Parents have an important role in encouraging their children to develop STEM skills, writes Rebecca Kerr.
Building STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills in school-age children, goes far beyond teaching science and mathematical concepts in the classroom. STEM education prepares children to move into any industry by equipping them with valuable skills that support future success – including problem solving, analytical thinking, creativity, continued curiosity, and the ability to work independently.
There are long term benefits to be gained by encouraging your child to explore the world around them and by asking questions about what they see and how and why it works. At home, hands-on learning with real-world application supports children in developing their curiosity. Parents and caregivers play an essential role in providing opportunities for children to grow a life-long interest, capability, and self-belief in STEM subjects.
Where do I start?
For parents, encouraging STEM thinking at home can be done through simple interactive activities based around play. Children are naturally curious about the world around them and regularly ask questions about why or how things came to be. Find a theme or topic that your child is already interested in that you can integrate into activities like reading, simple experiments, or research.
If your child is curious about the natural world, explore the environment around you. For example, take a magnifying glass into the garden or park and hunt for insects. Count and log the different types of bugs you find and follow up by using the library or internet to identify the varying species you found. Look at how the body shapes for insects can differ, the role they play in our environment or examine their changing life cycle.
Simple day-to-day activities such as grocery shopping with a budget or cooking from a recipe offer opportunities for children to test math skills and procedural thinking. Building different structures from Lego or recycled materials challenges children to think about how to create a tall building that won’t fall collapse, a parachute big enough to soften the fall of an egg, or a bridge that can support a stack of favourite books.
Language is also important when developing STEM skills and there are a range of terms you can use in conversation with your child. Key words such as explore, investigate, predict, observe, explain, sort, categorise, problem solve, construct, measure, compare, and discover can all be used whenever a child is asking questions and exploring new ideas. Categorising and classifying items in the house and garden help to develop observation skills. Can you split objects by material, use or colour? Can you identify different types of dogs at the park – what similarities and differences can be observed?
When something your child has made or built hasn’t gone to plan ask them to explain how they could prevent that in the future to scaffold their problem-solving. Keep things practical, hands on, and not a big deal if things don’t work out. Failure is essential for learning and encouragement to try again and persist.
Older children might ask insightful questions driven by the news agenda. Exploring topics like climate change, electric vehicles, or vaccinations can be done through research. Consider how you might design your own electric vehicle, or what you can do in your own home to address your carbon emissions. These topics can lead to rich discussions and parents should embrace not knowing the answers, as this allows time for parent and child to investigate, learn, and find solutions together.
Lead the way
Modelling curiosity in your own surroundings and asking thought provoking questions world is the first step to modelling a STEM mindset. Questions like ‘where does fruit come from?’, ‘how does a washing machine make clothes clean?’ or ‘where does a rubbish truck actually take the rubbish or recycling?’ can inspire creative and observational thinking in children.
Asking your child to help find a solution to a problem you’re having invites them into your own STEM thinking. ‘How do we stop this plant from dying?’, ‘Is it getting enough sun or too much water?’, or ‘If we double this recipe how much sugar and flour will we need?’.
When life is busy it’s tempting to brush off or answer children’s questions straight away, but when possible, respond with a prompt that encourages the child to think and reason for themselves. Try asking ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How could we test that?’ to get their ideas flowing and share your own problem-solving thoughts so they can understand how you work through a particular challenge.
Whether your child goes on to progress a career in STEM, exercising the ability to problem solve, think critically, creatively and to innovate will help support them throughout their education and working life. Regular and simple exploration of all STEM subjects can inspire children to develop a lifelong passion for what might in later education become a difficult to understand subject. Exploring the world from an open perspective and rising to meet and solve challenges can place them on the track to success.