Practice (12)

STEAM is a vehicle for children's social emotion development. Read the blog post and learn how to suppor children's problem solving skills within STEAM learning activities.

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Dr. Yvette Mere-Cook works as a Child Development Demonstration Lecturer and Preschool Program Coordinator at the Early Childhood Lab at the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of California at Davis.  Dr. Mere-Cook teaches courses in early childhood education and draws from her 20+ years as a pediatric occupational therapist in hopes of preparing and inspiring students to pursue work that contributes to opportunities and access for children with disabilities. Her research and service pursuits focus on investigating ways to close the opportunity gap for young children’s engagement in STEM learning, including embedding the Engineering Design Process and teaching the steps of the problem-solving process within STEM contexts within inclusive preschool classrooms.

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang is a technical assistance specialist and research investigator at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, UNC-Chapel Hill. She received her master’s degree in Occupational Therapy from the National Taiwan University and her PhD degree in Special Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include early intervention, family-centered practices, parent coaching, inclusive practices, and social-emotional development.

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Dr. Jessica K. Hardy received her Ph.D. in early childhood special education from Vanderbilt University and her M.Ed. and B.A. from the University of Florida.  She taught in Portland, OR as a Head Start teacher and an early childhood special education teacher.  Jessica’s primary research interests are evidence-based instructional practices and early childhood coaching and professional.

Within high quality inclusive early childhood programs, practitioners intentionally design environments and instructional practices to support young children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development (DEC, 2014).  Learning Areas in the classroom often include open ended materials that invite children’s engagement in concepts related to science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Within these STEAM learning opportunities, practitioners embed instructional practices that promote children’s emotional competency, friendship skills, and conflict resolution.  One such practice centers on the problem-solving process.   

According to Diamond (2019, p. 108), problem solving consists of  

“a complex set of skills in which children demonstrate the ability to (a) recognize the occurrence of a problem, (b) seek and implement solutions to solve the problem, and  (c) engage in reflection in order to determine the effectiveness of the applied solution.”   

For young children at risk for or with disabilities, learning, engaging, and applying the problem-solving process within STEAM Learning Areas could positively impact social development and self-determination (Cote et al., 2014). Research suggests that direct instruction with the use of visual-based supports (e.g., picture cards, posters) promotes the learning of the foundations of the problem-solving process with preschool children with disabilities (Diamond, 2012; 2017). 

The use of visual-based supports as tools for direct instruction for children with disabilities is often used by teachers to address behaviors that impact learning (Rhodes, 2014). As an early childhood multi-tiered system of support or MTSS, the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social and Emotional Competence for Infants and Young Children (NCPMI, 2022) provides practitioners solution kits to address a number of challenging behaviors by focusing on the application of the problem-solving process. Through use of pictures within solution cards, the Pyramid Model offers teachers a research-based intervention for classroom-wide implementation (Hemmeter et al., 2014; NCPMI, 2022).   

The soft skills of collaboration, cooperation, empathy, and problem-solving are intertwined within early STEM learning experiences. Therefore, they provide a natural context for promoting both emotional competency and social development. The use of Solution Kits allows for all young children to access the problem solving process to resolve conflicts with children by providing them with visual supports to arrive at a solution. Take the following vignette as an example of how a teacher can use the Solution Kits to support children’s social emotional skills within an inclusive STEAM context.   10846921487?profile=RESIZE_400x

 How Solution Kits Are Used in the Classroom:  In our inclusive preschool classroom, we have the solution kits hanging throughout Learning Areas for children to access and for engaged adults to offer children when conflicts arise. For example, Tommy and Jill were creating structures within the Block Area. Tommy was building a tower and Jill constructed a road for her school bus. As Tommy placed the final block on top of his tower, Jill grabbed the block and said “This is mine!”  Tommy’s tower came crashing down and he began to cry. The Lead Teacher came over and began to engage Tommy and Jill in the problem-solving process. Using a calm tone, the teacher began to listen to the children and acknowledged both of their big feelings and emotions. The teacher then grabbed the Solution Kit Cards and began to ask the children, “How can we solve this problem?”. Jill began to scroll through the pictures. Tommy became interested in helping Jill decide how they could resolve their conflict. In the end, they decided to work together to build a city that included a large apartment building as well as a road and ramps for buses.   

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References 

Division of Early Childhood (June 6, 2014).  Position Statement – Role of Special Instruction in Early Intervention.  Retrieved from https://www.decdocs.org/position-statement-role-of-special 

Cote, D. L., Jones, V. L., Barnett, C., Pavelek, K., Nguyen, H., & Sparks, S. L. (2014). Teaching Problem Solving Skills to Elementary Age Students with Autism. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 49(2), 189–199. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23880604 

Diamond, L. (2012). Problem solving interventions: Impact on young students with developmental disabilities (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database. (ISBN 1267568003) 

Diamond, L. L. (2017). Problem solving in the early years. Intervention in School and Clinic, 53, 220–223. doi:10.1177/1053451217712957 

Diamond, L. L., & Hsiao, Y.-J. (2019). Picture-Based Situation Cards to Support Problem-Solving Skill Development for Young Children With Disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 52(2), 107–115. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040059919878664Lentini, Anderson, Wimmer, 2021;  

Fox, L. (n.d.)  Program Practices for Promoting the Social Development of Young Children and Addressing Challenging Behavior 

Hemmeter, M. L., Snyder, P. A., Fox, L., & Algina, J. (2016). Evaluating the Implementation of the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social-Emotional Competence in Early Childhood Classrooms. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 36(3), 133–146. https://doi.org/10.1177/0271121416653386 

Lentini, R., Anderson, R., & Wimmer. A. (2021).  We Can Be Problem Solvers!  National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations.  https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/docs/ProblemSolving_Story.pdf 

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (2021, January 31).  NCPMI Fact Sheet.  https://challengingbehavior.cbcs.usf.edu/about/index.html 

Rhodes, C. (2014). Do Social Stories help to decrease disruptive behaviour in children with autistic spectrum disorders? A review of the published literature. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 18(1), 35–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1744629514521066 

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Infusing Family Culture in STEM Learning

Read the blog post written by Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang, and learn how to infuse family culture in STEM learning opportunities.

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

I have lived in the United States for almost eight years, and I am always proud of my cultural heritage. Throughout these eight years, whenever I see my culture being reflected positively in the community, in my workplace, or through mass media, I feel a sense of belonging.

We all need to feel a sense of belonging and positive affirmation. As a researcher and practitioner in the field of early intervention and early childhood special education, I have always been aware of the importance of building a sense of belonging for children and their families . Certainly, creating a sense of belonging is not only displaying photos of children and families from various cultural backgrounds but also embedding children’s experiences and family traditions into the teaching practices.

Food is a great way to provide connections to different cultures and family traditions. For example, I grew up eating congee (粥) or rice porridge and Dan Bing (i.e., Taiwanese egg pancake roll; 蛋餅) for breakfast. My family and I love having hot pot every holiday and special occasion.

In this blog post, I will describe an activity that could use food and pretend play as a means to support children’s STEM learning. At the end of the blog post, I will also introduce a couple of STEM storybooks about AAPI culture and food.

Making play dough dumplings

Dumplings are something I often make and eat with my family. Our dumplings use a flour-based dough and we use cabbage, ground meat, and chives that are lightly seasoned with soy sauce as the filling. We then either steam or pan fry our dumplings. There are many other types of dumplings of different shapes and sizes within Taiwanese and Chinese cultures as well as in other cultures around the world. As an occupational therapist, I love using this activity to improve children’s fine motor skills, practice bilateral coordination, and engage in STEM concepts (e.g., sequencing, counting, shape).

