There are so many awesome STEM activities out there. So many great ways to discover science and use math in fun ways. However, I have realized that most of them just explain the craft, experiment or activity and don’t go into much detail about the educational side of it all. I believe STEM activities have great potential for learning and that, as parents, we can use these activities to our advantage to create teachable moments and have fun with our kids at home! In this post, I will outline some tips that will help you turn a simple STEM activity into an educational STEM activity. If you don’t have a STEM or educational background, these tips will help you create teachable moments with any STEM activity you find online! And transform STEM activities into educational experiences!
The key is to know how to guide the activity. Educational research suggests that if we want to make learning happen we have to create an environment that will nurture learning. Advances in neuroscience have recently found a link between emotion and cognition, meaning that learning is more likely to happen if it is connected with positive emotions and feelings. This is why STEM activities are so great! Through fun experiences, children connect STEM to something positive and will be willing to repeat and keep learning. These tips are based on this idea and do not require any deep understanding of STEM from your side. The idea is that you discover and learn together!
You can also check any of the guided STEM activities on this blog. These activities give you a specific guideline that you can follow. The guide is intended to pave the way for learning experiences and turn thoughts into “lightbulb” moments of discovery. They largely follow the tips outlined in this post.
So let’s start with the 5 transformational tips:
Start engaging before you even start the activity
If you find a great activity you want to do with your kids it is important that they are motivated to do it. One way to get them motivated is to build-up to the moment. Get them excited before they even start! Ask them a question that the activity aims to answer, see what they think about it. Tell them you can find out more together with this cool activity you found. Another thing you can do is show them images or videos related to the activity you found. It is important that you also show excitement, that will definitely help them! Here is an example, so you can understand what I mean:
Imagine you find an activity about why things float or sink. First thing you could do is show your kids a video of a big boat and ask your kids some questions. Here are some sample questions:
- Why do you think a boat floats on the water? Do you think a fork floats? Do you think apples float? Do you think a plastic bottle floats?
- How could we find out why things float or sink? Should we find out together?
Guide through questions
Asking questions and looking for answers is such an important part of STEM. The best way to guide an activity is to use questions instead of making statements. Try to use formats such as what/why/how do you think…? Or what do you see…? Do you think you could do…? Another way of guiding through questioning is by modeling inquiry yourself. You don’t have to ask directly you could wonder out loud. Let’s build on the previous example of why things float or sink:
As you are doing the activity here are some suggestions of what you could ask/say:
- Why do you think the plastic bottle floats but not the fork?
- I wonder if weight makes things sink… Do you think heavy objects float more or less?
- Show them 2 different objects and ask them which they think floats and/or sinks
Give space for free exploration and making mistakes
Guiding an activity is useful if you want your children to reach a specific learning moment. However, many children might reach that by themselves through free exploration. We have to give them the freedom to follow their thoughts. You probably already know the lesson that needs to be learned from the activity but your child is working to discover it. And for this they need time! Everybody learns at their own pace and it is important not to rush this.
I know that as parents we want to make everything easier for our kids but we need to let them try by themselves, even when we see that they are not doing it in an ideal way. By allowing them to make mistakes, they are also learning what doesn’t work, which is equally important. A lot of scientific research is based on trial-and-error experimenting and we should give our children the time and space to do this without feeling rushed to reach a learning milestone. This way we are supporting their learning and exploration needs. You can always guide the way back to the activity by saying something like this:
- Ok, we have explored that now, should we check out this other part of the experiment/activity? I’m pretty sure we can find out some cool things there!
Involve as many senses as possible
Neuroscience has found a link between enhanced learning when involving as many senses as possible. Traditional educational methods rely heavily on sight and this is why hands-on STEM activities are so great for kids. They provide the possibility to engage in some sensory play. Even if the activity is not geared towards any specific sense you can always ask questions about the senses. Some examples of questions you could use:
- What does it feel like? Rough? Flat? Is it heavy/light?
- Does it have a smell? What does it remind you of?
- Does it make a noise?
By exploring an activity using their senses they will get a different perspective on the whole learning experience. They might remember doing an activity and discovering a specific smell that will always trigger the memory of it.
Help make a connection and look back on the activity
Our brain learns by association. New information arrives in our brain and it connects it with old information creating memory. This is why it is important to look back on the activity, make follow-up questions, maybe even do follow-up activities. If you’ve involved the senses and found some fun stuff out you can ask things like:
- Do you remember what …. smelled like? That was a funny thing to discover! What were we doing?
So there you have it, 5 useful tips for transforming your STEM activities into educational experiences. You don’t need to use every tip each time but I hope this gives you an understanding about how you can guide the activities to help your children reach some “lightbulb” moments. At the least, I hope it inspires you to not only do the activity but actually engage in it and discover the world with it.
Check out some fun STEM activities to sneak in some STEM learning:
- STEM activity: Build a pyramid and learn about shapes
- STEM experiment: Scientific method float or sink activity
- STEM project: Engineer a house out of natural materials
- STEM challenge: The Tower of Random Things
- STEM water play: 8 fun activities to try this summer
- STEM Road Trip Experiment
Happy STEM learning!