjects in the regular classroom. Supplement the learning in the classroom, no matter how your child feels about it, with science clubs and summer camps.
The primary advantage of these types of programs is the ability to make the activities fun and hands-on. Clubs and summer camps keep kids engaged and inspire them to learn through inquiry-based activities that put the kids in charge of learning. Kids quickly learn that science can be interesting.
Science Explorers provides science summer camps and after school clubs designed for ages 4 to 11. Our interactive lessons align with National Science Education Standards, so kids can apply what they learn in the regular classroom. Learn more about our after-school science clubs to help your child get excited about STEM. Our week-long summer camps keep the STEM fun rolling all summer.