Materials:

  • Play dough
  • A play dough rolling pin or a wooden stick
  • A Circle shape cookie cutter or the bottom of a drinking cup.
  • Ingredients (e.g., marbles, beads, small blocks)

Directions:

  • Take a small amount of the dough, roll it into a sphere
  • Use the palm to press the dough down
  • Use the rolling pin to flatten the dough and make it into a circular shape (or use the cookie cutter)
  • Place the ingredients in the middle of the rolled out dough or “dumpling skin”
  • Fold the “dumpling skin” into half
  • Seal the dumpling by making creases on the top using your thumb and pointer finger

Visual pictures
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Use questions and conversation to engage children in STEM learning and talk about children’s culture and family tradition

  • What food does your family like to make and eat together on special days?
  • First, we roll the dough into a ball, then we roll it to flatten it. What should we do next?
  • We have 10 friends in class and everyone would like one dumpling. How many dumplings have you made? How many more do we need?
  • What shape are you making?
  • How many beads can you put in your dumpling? How can we put more ingredients in the dumpling?
  • What else would you like to fill dumplings with?

STEM storybooks about AAPI food culture that you could consider including on your bookshelves

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Luna's Yum Yum Dim Sum (Storytelling Math) 

Natasha Yim 

Math 

Luna is having Dim Sum on her birthday. She and her brothers are talking about how to share buns fairly. 

10509770088?profile=RESIZE_180x180Too Many Mangoes

Tammy Paikai

Science & Math 

Kama and Nani help their grandpa pick mangos from his giant mango tree.  After the picking, Kama and Nani share some mangoes with neighbors. 

10509777876?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ohana Means Family 

 Ilima Loomis 

 A family prepares a tasty root called Kalo for a traditional luau celebration.  

10509778880?profile=RESIZE_180x180One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale 

 Demi 

 Math

 A young girl tricks a greedy king to double one grain of rice every day for three years.  

10509780291?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ten Blocks to the Big Wok 

 Ying-Hwa Hu 

 Math 

 Mia and her uncle Eddie travel from their apartment to a restaurant in Chinatown. They see many things in Chinatown. 

10509781478?profile=RESIZE_180x180The Ugly Vegetables

Grace Lin 

Science 

A little girl and her mother grow vegetables in their gardens while their neighbors grow colorful flowers.  

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Kai Goes to the Farmers Market in Hawaii 

Catherine Toth Fox 

Kai ad his mother buy food grown in Hawaii from the farmers.

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Have you heard of storybook walk? Read the article and find out!

Katherine Mansfield's headshot

By Katherine Mansfield

About the author: 

Katherine Mansfield is a second-year speech-language pathology student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been a part of the STEMIE Storybook Team since October 2021. Her professional experience includes graduate internships where she works with children of all abilities to diagnose and treat communication and feeding disorders. Katherine is always eager to learn more about how to make a child’s therapy goals functional for them at home, given their family and home situation, preferences, skills, and current areas of need. She enjoys brainstorming ways to incorporate literacy into the speech therapy sessions she provides. She received her undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at North Carolina State University in May 2020.

Reading books about a variety of topics not only stimulates a child’s language development, but it also exposes them to basic concepts that are useful and meaningful in their day-to-day lives and future. For example, when reading or listening to a book about the solar system, a child can learn new vocabulary (e.g., the name of planets, the sun) which is beneficial for their language development and for their emerging interest and knowledge about science. They may become curious when they see the Sun and share what they know about it when they see it in the sky. This combination of learning about different topics, like space, and developing language skills while reading is exciting for children and overall, manageable for you to implement as their parent, teacher, caregiver, or another person in the child’s life. While exploring this variety of books, you will likely discover a new book to read at either a library, bookstore, or online resource. Here, you and your child have the opportunity to take typical book-reading to the next level. How? By engaging the child in a “storybook walk” before reading the new book together.

First, what is a storybook walk? A storybook walk is a strategy used to introduce new concepts, make creative associations and inferences, and increase interest in a new book that a child is preparing to read (Briggs & Forbes, 2011). During this storybook walk, you would “walk” the child through the book by reading the title, looking and flipping through the pages, introducing characters, making inferences about what might happen in the book, reviewing or teaching new vocabulary words, and assessing which concepts are already familiar to the child. The key to the storybook walk is increasing exposure and interest without reading the book cover to cover! appropriate adaptations, these pre-reading opportunities can be useful for children of all ages, skill levels, and who might benefit from additional support.

Using objects and visual pictures to introduce new vocabulary

Introducing vocabulary words before reading can be modified to meet the child’s current skill level and needs. For example, a child with blindness or visual impairment may require alternative means to access the information presented in a book. As part of your storybook walk for this book, you can provide a story box, a box of physical objects that are related to the story at hand. This offers a multisensory experience for the child as they learn about the book. For example, for the book  , you might include fur in the storybox to represent the fox character, so the child is able to engage with the materials using their sense of touch rather than sight. You can also pair the book with other visual adaptations such as enlarged symbols that represent the pictures, characters, and concepts presented in the book. The STEMIE Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers visual adaptations and storybox ideas for a variety of STEM books for your reference as you begin thinking about how to adapt different books to meet your child’s needs.

Offering these physical objects or picture symbols, when appropriate for the child increases not only the child’s exposure to new vocabulary words, but it increases their interest in the content at hand and their ability to engage with the book. As you do so, reinforce the new concepts and important vocabulary words. You can always revisit, revise, and verify the inferences you all made together as you pre-read the book.

Provide seating choices

If a child requires additional support to access the information presented in a storybook walk, consider strategies like flexible seating options, giving the child hands-on access to the book and materials to independently explore the content during the storybook walk, and simplifying your language to increase their motivation and confidence when learning newer concepts. Each child has a unique set of needs. The good news is that you can help meet these needs during storybook walks by using your creativity and individual expertise; you are one of the people in the child’s life that knows them best!

As you and the child(ren) in your life begin incorporating storybook walks into your reading routines, enjoy the process! It may feel awkward, at first, to talk about the book without reading it first, but it becomes more natural the more you all engage in these reading preparation exercises. An overarching strategy to remember when leading these storybook walks is flexibility. Be flexible with how you meet your child’s needs (i.e., when choosing picture symbols or physical objects to engage a child with a visual impairment) and when your plan may not go as you expected it to. Your child will see you model creativity and open-mindedness, which can encourage them to be open-minded and curious during these pre-reading and reading activities as well.

You can find a video example here. (This video was developed in collaboration with the Kansas Deaf-Blind Project and Kansas State School for the Blind.

 References:

Briggs, C., & Forbes, S. (2009). Orientation to a new book: More than a picture walk. The Reading Teacher62(8), 706-709.

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Lego Blocks and Codes

Read the blog post written by Dr. Jessica Amsbary, and learn how to use blocks to foster future coding skills. 

Jessica Amsbary's headshot

Dr. Jessica Amsbary

About the authors:

Jessica Amsbary, PhD is a Technical Assistance Specialist at FPG Child Development Institute and Program Coordinator for the Master in Education for Experienced Teachers in Early Childhood Intervention and Family Support at the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research interests involve the development and implementation of effective and inclusive early intervention resources and support for young children with disabilities and their families. She has a doctorate in Applied Developmental Sciences and Special Education from UNC Chapel Hill, a M.S. in Early Childhood Development with a specialization in infancy from Erikson Institute, and a B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.

When I played with Lego Blocks as a child, I wasn’t generally thinking about ways to use them to foster future coding skills, but I am excited to write here about how we as educators and family members can and should use Lego Blocks to address foundational computational thinking skills for very young children with and without disabilities. While some early childhood educators and family members report that they are not necessarily prepared and confident in their ability to integrate early STEM leaning into their daily routines (Brenneman et al., 2009), many of the activities we already do easily lend themselves to STEM learning. And what’s more: Children are ready to engage and interested in such activities (Sarama et al., 2018). Let’s take Lego Blocks and computational thinking as an example.

To begin, although there are a few different specific “definitions” of foundational computational thinking in early childhood (Bers et al., 2021), most interpretations include sequencing, patterns, and representation as critical elements of definition, meaning that teaching these concepts in early childhood can support children’s later computer coding skills.

