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Building the Foundation for STEAM in Infants and Toddlers

July 31, 2018
It’s Never Too Soon to Start

In recent years, there here has been great focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) across the US. Meanwhile, Apple Montessori has incorporated STEAM into our curriculum for decades. Why the extra A in STEAM? It stands for Art for a more well-rounded education (more on that later).

We believe it’s important to get children started on STEAM even before they enter elementary school, and in fact, the educational activities they take part in during the infant and toddler years can build a strong foundation for the STEAM subjects they’ll study later on.

Young minds are natural sponges, able to absorb the foundational concepts of STEAM at a young age, then apply them to many aspects of their lives in the classroom and beyond.

What infants and toddlers do when they’re learning might not look like it has a lot of connection to the homework they’ll be doing once they hit middle school, but early exposure to STEAM education helps later learning in three ways:

  • Helps children become familiar and comfortable with basic, foundational concepts like counting, dividing, and sorting.
  • Builds a toolkit of essential learning skills like communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
  • Shows students that there is a practical, concrete application to abstract concepts like subtraction, division, and momentum.

Experimenting with hot and cold

Infants and toddlers are also incredibly receptive to learning these skills and subjects. They are incredibly active learners who love to explore, investigate, and discover. As a Montessori program, we give our students the opportunity to be active, engaged, and take charge of their own learning. By encouraging these natural tendencies, we can open up the fascinating and wonderful world of STEAM to them right from the beginning.

“…STEAM and Montessori are highly complementary, with their emphasis on the child determining what he learns through hands-on experimentation.” (Three Minute Montessori)

Why the A?

Lately, educators have changed their focus from STEM to STEAM.

The addition of the “A” for Art recognizes the importance of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking in a well-rounded education, not as a separate realm but as a key pillar.

Art not only helps young children express themselves, it also helps them analyze and problem-solve. As Parents puts it, “By counting pieces and colors, they learn the basics of math. When children experiment with materials, they dabble in science. Most important perhaps, when kids feel good while they are creating, art helps boost self-confidence. And children who feel able to experiment and to make mistakes feel free to invent new ways of thinking.” Down the road, design and creativity can play a crucial role in setting up rigorous scientific experiments or creating digital apps and platforms.

How We Build a Foundation for STEAM

Many parents wonder how we can set the foundation for learning these difficult and abstract concepts at such an early stage.

We certainly don’t spend a lot of time teaching our infant and toddler students long division or the Pythagorean theorem. Instead, we meet them at their level and provide them with multisensory, hands-on experiences that are designed to introduce them to STEAM topics in a way that engages their senses, keeps their hands busy, and fascinates them.

Here are some of the ways we introduce each STEAM subject to our students.

Science

Learning to love science begins with exploring the natural world, and this kind of curiosity is something infants and toddlers are already experts in. By guiding their curiosity, we help them learn about the way the world around them works.

As our Infant/Toddler Coordinator, Ms. McNamara (Ms. Mac), put it, “While we don’t refer to it as a science lesson, infants are introduced to early scientific principles in a number of ways, such as working with water, discovering how magnets work, and food tasting.”

Food tasting activities do more than just broaden a child’s palate and keep all their senses engaged. It’s also an opportunity to show them that even the food they eat has a story to tell. A child who is familiar with pineapple slices at snack time, for instance, will be amazed to see what a whole pineapple looks like and how it grows. Food tasting, then, is a great way to explore new tastes, textures, words, and relationships like parts to whole (as in the pineapple slice being part of the whole pineapple).

Examples

  • Physical Science: exploring the properties of objects and materials (such as the difference between warm and cold water, a soft and rough surface, spheres and squares, and various colors).
  • Natural Science: discovering the outdoor world and the living things that are part of it through nature walks and collecting items to observe in the classroom (like rocks, sand, and petals)
Technology

When we hear “technology,” most of us think of smartphones, computers, and complex machines. But technology really encompasses all the tools we create to make our lives easier. For infant and toddlers, that includes scissors, paper, crayons, play dough, and blocks. We show them how they can achieve various small tasks by making use of these and other tools.

Examples

  • Practical Life Activities: day-to-day practical activities like sweeping, wiping down surfaces, and putting away toys is an important part of the Montessori method. It also shows them how using the right technologies (even if they are very simple, like brooms, cubbies, and wash cloths) can help them achieve their goals.
Engineering

Engineering is all about overcoming challenges by identifying problems, designing solutions, and testing them out.

At its core, engineering is all about cause and effect, and we teach children about this concept through games and activities.

Examples

  • The In-and-Out Game: placing objects in a closed container and retrieving them helps children understand object permanence (objects that disappear from their sight do not disappear from existence).
  • Stacking Cups: this activity is a lot of fun, but it’s also self-correcting. Since the cups only fit if they’re in the right order, children will stack them improperly and then fix the order. As Ms. Mac says, “Adults don’t have to tell a child that the cups are not stacked correctly. The stacking cups tell them.”
Art

An art education is a great way to promote the creative and expansive thinking needed to come up with imaginative tasks and solutions.

We provide our students with ample opportunities to practice their artistic skills and express themselves. Out toddler rooms, for example, all have an art easel available for any child who wants to get colorful and channel their inner Van Gogh.

Examples

  • Process Art: laying out a sheet of paper on the table and letting the students get creative with finger paints, chalk, stickers, crayons, and glue.
  • Project Art: creating more deliberate art projects, like a dot art rainbow.
Mathematics

So many adults have less than fond memories of learning math. Often, that’s because they were introduced to complex and abstract concepts without first exploring them in a more intuitive way.

Instead of jumping off the deep end, our younger students learn about mathematical concepts through simple, concrete, hands-on activities that involve sorting, matching, recognizing and creating patterns, and differentiating by properties like size.

Examples

  • Sorting Activities: sorting through things requires comparing and contrasting items based on different criteria, like size or color. Not only is this process the basis of logical thought, it also involves choosing which criteria to sort by, which builds up decision-making skills and personal confidence.
  • Pink Tower: the Pink Tower is a classic Montessori activity that uses a set of cubes of different sizes. The child arranges the cubes sequentially and then stacks them to build a tower. By seeing the different dimensions and feeling the individual weight of each cube, the child can focus on the unique qualities each of the similar-looking cubes have.
Never Too Soon to Start

STEAM is the cornerstone of a quality education and it is the best preparation to face a rapidly changing and increasingly technological world. So, why put it off? Giving infants and toddlers a foundation in these important subjects is the best way to prepare them for the education they’ll be getting in the coming years.

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