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.  

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By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

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

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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)

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  • 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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