So, how do we use Lego Blocks to teach these concepts? Let’s start with the idea of using the blocks as symbols to represent something else (shall we call this a “code”?). At home and in classrooms, we can work with children to make the Lego Blocks stand for something else. For example, we may decide that the red block means “clap”, the blue block means “stomp”, and the yellow block means “spin”. It can be a lot of fun if children make some of their own choices. Then we can make a game out of doing the actions each block represents when we see it. Specific actions and the activity itself can be adapted and modified so that all children can participate. Visual supports and signs can be used to help label steps and actions and children can make sounds or other non-movement actions if they experience fine or gross motor challenges. Check out this guide from STEMIE to learn more about specific adaptations.

Once we have a set of blocks representing some sort of action/sound/response, we can start putting the blocks in a specific order and helping the children carry out the activities. If we use the actions described above, that would mean when we put out a sequence of red, red, blue, then the children would “clap”, “clap”, “stomp”. As children get older and more advanced in their thinking, we can encourage them to lead the activity and document the sequences they put together, encouraging them to develop their own codebook! They can develop sequences/codes for dances, songs, or whatever they desire to create!

This simple, fun activity can be done using Lego Blocks or other objects that are more convenient or of higher interest to individual children. Throughout the activity, be sure to label what the children are doing in ways that they can understand. Describe how the Lego Blocks are a symbol representing something else and that when we put them together in a particular order (or sequence), we can refer to that as creating “codes” or “coding”. The activity can help increase young children’s awareness of some of the most important foundational concepts of computational thinking, empowering them for future success in STEM and beyond. For more ideas and information, please visit

 

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Read the blog post written by Dr. Elica Sharifnia, and learn how to embed science learning opportunities at home

Elica Sharifnia's headshot

By Elica Sharifnia, PhD. 

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Marsico Institute for Early Learning at the University of Denver

About the authors: Elica Sharifnia, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Marsico Institute for Early Learning at the University of Denver. Her research interests broadly center around better understanding how to best promote high-quality STEM teaching and learning for young children with the goal of informing educational practices in both the school and home context. She has a doctorate in Applied Developmental Psychology from the University of Miami and a B.A. degree in Neuroscience from Claremont McKenna College. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a research analyst doing early childhood STEM education research in the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International and was a student teaching assistant at The Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College.

Everyday routines at home like bath time or dinner are a great way to support your child’s science learning! There is a widely held misperception that science is expensive and that we need many materials so we can complete an experiment. But we know that’s not true! A new framework helps us re-imagine science for kids! This new approach helps children learn science by DOING science…together! There are 3 parts:

  1. Practices: What is your child doing? For example, your child may be observing and asking questions about their world, planning and carrying out investigations to see how things work or analyzing and interpreting data as they investigate.
  2. Core ideas: What content are you exploring? For example, you may be exploring life science as you talk about the plants and animals you see outside on your walk or exploring physical science as you explore mixing ingredients as you bake.
  3. Crosscutting concepts: What are you trying to understand together? These are big ideas that you and your child will be understanding such as cause and effect (for example, adding soap and water help clean our dirty hands and soap and water also help us clean the dishes) or noticing how the structure of an object may affect the function of it (for example, a spoon is a good tool to help us eat soup because of the shape compared to a fork).

Below are some ways to build your lens for the science opportunities all around your home!

Cooking

Next time you prepare dinner…

  • Talk with your child about the ingredients and use of different senses (such as sight, touch, taste, hear and smell) to make observations about a variety of attributes (such as the color, texture, size, shape, weight, or temperature). For example, with cooking beans, you and your child can use your senses of sight and touch to talk about how the dried beans look and feel (such as “What do you notice about the color and the shape of the bean? How does it feel? Does it feel smooth or bumpy?).
  • Engage children in the science practice of using math such as counting the number of ingredients you have or measuring out the ingredients you need for your recipe using tools (for example, “How many ingredients are we going to use? Let’s count together or Let’s measure out 1 cup of water together using our measuring cup”).
  • As you cook, talk with your child about how the ingredients change, helping to support their understanding of stability and change. For example, with cooking rice, you and your child can make observations about the size and texture of the rice and how it changes from small and hard to bigger and softer when you cook the rice.

Doing Laundry

Even cleaning our dirty clothes is a great opportunity to engage young children in science learning!

  • If you happen to have a piece of clothing with a stain on it, ask your child to make observations about the clothing (for example, “How does the shirt feel? What do you notice about the stain?”).
  • Engage them in some problem solving by asking them to think about how you could clean the stain (for example, “What do we need to clean the stain? What should we do first?”), which is helping support children’s ability to plan and carry out investigations.
  • After running the clothing through the wash, ask your child to make observations again about the piece of clothing that had the stain on it (for example, “What do you notice about the shirt now? How does the shirt feel?”).
  • As your child makes observations, it is a great opportunity to help them think about cause and effect (for example, “What happened after we added the water and detergent?”, “When you add detergent and water to the stained shirt, it caused the stain to be removed!”). You can also extend your investigation by asking your children to further problem solve about how you could dry the clothing.

Bath time

There are lots of opportunities for science exploration with your little one during bath time! 

  • Start by asking your child to predict what will happen you hit the water with you hand (for example, “What do you think will happen when you hit the water with you hand?”).
  • Help support their understanding of physical science and think about the cause and effect relationship that happens when they hit the water with their hand (for example, “When you hit your hand on the water, it causes the water to splash). You could further extend this learning by investigating what happens when you use more force to hit the water!
  • If available, provide different sized measuring cups, buckets or bottles for your child during bath time. As your child explores with these materials, ask questions and help them make observations about the movement and the properties of the water (for example, “What happens when the cup is full?”).
  • Challenge your child to use math skills and engage in thinking about the crosscutting concept of scale, proportion, and quantity by asking them to make comparisons about which cup holds the most water (for example, “Which cup holds the most water? Let’s explore together”).

Although the new science framework is intended for kindergarten to 12th grade, it works for young children, starting at birth (Greenfield, Alexander, & Frechette, 2017)!

References

Greenfield, D. B., Alexander, A., & Frechette, E. (2017). Unleashing the Power of Science in Early Childhood: A Foundation for High-Quality Interactions and Learning. Zero to Three37(5), 13-21.

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Read the blog post written by Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang and Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrosky, and learn how to embed STEM learning opportunities during motor play.  

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Micki Ostrosky's headshot

By Michaelene M. Ostrosky,  PhD.

Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor of Education in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

About the authors:

Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang is a technical assistance specialist at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMIE) Center and North Carolina Early Learning Network whose work aims to ensure ALL young children are included and can fully participate in learning activities. As a former occupational therapist, she has worked with young children with developmental disabilities and their families in a variety of settings (e.g., home, school, hospital). Her research focuses on early intervention, family-centered practices, parent coaching, inclusive practices, and social-emotional development.

Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrosky has been involved in curriculum development and research on the inclusion of children with disabilities, social emotional competence, and challenging behavior. Through her work on the National Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning she was involved in the development of the Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Young Children, and recently co-authored Unpacking the Pyramid Model: A practical guide for preschool teachers (2021). She also co-authored the Making Friends book (2016), which supports the acceptance of individuals with disabilities, and The Project Approach for All Learners (2018).

Gross motor play has a positive impact on children’s physical health and motor development, as well as contributing to pre-academic learning such as critical thinking skills, language development, and social-emotional development (Trawick -Smith, 2014). Nevertheless, some adults may wonder about the connection between motor play and STEM learning. Research shows that engagement in motor play provides important opportunities for children to develop pre-math skills and an understanding of spatial, temporal, and sequential concepts (Becker et al., 2014; Iverson, 2010), which are all related to STEM learning. Imagine a child who is playing with a ball. What STEM learning opportunities can you identify from this motor play? Here are some potential answers:

  • Gravity: If you throw a ball toward the sky, it will fall to the ground
  • Force and motion: If you push hard against a ball, it will roll across the floor

Below we have described a few activities and strategies to help you engage all children in STEM learning during motor play. These are based off of an early childhood curriculum, CHAMPPS: CHildren in Action: Motor Program for PreschoolerS (Favazza & Ostrosky, in press).

