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Teaching Young Kids STEAM concepts through Playful Learning Experiences

2017-08-23 by Carrie Aitkenhead

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In a technology driven culture, many educators are wondering how to incorporate STEAM concepts in the early childhood classroom to allow for students’ future preparedness for school and life. But, as countless researchers and child development specialists are now finding, one of the best ways to teach STEAM concepts to young children is through screen-free, play-based experiences. In this blog, we will look at some ideas for encouraging STEAM concepts through playful learning and unstructured play with the Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant and Play Set.

What is Playful Learning?

At Melissa & Doug, we believe that some of the most powerful learning happens through connecting with and learning from others, both kids and adults. Playful learning is a combination of child-led free play and adult guided learning. Adult guided learning or guided play is often helpful for introducing new ideas and concepts to young children. The role of the adult can vary from a playful companion to an observer/facilitator who asks questions to further the child’s thinking or to encourage the child to consider something previously unnoticed. This strategy of incorporating guided play allows kids to observe, notice, and form ideas on their own, rather than passively being directed by an adult. This strategy allows a child to develop self-confidence, social skills, resilience, and self-regulation.

What is Unstructured Play?

Our philosophy is that, although there are many ways to play and learn, free unstructured play is one of the most valuable sources of learning, and that children need space and freedom to plan ideas, to consider alternative ideas, to choose an idea to act on, to reflect on that choice, and to adapt their choices or ideas with each subsequent experience. These critical thinking and problem-solving skills are the skills our children need to deal with the onslaught of information and technology in this digital age. They will need to sort, categorize, recognize patterns and sequences, fix problems, be resilient, communicate their ideas, and collaborate with others. They will need to be provided with the tools, skills, and resources that were not provided to the generation before.

What is the difference between STEM and STEAM? What is STREAM?

As the technology in our culture progresses and the recognition of the importance of STEAM concepts in children’s lives increases, our terminology also seems to be evolving. Though I’m a believer in STEAM, this idea started out as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, before the A for Arts was included. Currently, there is a growing movement toward the term STREAM, incorporating an R for Robotics as its own independent category.

How do you introduce STEAM to young kids without using technology?

Play-based experiences can be used to teach kids higher order thinking skills, like planning, problem-solving, and applying old knowledge. In play, kids learn to adapt their thinking to meet their own needs to extend their play scenarios. These higher order thinking (HOT) skills are needed as a foundation for more complex STEAM concepts and must come first through experience. On the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)’s website, guest blogger Tamara Kaldor offers these five suggestions for developing HOT skills and early coding foundational skills without any technology: play with blocks (discovering patterns and sequences), read-aloud (looking for patterns, making predictions), tell stories (collaborating and sequencing), make art (practice design), and develop games (problem-solving).

“Sparks” for Serving up Play a Whole New Way

With the Star Diner Restaurant and Play Set, kids can enjoy learning about STEAM concepts while engaging in play. Whether they are pretending to run a diner, a restaurant, a family kitchen, a cooking show, or anything else their imaginations can cook up, your kids are sure to have their imaginations ignited learning about the following STEAM concepts. Though we are sharing some ideas for exploration, it’s important to always let your children take the lead and follow their interests and curiosity. Some of the deepest learning happens when we are not focusing on teaching our children, but joining them in play!

STEAM Concepts at Play

S for Science
Use items in the play set as inspiration for engaging the senses and making close observations to learn about the world. Kids can imagine and discuss the sounds they might hear, the smells they might smell, and what the food might taste like.
Kids can explore the science of matter by comparing solids, liquids, and gases, imagining steam coming off the coffeepot, liquid drinks, or the air bubbles in the milkshakes. They can explore concepts of temperature discussing what they know about hot and cold and the safety ideas that go along with temperature. Through this process, kids learn what it means to “cook” something.
For older children, the concept of reversible and irreversible change can be intriguing, seeing examples of irreversible change around them in the eggs, toast, and pancakes to name a few. They may also notice reversible change with ice, water, steam, and the melted butter on their food. There are countless possibilities for the discoveries your kids may come up with!

T for Technology

So many ideas for lessons on technology exist with this set. For a twist on social studies, you can discuss the idea of how we cooked before stoves, ovens, and microwaves were invented. How did people get drinks before soda machines were invented? Where else might we go to find food other than a diner or a restaurant?

E for Engineering

Discover engineering ideas with your child by following their lead to make form-and-function discoveries. How does this bell make that sound? Why do we use this item to pour coffee? Why do you think we use a fork to eat this? Does your child enjoy closely observing how pieces move? How the serving plate spins? You can further encourage them by asking open-ended questions or with “I wonder” statements. “I wonder how the disc spins like that”. Does your child love to take things apart and try to put them together? Perhaps you can assemble your Star Diner Restaurant together! Allowing your child to take part in your constructing or deconstructing adventures will further inspire their curiosities about how the world works.

A for Arts

Some of the tools and foods in this set are fun for discussing shapes, colors, and textures. This allows children to practice identifying colors and shapes, while expressing preferences and developing creativity and self-confidence all at once. Discussing shape, color, and texture can be used as a jumping off point for discovering some identifying characteristics of food and other substances. Having art supplies like crayons and paper available for making signs, menus, and other items will further inspire your little artist to keep creating during play!

M for Mathematics

Many children will incorporate ideas of mathematics into their play naturally. Ideas with counting, cost, and money often find their way into the scenarios of children’s imaginations or replay of real-life events. Kids can pretend to buy and sell, count items and money, write checks, give tips, give change, and even practice early dividing skills by cutting food. This experience-based learning sets the stage for more complex math concepts to come later.

Play creates many opportunities for self-discovery and finding passions. Perhaps the next breakthrough scientist is a 3-year-old living in your home mixing and serving you mud pies. Perhaps the next life-saving engineer is a 4-year-old in your home or classroom ringing a little bell trying to figure out what makes that sound. Perhaps the next great mathematician is in your home counting how many chairs you need at the family table for dinner. Perhaps there is a future graphic designer in your home drawing up a menu to serve you play food. To help our children become the next generation of innovators, we owe them these play experiences to develop those passions.

More ideas!

This exploration of the Melissa & Doug Star Diner Restaurant and Play Set was brought to us by Kami Evans from Kloud9tv.


Carrie Aitkenhead

Carrie Aitkenhead is a Connecticut State Certified Educator and member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children with fifteen years of experience in multiple areas of education including public school, private school, special education, and outdoor supplementary education. These experiences have shaped a core belief in the necessity of play. Through her work she hopes to promote the value of play and personal connection to support children to develop a sense of imagination, creative empowerment, and self-worth.

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