Welcome back to our Mythbuster Series. In this blog post, Dr. Mere-Cook will talk about why young children are capable of engineering!
About the author: Dr. Yvette Mere-Cook has been working with children with disabilities and their families for over 20 years as an early intervention and preschool based occupational therapist. Having earned a Doctorate in Special Education from the University of San Francisco in 2016, Dr. Mere-Cook examines instructional practices, innovative approaches, and sensory-based strategies that support the inclusion of young children with disabilities within learning environments. This work includes embedding the engineering design process within inclusive preschool classrooms. Currently, Dr. Mere-Cook engages in modeling best practices, teaching undergraduate students, and conducting applied research within the Early Childhood Lab at University of California, Davis's Department of Human Ecology.
Myth: Engineering is a highly specialized skill and too difficult for young children to comprehend
Fact: Engineering involves solving problems through asking questions, exploring materials, creating solutions, and improving these solutions (Blank & Lynch, 2018; Linder et al., 2016; Museum of Science, Boston, 2018). Research suggests that young children engage in this engineering design process during everyday play (Blank & Lynch, 2018). In fact, a study by Lippard, Lamm, Tank, and Choi (2019) identified three key engineering habits of mind or ways of thinking that preschoolers demonstrated within the art, block, sensory, and dramatic play spaces of the classroom.
Engineering Habits of Mind
- Systems Thinking: Children combined materials to create solutions. In doing so, they engaged in figuring out how objects relate and connect to one another, contributing to their understanding of how things work. Example: In the art area, a child created an envelope out of paper to hold smaller pieces of paper. When she shook her envelope, all of the small pieces fell out. She grabbed a stapler to close the sides further (IMPROVE . . . read below)
(Image from Adobe Stock Photos)
- Optimism: Children demonstrated perseverance and viewed solving problems and improving solutions as part of their play, such as in the example above.
- Collaboration: Children actively sought the help of peers when working on solutions. Example: a child asked a friend to hold the other end of a measuring tape
Interestingly, Lippard and colleagues (2019) discovered that these habits of mind appeared more often when early childhood educators actively engaged and nurtured children’s engineering thinking during play.
What You Can Do: Here are some ways to engage and nurture children’s engineering thinking:
- Help Find Problems: Coming up with problems to solve can be tricky at times for young children (Blank & Lynch, 2018). Therefore, teachers can help children think of real- world problems that can spark solutions. One way is to involve children in any design challenges that your classroom or center is undertaking, such as creating or improving outdoor spaces (Blank & Lynch, 2018).
Another way to spark children’s engagement in problem solving, is to present engineering design challenges based on stories that you read. For instance, in the book, Kate Who Tamed the Wind by Liz Garton Scanlon & Lee White, the story focuses on how Kate solved her neighbor’s problem of having too much wind blow everything inside and outside of his home. You can read this story to the children and then invite them to create their own structures that could withstand wind power. (Garton Scanlon & Lee, 2018)
- Intentionally Introduce Materials and Tools: Reflect on the materials that you have available for your children in your learning spaces.
- How would children use different classroom materials, including loose parts and recyclables? (Loose parts are open-ended materials either found in nature, such as leaves and pinecones or everyday items found at home such as boxes and milk caps (Gull et al., 2019)
- What adaptations would I need to make for children with fine motor challenges?
- How would they combine these materials together?
- What tools would they need and what alternatives could I provide to ensure that all young learners create their solutions? (i.e., loop scissors, small pieces of painters’ tape, double sided tape).
- Where in the classroom, would these materials be located to nurture children’s creative problem solving? Perhaps pinecones could be accessed near both the block area and dramatic play space?
- Notice and Ask: Children’s engagement in the improve process is critical when nurturing engineering habits of mind.
- Notice how they approach creating their solutions. If building a house to withstand wind power from the example above, you may comment, “I notice that you used a large block on the bottom and taped the paper towel roll to the block.”
- Ask open ended questions to extend their thinking and perhaps get them thinking of different ways to improve their solution (Strasser & Mufson Bresson, 2015; Waters & Lim, 2021). For instance, after noticing that they used tape, you could ask, “I wonder what would happen if you taped the large block to the table? How would the wind affect your structure?”
- Expand Engineering Challenges: Children’s building and creating solutions does not need to end in one day. Here are some practical solutions for expanding their engagement in the engineering design process that encourages them to think deeply about their solutions, connect these to real-world experiences, and engage in the improve process. (Alkire, 2019)
- Allow time to engage in the engineering design process
- Create a space for items that are not done, yet
- Include non-fiction books that are related to the problem-solving challenge. For example, you can include books on weather and wind power to complement the problem that Kate was trying to solve, in the book by Garton Scanlon & Lee, 2018).
- Invite children to listen to and feel the wind during an outdoor walk or hike
Alkire, J. (2019). Wind Energy: Putting the Air to Work. Abdo Publishing
Blank, J. & Lynch, S. (2018). Growing in STEM: The design process: engineering practices in preschool. Young Children (73), 4. Retrieved from
Garton Scanlon, L. & White, L. (2018). Kate, Who Tamed the Wind. Schwartz & Wade Books
Gull, C., Bogunovich, J., Levenson Goldstein, S., & Rosengarten, T. (2019). Definitions of loose parts in early childhood outdoor classrooms:
A scoping review. The International Journal of Early Childhood
Environmental Education, 6(3), 37-52. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1225658.pdf
Linder, S.M., A.M. Emerson, B. Heffron, E. Shevlin, A. Vest, & A. Eckhoff. 2016. “STEM Use in Early Childhood Education: Viewpoints from the Field.” Young Children 71 (3): 87–91.
Lippard, C.N., Lamm, M.H., Tank, K.M., Choi, J.Y. (2019). Pre-engineering thinking and the engineering habits of mind in preschool classroom. Early Childhood
Education Journal, 47, 187–198. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-018-0898-6
Museum of Science, Boston. (2018). The Engineering Design Process. Engineering is Elementary. www.eie.org/overview/engineering-design-process
Strasser, J. & Mufson Bresson, L. (2015). Moving beyond the who, what, when, where, and why: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy questioning to extend preschooler’s thinking. Young Children, 9 (1), Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/oct2015/using-blooms-taxonomy-questioning
Waters, V. & Lim, C. (2021). Asking open-ended questions. STEMIE. Retrieved from https://stemie.fpg.unc.edu/asking-open-ended-questions
For the month of June we will be addressing issues that affect STEM learning and providing actionable resources through our Myth Buster series. Stay connected through our social media. Facebook: @STEMIIEE; Twitter: @STEMIIEE