March around

  • Play Description: Ask children to march/jog/gallop/skip in a circle
  • Embed STEM learning:
    • Create movement patterns (e.g., march forward 5 steps, then backwards 5 steps).
    • Identify body parts as children do a motor activity, such as I am marching with my legs.
    • Ask children if they are feeling hot and sweaty following participation in a motor activity? Why do they think they feel that way?
    • Discuss how fast our hearts are beating after engaging in vigorous motor play. Ask children to touch their hearts and describe what they feel (i.e., Is their heart beating fast? Why?).

Animal Hopping

  • Play Description: Ask children “Which animals hop?” (i.e., bunny, frog, kangaroo). Then, ask children to jump around the room like the animal they named. Ring a bell after a minute or two and say Here comes a tiger!  Encourage children to return to their original spaces when they hear that phrase. Repeat 3-5 times and have children select a different animal, each time. 
  • Embed STEM learning:
    • Encourage children to count the number of times they hop
    • Use measurement words: hop higher, hop further
    • Emphasize position words: around, over, next to
    • Ask questions about different animals (e.g., What do they eat? Where do they live? What animal likes to chase rabbits?)

Considerations, Adaptations, and Accommodations:

Some children with disabilities need intentional and planned support from teachers and parents to help them access and participate in a variety of learning experiences. To ensure that all children can fully participate and engage in motor play and STEM learning, consider adapting the environment, materials, and instructions (see CARA’s Kit (Milbourne & Campbell, 2007 for ideas). You can:

  • Arrange the furniture to ensure that children can move around safely
  • Model and have children imitate movements, so that they can make connections between the words and movements
  • Use visual support cards to show the movements (see Image 1, Favazza & Ostrosky, in press)

visual picture of jump

  • Give children choices by asking them which movement they would like to do next, how many times they should do the movement, what pattern they should create (i.e., hop, walk, hop, walk), etc.
  • For children with physical disabilities, adapt the movements (i.e., both hands up in air versus hopping with two feet off the ground, holding onto something stationary like a chair or adult while hopping, etc.).

References
Becker, D. A., McClelland, M. M., Loprinzi, P. & Trost S. G. (2014) Physical Activity, Self-Regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children. Early Education and Development, 25, 56-70, DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2013.780505

Favazza, P. C. & Ostrosky, M. M. (in press). CHAMPPS: CHildren in Action: Motor Program for PreschoolerS. Paul H Brookes. 

Iverson, J. M. (2010). Developing language in a developing body: The relationship between motor development and language development. Journal of Child Language, 37(2), 229-261.

Milbourne, S., & Campbell, P. H. (2007). CARA's Kit: Creating adaptations for routines and activities. Philadelphia: Thomas Jefferson University, Child and Family Studies Research Programs. Distributed by DEC (www.dec-sped.org).

Trawick -Smith (2014). The physical play and motor development of young children: a review of literature and implications for practice. Retrieved from the web at: http://www1.easternct.edu/cece/files/ 2014/06/BenefitsOfPlay_LitReview.pdf.

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Read this blog post written by Dr. Ketchum and learn the strategies to explore and develop concepts of cause and effect with children at all ages and abilities! 

Aimee Ketchum's headshot
By Dr. Aimee Ketchum 

 About the author: 

Dr. Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 24 years of experience working in pediatrics. She currently practices in the neonatal intensive care unit at UPMC hospital in Lititz where she founded the NICU retired nurse cuddler program. Ketchum is also academic fieldwork coordinator and assistant professor of early childhood development in the occupational therapy doctorate department of Cedar Crest College. Ketchum creates and teaches workshops on early child development through PA Quality Assurance System for pre-school teachers and early intervention practitioners. Ketchum is the founding director of Aimee’s Babies, LLC and creator of STEM Starts Now digital parenting program. She aims to create a next generation of innovators and problem solvers who are all afforded the ability to start kindergarten on an equitable playing field, giving all children everywhere the best start possible. Ketchum recently had her book “See Occupational Therapists Run” published by See Us Run Publishing.  This is a workbook to help fellow occupational therapists practice self-care to avoid burnout. Her baby development DVDs and apps have been featured on the Rachael Ray show, iPhone Essentials Magazine and the United Kingdom’s Baby and You Initiative. She was the winner of the 2017 Fine Living Lancaster Innovator Award, and the 2018 Social Enterprise Pitch and her work has been recognized with the prestigious Word Gap Challenge Finalist award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  

When we realize that one event occurs after another event, we are likely to conclude that the first event caused the second event to happen. We draw these causal conclusions all day long and they greatly affect how we learn. If we get blisters every time we wear ill-fitting shoes, we learn to stop wearing ill-fitting shoes. Babies begin to draw conclusions to learn about their world as early as three months of age (Gopnik, 1999).  Studies show that babies are remarkably able to make inferences and learn new information without prior knowledge (Shultz et al., 2008).

When scientists tied a ribbon to a mobile and to the foot of a three-month-old-baby, the baby quickly learned that the physical action of kicking their foot made the mobile move and they are apt to try this trick over and over again (Rovee-Collier, 1990). Very young babies also learn important social lessons through cause and effect. They learn that when they cry, their needs are met by doting parents and caregivers who quickly respond to comfort them (Hyunjoo, Dale, & Kimbrough, 2018). 

 By the time babies are eight months old, they are usually intentionally throwing items over the edge of the high-chair tray to see if we will pick them up, splashing the bath water to watch it slosh over the edge of the tub, and banging blocks together to hear the loud sound.

Babies also use communication to learn cause and effect by making sounds to get parents attention and even babbling in back-and-forth conversations with parents. 

Babies learn cause and effect by performing an action, then using all of their senses to observe the results. What happens when a baby has a disability or a delay? It is important that all children have access and can participate in learning experiences to practice manipulating their world and observing the effects. For children with disabilities, adaptations to the environment, materials, and/or instruction can provide opportunities to fully participating in learning experiences.

Let’s begin by considering the baby’s positioning and asking ourselves: Are babies positioned so they can see and touch their toys? Tummy time or supported sitting are great positions for babies to visually observe their world. If babies are unable to hold their head up in tummy time, they can be positioned on their side with both arms in front of them and simple toys within reach. 

Next, present developmentally appropriate and stimulating toys or objects. Some babies with disabilities may have a sensory delay making it important to engage as many senses as possible. Toys and objects should be visually stimulating, textured for tactile input, make noises for auditory input, and can even be scented. Adaptations can also be made to toys/objects so that children with disabilities can engage with them.

In addition to proper positioning and providing developmentally appropriate and stimulating toys, families and caregivers can take an active role in helping babies learn cause and effect by talking with babies and engaging in interactive play. If children are unable to grasp a toy, it can be placed into their hand, or the hand-over-hand technique can be used so babies feel the tactile sensation. Some studies show that babies can learn cause and effect from observing other people interacting with an object and causing that object to change (Saxe, Tenenbaum, & Carey, 2007; Meltzoff, Waismeyer, & Gopnik, 2012). Families can encourage babies to watch them stack blocks, then bring the baby’s hand to the blocks to knock them down, so the baby observes the action and takes part in the effect. 

Strategies to explore and develop concepts of cause and effect with children at all ages and abilities. Note that the ages are estimates:

Newborn

  • Respond to baby’s cries in a timely manner to teach them that their needs will be met.
  • Wrist and bootie rattles are great for body awareness and learning that simple actions produce a noise.
  • Talk to babies all day to provide a foundation for language and pause for baby’s response after a question even before babies can talk and respond.

Babies

  • Hold baby and turn light switches on and off, narrating what you are doing and why. *Do not do this if baby has epilepsy.  Point out that the light is controlled by the switch. Encourage baby to try.
  • Provide toys or objects that stimulate all of the senses.
  • If babies are unable to hold and manipulate toys, do it hand-over-hand or adapt the materials to support exploration. Visit STEMIE’s Guide to Adaptations here
  • Water play or bathtime is a great sensory activity that teaches cause and effect because water reacts to movement. Use language as you play such as “full”, “empty”, “dump”, and “splash”.
  • Allow babies a lot of floor time with a variety of toys and household objects at their level to explore.
  • Respond to baby’s utterances and other forms of communication, begin to have back and forth conversations.

Nine-18 Months

  • Allow babies to learn to walk barefoot on different surfaces (e.g., grass, carpet) so they experience the textures on the bottom of their feet and learn how foot movements affect balance.
  • Explore sounds and music using musical instruments, household objects or loose parts (e.g., pots, ladles, plastic containers, cardboard boxes) because movement and sound are a fun way to learn cause and effect. Children who are deaf can also feel sounds and music and explore rhythms, pulses, and vibrations.
  • Mirrors are great for babies to see how their body moves and what their funny faces look like. 
  • As baby’s vocabulary grows, continue to have back and forth interactions and communication, ask and answer questions. 

18-24 Months

  • Outdoor play offers opportunities to engage different senses and use larger muscle groups to manipulate the world and learn from it.  Perhaps children can skip a rock in a pond to watch the ripples form or walk on a path with muddy footprints and observe the footprints being formed.
  • Interactive play with other children teaches social cause and effect skills for all children. 

Interactive and guided play, vast sensory experiences, back-and-forth conversations and communication, and lots of floor time with developmentally appropriate and safe toys and household objects within reach will help children start to understand concepts of cause and effect before they even have their second birthday.

 

References: 

Gopnik, A. (2010). How babies think. Scientific American, 303(1), 76-81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26002102

Hyunjoo, Y., Dale B., & Kimbrough, O. (2018). The origin of protoconversation: An examination of caregiver responses to cry and speech-like vocalizations. 

Frontiers in Psychology. 9, 1510. https://doi.10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01510  

Kuhl, P., (2004). Early language acquisition: cracking the speech code. Natural Review Neuroscience. 5(11), 831-43.

Meltzoff, A. N., Waismeyer, A., & Gopnik, A. (2012). Learning about causes from people: observational causal learning in 24-month-old infants. Developmental 

psychology, 48(5), 1215–1228. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027440   

Michnick, Golinkoff & Pasek. (2016). Becoming Brilliant: What science tells us about raising successful children. American Psychological Association.

Muentener P, Carey S. (2010). Infants' causal representations of state change events. Cognitive Psychology. 61(2), 63-86.

Rovee-Collier, C.K. (1990). The memory system of prelinguistic infants. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: The development and neural bases of higher 

cognitive functions, ed. 608, 517-42. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Saxe, R., Tenenbaum, J., & Carey S. (2005). Secret agents: inferences about hidden causes by 10- and 12-month-old infants. Psychological Science. 16(12), 995-1001. http://doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01649.x. PMID: 16313665.                

Schulz, L. E., Goodman, N., Tenenbaum, J., & Jenkins, A. (2008). Going beyond the evidence: Abstract laws and preschoolers’ responses to anomalous data. 

Cognition, 109(2), 211-223.                                                 

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Outdoor Play and Sun Safety

Outdoor learning contributes positively to foundational STEM skills. However, children are at high risk of suffering sun burn from overexposure to UV radiation. Following are several recommendations for supporting sun safety and helping children with disabilities benefit from outdoor play.

Sarah Pedonti's headshot
By Sarah Pedonti

Ph.D. candidate in Applied Developmental Psychology and Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Education

About the author: Sarah Pedonti, M.Ed., is a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Developmental Psychology and Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Education. Her research focuses on early reading and language interventions for young children with or at risk for developmental language disorders. She has worked in varied settings serving young children with disabilities, including Early Head Start, Head Start, North Carolina Pre-K (co-located within a Title I Engineering Magnet Elementary School), NC State’s Engineering Place Summer Programs, and the Office of Head Start’s National Center on Early Childhood, Development, Teaching, & Learning (NCECDTL)

Outdoor learning  is important for helping young children with and without disabilities to regulate attention (Szczytko et al., 2018) and improve learning engagement (Norwood et al., 2019) and contributes positively to foundational STEM skills such as spatial working memory (e.g. remembering the position of cards during a game of memory; Schutte et al., 2015). Yet, there may be hurdles to safe participation in outdoor learning for some children with disabilities, including sensory hypersensitivities which may cause difficulty with safety precautions such as sunscreen. 

Sunscreen use is important: one in five U.S. citizens will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime (Guy et al., 2015). Although children are at low risk for developing skin cancer in childhood, sun safety behaviors in childhood can prevent the overexposure to UV rays which are responsible for skin cancers in later adulthood (Autier et al., 1994a,b). A childhood history of severe sunburn significantly raises one’s lifetime chance of developing skin cancer (Iannacone et al., 2012; US Department of Health & Human Services, 2014). Some children with disabilities may be particularly at risk for severe sunburn due to genetic skin conditions such as ichthyosis or Ehler-Danos syndrome, or due to developmental disabilities such as autism (Kanellis, 2020). Some children with autism and other developmental disabilities may display sensory hypersensitivity (Baranak et al., 2007) to “light” tactile experiences like sunscreen application (Baranek & Berkson, 1994; Quinde-Zlibut et al., 2020). Sensory (e.g., autism) or physiological (e.g., icthyosis or similar dermatological disorders with acutely sensitive skin) difficulties associated with sunscreen application can make outdoor summer activity difficult for families. Following are several recommendations for supporting sun safety and helping children with disabilities benefit from outdoor play and to understand the scientific rationale for sun protection:

Universal:

  • Limit outdoor time to morning and late afternoon hours outside peak sun exposure when possible.
  • Reapply every 90-120 minutes- even “waterproof” sunscreens need reapplication, and will need so even more frequently if you’re in the water (FDA, 2019)
  • Seek the shade! Use a sun-tent or umbrella at the beach, and use playgrounds that have shady spaces under trees or sun sails.
  • Don’t forget the hat! 13% of all skin cancers occur on the scalp. (Prodinger et al., 2018)

Individualized:

Most of all, have FUN! Outdoor learning supports children with disabilities to learn, participate with their peers, and benefit cognitively from STEM experiences that occur outdoors. Sun safety precautions can protect children from future risk of skin cancer while encouraging their present-day learning!

 

References

Autier, P., Doré, J. ‐F, Schifflers, E., Cesarini, J. ‐P, Bollaerts, A., Koelmel, K. F., Gefeller, O., Liabeuf, A., Lejeune, F., Lienard, D., Joarlette, M., Chemaly, P., & Kleeberg, U. R. (1995). Melanoma and use of sunscreens: An EORTC case‐control study in Germany, Belgium and France. International Journal of Cancer, 61(6), 749–755. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijc.2910610602

Boyd, B. A., Baranek, G. T., Sideris, J., Poe, M. D., Watson, L. R., Patten, E., & Miller, H. (2010). Sensory features and repetitive behaviors in children with autism and developmental delays. Autism Research, 3(2), 78–87. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.124

Baranek, G., Boyd, B., Poe, M., David, F., & Watson, L. (2007). Hyperresponsive sensory patterns in young children with autism, developmental delay, and typical development. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 112(4), 233–245. https://doi.org/10.1352/0895-8017(2007)112

Baranek, G. T., & Berkson, G. (1994). Tactile defensiveness in children with developmental disabilities: Responsiveness and habituation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(4), 457–471. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02172128

Food and Drug Administration (2019) Sunscreen: How to Protect your Skin. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/understanding-over-counter-medicines/sunscreen-how-help-protect-your-skin-sun#infants

Guy, G.P., Machlin S., Ekwueme, D.U., & Yabroff, K.R. (2015) Prevalence and costs of skin cancer treatment in the US, 2002–2006 and 2007–2011. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 48(8) 183–7.

Iannacone, M. R., Wang, W., Stockwell, H. G., O’Rourke, K., Giuliano, A. R., Sondak, V. K., Messina, J. L., Roetzheim, R. G., Cherpelis, B. S., Fenske, N. A., & Rollison, D. E. (2012). Patterns and timing of sunlight exposure and risk of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas of the skin - a case-control study. BMC Cancer, 12(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2407-12-417

Kanellis, V. G. (2020). Barriers to sun safety in autism spectrum disorder. In Biophysical Reviews (Vol. 12, Issue 4, pp. 791–792). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12551-020-00732-2

Norwood, M.F., Lakhani, A., Fullagar, S., Maujean, A., Downes, M., Byrne, J., Stewart, A., Barber, B., Kendall, E., (2019). A narrative and systematic review of the behavioural, cognitive and emotional effects of passive nature exposure on young people: Evidence for prescribing change. Landscape and Urban Planning, 189, 71-79.

Prodinger, C. M., Koller, J., & Laimer, M. (2018). Scalp tumors. Journal Der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft = Journal of the German Society of Dermatology : JDDG, 16(6), 730–753. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddg.13546

Schutte, A. R., Torquati, J. C., & Beattie, H. L. (2017). Impact of Urban Nature on Executive Functioning in Early and Middle Childhood. Environment and Behavior, 49(1), 3–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916515603095

Szczytko, R., Carrier, S.J., Stevenson, K.T., (2018). Impacts of outdoor environmental education on teacher reports of attention, behavior, and learning outcomes for students with emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disabilities. Frontiers in Psychology, 3

Tripp, M., Herrmann, N., Parcel, G., Chamberlain, R., & Gritz, E. (2000). Sun protection is fun! A skin cancer prevention program for preschools. Journal of School Health, 70(10), 395–401. https://doi.org/10.1111/josh.2000.70.issue-10

Quinde-Zlibut, J. M., Okitondo, C. D., Williams, Z. J., Weitlauf, A., Mash, L. E., Heflin, B. H., Woodward, N. D., & Cascio, C. J. (2020). Elevated thresholds for light touch in children with autism reflect more conservative perceptual decision-making rather than a sensory deficit. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 14, 122. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2020.00122

US Department of Health & Human Services. (2014) The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General.

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The home is an exciting place for children to learn and grow. Many parents enjoy engaging in learning experiences with their children such as shared book reading and game playing. However, when it comes to making math a part of the learning experience, many parents are unsure where to begin. This blog post provides fun, practical math experiences that can be done at home to help children develop critical math skills.

Michele Stites' headshot

Dr. Michele Stites Susan Sonnenschein's headshot

Dr. Susan Sonnenschein

About the authors:

Dr. Michele Stites is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). She received her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction/Special Education from the George Washington University and her M.Ed. in special education from the University of Maryland College Park. Prior to her appointment at UMBC, she was the early childhood intervention specialist for a large school system in Maryland. Dr. Stites was an early childhood classroom teacher for 10 years working in both general and special education settings. Dr. Stites’ research interests focus on inclusive mathematics teaching practices and young children’s mathematics learning. As an assistant professor at UMBC she also works closely with teacher candidates. Dr. Stites has been widely published in both scholarly and practitioner-focused journals.

Dr. Susan Sonnenschein is a Professor in the Psychology Department at UMBC and the Graduate Program Director of the Applied Developmental Psychology Doctoral program. She received an M.S. degree from Penn State University in Educational Psychology, a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Stony Brook University, and is a certified (state of Maryland) school psychologist. Her research interests focus on factors that promote children’s educational success. She conducts research on family and school-based factors and how they affect children from different demographic backgrounds. In addition to having several hundred scholarly publications and presentations, she has written blogs and summaries of her research for nonprofessional audiences. One focusing on math activities to do with young children was published in the Conversation in 2018, http://theconversation.com/5-math-skills-your-child-needs-to-get-ready-for-kindergarten-103194

The learning activities young children engage in at home lead to better academic skills. We know that children who read different types of books at home are more likely to develop foundational literacy skills (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002; Serpell et al., 2005). And, many parents are confident that they know how to help their children learn to read (Sonnenschein, et.al., 2021). But what about math? How comfortable are parents with fostering their children’s math skills at home?

We recently asked 236 parents of preschoolers how confident they were assisting their children with reading and math skills at home. And, what we found was not surprising. Most parents thought it was very important for their children to read (86%) and do math activities at home (68%). However, they viewed reading as more important than math. Why do they view reading as more important? It may have to do with confidence. Only 32% of parents in our study reported that they were very confident in their ability to support their child’s math learning.

Given what we know about the importance of reading to children, and the need for more math exposure in the home, we should  link the two together! Making learning fun for young children and engaging their interest in such learning is positively associated with better academic skills (Sonnenschein et al., 2016).  Drilling children on skills is not (Serpell et al., 2005).

Many parents are confident engaging in dialogic reading experiences with their children and with minimal effort we can easily add math into the experience. Many parents also shared with us that they want fun, play-based ways to foster math skills at home (e.g. NO worksheets!). Here are some practical ideas:

Linking Storybook Reading to Math

  1. Expose their children to a variety of reading genres (e.g., storybooks, informational text) and find the math in the story. You do not need math themed books to do this! Count the number of bunnies, talk about shapes, find patterns, etc. Be sure to use mathematical language (e.g. “more”, “equal”, etc.) when talking about a math topic because it increases skill development (Akinci-Coşgun, et.al., 2020; Stites & Brown, 2019).
  2. Use a math themed book. Books like Anno’s Counting book and Ten Magic Butterflies are mathematically themed. Take the time to explore the math content. Questions like, “How many in all?” and “what comes next?” are great with counting books. If the book focuses on a skill like addition work on additional equations. “Wow, we just answered 2 + 1=3. Do you know what 2+2 equals?”
  3. Make use of digital and adapted books. If a child has a disability, adapted books are a great way to remove some of the barriers in traditional print books. In fact, all children, not just those with disabilities, often respond to the  different formats provided in these books.

Play-Based Math Learning

  1. Play board games. Games have been shown to be an effective way to engage with numbers and patterns. Take the time to question the child about numbers, shapes, and patterns.
  2. Take a nature walk. Notice the shapes in the leave. Count the clouds. The world is your oyster here!
  3. Build with blocks or Legos. Count the items and make patterns. Ask the child what comes next and how many there are altogether. Take some away and ask how many are left. Make shapes!
  4. Draw and create art. As the child is drawing ask her to make three more flowers. Use playdough and make shapes and patterns. And talk about the shapes the child and you create. The language used matters!

References

  1. Akinci-Coşgun, A, Stites, M.L., & Sonnenschein, S. (2020). Using storybooks to support young children’s mathematics learning at school and home. In Bekir, H., Bayraktar, V., & Karaçelik, S.N. (Eds.), Development in Education. Istanbul, Turkey: Hiperlink.
  2. Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skill: A five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73 , 445–461.
  3. Serpell, R., Baker, L. & Sonnenschein, S. (2005). Becoming literate in the city: The Baltimore Early Childhood Project. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Sonnenschein, S., Metzger, S. R., & Thompson, J. A. (2016). Low-income parents’ socialization of their preschoolers’ early reading and math skills. Research in Human Development, 13, 207-224. doi: 10.1080/15427609.2016.1194707
  5. Sonnenschein, S., Stites, M.L., & Dowling, R. (2021).  Learning at home: What preschool parents do and what they want to learn from their children’s teachers? Journal of Early Childhood Research. doi:10.1177/1476718X20971321
  6. Stites, M.L. & Brown, E.T. (2019). Observing mathematical learning experiences in preschool.  Early Child Development and Care. doi:10.1080/03004430.2019.1601089.
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Engineering can feel like a daunting concept to implement with your preschoolers, but young children are already capable and interested in engineering and design problems! They ask questions and identify problems to solve. So how can you engage your preschoolers in engineering? This blog post explains preschool engineering during a free-play session by building on children’s interests and identifies crucial teaching practices to push children’s engineering ideas and thinking forward.

About the author: Gurupriya a doctoral candidate in the Ed.D Curriculum and Instruction program at Boise State University, Gurupriya's work and research interests revolve around high quality preschool STEM practices and opportunities for inclusion of students with diverse needs. She received her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from Syracuse University and worked as a preschool teacher in inclusive preschool programs. Prior to that, she worked as a special education teacher for young children with developmental disabilities in India. As a Research Assistant at Boise State University, she assists in research projects assessing teacher and parent perceptions and beliefs on early STEM education, and developing teacher supports for the implementation of early STEM education.

This blog post contains excerpts from an engineering activity conducted in an early childhood setting as part of the author’s dissertation.

Shanina’s preschoolers have been reading about different animal habitats. Some children expressed interest in building shelters.

Children’s interests, including interests related to engineering, can be sparked in numerous ways. Recognizing those interests requires keen observation by early educators. Interest may come from reading a story on the rug, from observations and exploration during play, or from sharing about life outside of school, or in the form of an engineering challenge. Research suggests that preschool children should actively engage in inquiry-based projects by asking questions, collecting data, and presenting it. A skilled teacher is crucial in guiding children through the experience (Torres-Crespo et al., 2014).

Problem-based scenarios can engage children in STEM activities and expand their interests. Educators present young children with a problem relevant to their lives, then encourage and support children as they imagine, plan, create, and improve solutions to these engineering design challenges (Tippet & Milford, 2017). Let’s take a look at how Shanina used problem-based scenarios to engage her preschoolers.

Wooden blocks and plastic straw ‘forts’: building on children’s interests.

To expand children’s interest in building shelters, Shanina set up a provocation at the block area. She set up wooden blocks and plastic straws of various sizes and taped pictures of different shelters built using blocks and loose parts.play with plastic straws

Then she posed a problem-based scenario and invited children to explore further, saying, “I wonder if we could build a shelter for the animals using the blocks and straws. How can we make it stay standing?”

Children initially began exploring the plastic straws, but a group of three children soon had an idea of their own—they wanted to build a fort. Shanina encouraged them by asking, “What is your idea?” and “What are you going to use to build the fort?”. Children specified that they wanted to build a fort that could fit the three of them inside and hold the weight of the blanket covering it.

Children began connecting the plastic straws and building a cube-shaped structure that was as tall as them. While building, the children had an idea to make an entrance to the fort by leaving one part of the structure open. However, this led to design flaws:

  • a) the structure began tilting to one side and almost tipped over due to the lack of a balanced foundation, and
  • b) the entrance was too small for the children to fit through.a tower made by plastic straws

Rather than point out these design flaws, Shanina gave children the opportunity to:

  • explore with the materials laid out at the block area,
  • create their structure using the materials they chose,
  • test out their creations to see how well they would hold,
  • reflect on the testing results, and then
  • problem-solve how to improve upon their creations

In doing so, Shanina observed how children worked together to build their fort, problem-solve to strengthen the fort, create an even foundation, and leave enough space to enter the fort.

To anchor children’s thinking in the engineering design process, Shanina asked open-ended questions such as, “what is your design for the structure?” and “how will you make sure it stays up?”. Open-ended questions can also support children in thinking critically about their design and work together to solve their design problem.

To complete their fort, children wanted to cover it with a blanket. Shanina prompted the children to think intentionally about their design, asking, “Do you think the fort will be able to stay standing with the blanket over it? Let’s find out!”

The children tested two blankets of different weights. The first was too heavy—parts of the fort gave into the weight. But rather than get dejected, the children rebuilt their fort, urging, “It’s ok, we can build it again!”. They negotiated with one another, commenting, “You connect the straws on that side, and I’ll work on this side” and “Can you get me some straws from the box?”. Upon completion, the children tested their fort with the second, lighter blanket and found that the fort held its weight well.

a blanket on top of a plastic straws stracuture

By building on children’s curiosity, what started as a simple exploration of connecting straws transformed into a fort construction engineering challenge. With teacher facilitation, children worked together to construct the fort and think through issues that arose. Using a problem-based scenario, introducing open-ended materials and loose parts, and asking open-ended questions engaged children’s interests and encouraged them to think critically as they participated in a problem-solving process.

Often this begins by identifying and documenting children’s curiosity, wonderings, and interests and then building on it. It can take the form of children or teachers identifying a problem or question that needs a solution. Perhaps students identified something in the playground that needs fixing or have a question about how a tool works. Perhaps during a lesson on habitats, students want to know more about birds and where they live. No matter the starting point for students’ interest in a topic, posing or framing it within a problem-based scenario, introducing open-ended materials and loose parts, and asking open-ended questions can not only build on children’s interests but also further encourage children to critically think about and engage in the problem-solving process.

Suggestions

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 Do you want to know how to engage children in STEM virtually? We are pleased to invite Dr. Mere-Cook to share some of her experiences with us! 

About the author: Yvette Mere-Cook has a Doctorate in Special Education from the University of San Francisco and a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy from Boston University.  Dr. Mere-Cook teaches at Boise State University in the Early and Special Education Department and researches the role of early childhood STEM education on the inclusion of children with disabilities.  Partnering with Idaho STEM Action Center, Dr. Mere-Cook led a team of early childhood educators in a year-long exploration on how to integrate STEM with young learners, both with and without disabilities.  Most recently, Dr. Mere-Cook has also returned to the classroom as a pediatric occupational therapist working with preschoolers with disabilities and providing them opportunities and access to STEM as a vehicle that drives their IEP goals.   

With the new school year in full swing, several young children with disabilities are participating over virtual platforms. Although we all wish we can be in the classroom, I have found a way to bring STEM learning to life through engaging in weekly groups that provide our students time to explore, create, and share with teachers, families, and classmates. 

Young children with disabilities do not always have the opportunities to explore their curiosities and interests at school. Explicit instruction, adult directed tasks, and specialized interventions often take priority in specially designed preschool classrooms. These evidence-based instructional supports are critical but they limit students’ naturally occurring opportunities to explore, create, and solve problems in ways that are meaningful to the child (Huskens et al., 2015; McClure et al., 2017; Steinbrenner et al., 2020)

Therefore, I established a weekly group that meets virtually and incorporates the steps of the engineering design process, Explore, Create, and Improve (Museum of Science, Boston, 2018).  Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions that could be helpful to families/ caregivers and educators alike.

Dr. Yvette Mere-Cook is teaching STEM virtually

How do I design and present the weekly investigations?

  • I get to know the children’s interests: I surveyed families asking them to list the activities or topics that were of interest to their children. Building, painting, and cause and effect games on the IPAD were the top 3 choices.
  • I incorporate and work on children’s IEP goals during STEM learning: Although all children’s IEP goals are different, they often have areas in common: expressive language, fine motor skills, and self-regulation. I am mindful to provide opportunities for children to work on these goal areas. I also invite the children’s teachers and related service providers to observe and take data on specific goals.

For instance, the STEM Group is a wonderful opportunity to address social interactions and communication. I usually have 5-6 children in attendance and I ask parents and caregivers to unmute themselves.  For working on expressive language, I ask specific children questions such as, “Holly, what are you using to make your ramp?” or “Sam, what objects do you have today?”.  When testing the creations, I will ask students to say “Ready, Set, Go”  or count 1, 2, 3.  I also encourage children to look and comment on each other’s creations.  For instance, I say:  “Look!  Matt is using a book with a hard cover as his ramp. Jill, how is your ramp different from Matt’s?  For some students that use visual supports, I bring the choice boards or sentence strip so they can express themselves.

Dr.Yvette Mere-Cook is using visual pictures for communication

  • I have a plan, but I follow the children’s lead: I create multi-week investigations centered children’s interests (building) and classroom themes (Fall leaves, pumpkins). I make certain to adjust weekly challenges based on the children’s engagement in the previous week and use their ideas to inform our next steps. So I have a plan, but I follow where the children take me.     
  • I give parents time to gather the materials: I inform families of the suggested materials needed for the STEM group with a short video clip explaining how we may use these items to explore and create solutions for the problem that the children will solve. I make certain to do this before the end of the week so parents have time over the weekend to prepare.
  • I use existing resources: I use the framework from Wee Engineer, the Preschool Curriculum from Engineering is Elementary (Museum of Science, Boston, 2018) to frame our problem. I use familiar Sesame Street characters over the screen to frame our engineering challenge:

Elmo and Abby is working on a STEM problem

For example, I shared my screen that had this slide and described the following problem:  

Elmo wants to visit Abby at her house but he needs a boat that will help him float down the river.  Could you help Elmo by building a boat strong enough for him to float down the river?  We then start building and creating. Some children build with materials that I suggest such as folding aluminum foil or testing out different plastic food storage containers. Others go to their rooms and grab blocks or other building toys to test in the water. A few students add to creations that their parents and caregivers start for them. 

What strategies do I use with families to engage their children in STEM learning?

  • Explore Alongside the Child: Families and caregivers help children participate over virtual platforms such as Zoom. So we encourage parents and caregivers to stay and explore alongside their children. I talk to parents during the sessions and model how to point out similarities and differences in materials. For instance, when building a boat for Elmo, one child had a small piece of wood  and some aluminum foil. I asked parents to describe to their child how these are different.  For instance, I model, “The wood is thick and heavy. The foil is thin and very light.” 
  • Find Everyday Items can Promote STEM learning: I try to encourage families to take nature walks to find materials to explore such as leaves, pine cones, acorns, and sticks. I also ask families to save recyclables and broken electronics. These items and other loose parts provide rich opportunities for STEM learning (Daly & Beloglovsky, 2015).

Materials for STEM investigations

  • Use Books to Strengthen and Expand on STEM Concepts: I look for books, both fiction and non-fiction, that connect to our STEM investigations. Right now, since libraries are closed or have limited hours, I try to give families links to Read Alouds. For the boat investigation, I provided the books What Sinks? What Floats? by Rozanne Lanczak Williams and What Floats in a Moat, by Lynne Berry. It’s helpful if you can give families these resources as a way to preview the main concepts that will be explored during the upcoming STEM group. 

What other helpful tips can I give to parents/caregivers and educators for engaging young children with disabilities in STEM learning?

  • Provide time. Not all young children or young children with disabilities explore in the same way. So set aside time to explore and wonder.
  • Leave materials out for further investigation. Children may explore for a few minutes and then move to another part of the room. By leaving materials out after the STEM Group and accessible to them, young children with disabilities can explore in their own way and in their own time.
  • Embed needed accommodations and supports. For some students, they may be wary about trying new things. Therefore, I use a First–Then board when introducing a new investigation. This helps them know what we will be exploring and then they can engage in a more familiar activity. Also, as an occupational therapist, I am always mindful of sensory sensitivities and preferences. When engaging in the boat challenge, I asked parents/caregivers to use warm water for those children that are sensitive to cold and offer tools that allows them to move the items in the water without having to touch it.  These include measuring cups, spoons, age appropriate tongs, and other tools (strawberry huller, large spoon, and clothespins). First-then board and a variety of spoons for water exploration

References

  1. Daly, L. & Beloglovsky, M. (2015).  Loose Parts:  Inspiring Play in Young Children.  Redleaf Press. https://www.redleafpress.org/Loose-Parts-Inspiring-Play-in-Young-Children-P1128.aspx
  2. Huskens, B., Palmen, A., Van der Werff, M., Lourens, T., & Barakova, E. (2015).  Improving collaborative play between children with autism spectrum disorders and their siblings:  The effectiveness of a robot-mediated intervention based Lego       therapy.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45,3746-3755. doi:  10.1007/s10803-014-2326-0
  3. McClure, E. R., Guernsey,L., Clements, D., Nall Bales,S., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N. & Levine M.H. (2017).  STEM starts early: grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood.” Education Digest 86(4): 43-51. http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/wpcontent/uploads/2017/01/jgcc_stemstartearly_final.pdf.
  4. Museum of Science (2016-2018). Engineering is Elementary, Wee Engineer Curriculum.
  5. Steinbrenner, J.R., Hume, K., Odom, S.L., Morin, K.L., Nowell, S.W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S. McIntryre, N.S., Yucesory-Ozkan, S., & Savage M.N. (2020).  Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism.  The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team.
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 Can baby learn STEM? In this blog post, we've put together a list of commonly asked questions with answers. Let's keep reading to find out! 

About the author: Philippa Campbell, occupational therapist, has implemented early childhood/early intervention development, demonstration, and field-based projects in areas related to infants and young children with or at risk for disabilities and their families, using practices such as adaptation and Assistive Technology interventions to promote children’s inclusion, participation and learning. Specific areas of interest include interdisciplinary (interprofessional) education higher education models and participation of infants and young children with disabilities via approaches such as coaching/teaching parents (and other adults) to implement strategies successfully within natural environments. This work has been supported through grants/contracts from many federal and state agencies as well as foundations. Dr. Campbell has published numerous articles, chapters, books and other materials and presented work internationally and nationally.

1. Can children learn STEM at home?

Yes! Of course! Generally, we think about STEM activities as being specially-designed learning activities that require specific toys or equipment for children to investigate or problem-solve. But, opportunities to learn about STEM can occur naturally within the daily lives of families and their young children with and without disabilities. Everyday activities such as bathing, cooking and mealtimes, or even cleaning,  riding in a car, or doing chores or errands offer opportunities for infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children to learn about STEM at home. During bathtime, a child may use measuring cups or other containers to fill up with water, dump, or pour, learning about basic STEM concepts, such as cause and effect or concepts such as empty, full. A toddler might push a chair over to the stove and climb up solving the problem of how she can help cook the pancakes.  Both children have drawn conclusions from performing “experiments” within naturally occurring family activities and routines.

2. What can adults do to support STEM learning?

Children don’t necessarily learn STEM concepts just from simply being a part of activities and routines. Their learning is enhanced when facilitated adult-child interactions are used.  This means that the adults present during an activity or routine verbally point out STEM concepts and guide children to experiment, investigate, and problem solve.  During bathtime, for example, when children are playing with containers in the tub, the adult can narrate what is happening by saying things like “you are dumping water from one cup to another” or “you have the big yellow cup, I wonder what would happen if you pour the water into the little blue cup?”  When narrating what children are doing, adults can guide children by using language that is slightly above what the child is able to do.  For example, if the child is using one word, the adult might say “dump cup” – using language that is slightly more advanced than what the child is able to do.  The adult might also expand by saying “dump big cup” or “dump blue cup.”   Posing questions such as “I wonder what what would happen if ---” or “what do you think will happen when---“ set the stage for children to not just observe what happens but also be active participants by experimenting and problem solving.  Adults also may introduce key STEM vocabulary words so that children hear words associated wth science, technology, engineering, and math as related to a particular activity. 

3. How can we support STEM learning and participation for young children with disabilities?

While circumstances may limit children’s access and participation, limitations may be lessened and often totally eliminated by using environmental modifications and adaptations to activities, materials, or instruction.  Any naturally occurring activity or routine at home provides opportunities for STEM learning. Adaptations may be used to provide children with access to the activity and increase their opportunities for participation. When children actively participate with adaptations, they can acquire both foundational and complex thinking skills making up science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).  Teachers, practitioners, and caregivers, the adults in children’s lives, should always be thinking about what they can do to figure out children’s interests, how they can use adaptations as go-arounds to ensure access and participation in activities, and what they can say to verbally support and expand children’s STEM learning.

4. What types of adaptations would help young children with disabilities engage and participate in STEM learning?

We can consider adapting the environment, activity, materials, requirements or instruction. There are many ways in which the environment or activities themselves may be modified to promote access and participation             

The following example illustrates how STEM concepts can be embedded into an activity that naturally occurs at home – in this case, cooking pancakes.  The table shows STEM concepts and suggests what the adult may do and how to address challenges to engagement and participation using adaptation solutions.    

STEM Learning AT Home: Cooking pancakes

Possible STEM Learning Concepts: Cause & Effect, Sequence, Measurement, Volume, Size, Matter; STEM Skills: Observation, Exploration, Experimentation, Problem-Solving

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