I’m an artist and my husband is an English professor. Our four-year-old daughter is read to, she paints and dances, and she loves any opportunity to put on a show. But I recently started to get the nagging feeling that everything we exposed our child to leaned toward the arts and humanities. I excelled in those disciplines in school, but in some ways that made my academic career more difficult, not less: I was placed in programs that challenged me across the board, which meant feeling overwhelmed (and occasionally downright stupid) when it came to math and science.
So how can I ensure that my own child doesn’t shut down when she’s taught algebra and chemistry? And, equally importantly, how can I teach her skills that I have struggled with (and disliked) myself? The best long-term plan for both of us is to start now, by making the STEM disciplines as fun and engaging as any art project or game. It’s possible – even easy – to make that happen without spending a dollar (though you will lose a few dimes in the process; more on that later.)
Here’s what’s working in our house, no fancy robotics classes required (at least, not yet):
1 | Use the toys you already have as teaching tools
If you’re like us, you’ve got a few old books and toys collecting dust that could be put to better use. The bonus here is that our association with coloring books, stickers, and board games is already positive. To my daughter this is clearly not work, it’s play.
Coloring books often depict objects (or Sesame Street Muppets, or My Little Ponies) in pairs or groups – talking about how many apples and oranges there are may seem simple, but it’s an introduction to advanced mathematical concepts. Try assigning each object a different color (now’s their chance for fun with crayons) and adding up all the colors individually, then collectively.
A pack of dinosaur stickers can be grouped into carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores. Doc McStuffins stickers can be divided into mammals (Doc, Hallie, and Lambie), birds (the Professor), and miscellaneous make-believe (Stuffy and Chilly – I mean, what is a snowman really?). There’s a museum of natural history element to this, but it also introduces sets, one part of math I actually did enjoy.
Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, even a deck of playing cards – if your child isn’t old enough to play board games without cheating, there are still countless ways to retrofit the games to their age group while introducing math concepts. Count how many pink squares there are. See how many turns it would take to get to the end of the board if you landed on every other space. If we combined all the diamonds on this card and all the hearts on that card, how many hearts and diamonds would we have all together?
2 | Be generous with your pocket change
Let your preschoolers have all of it (okay fine: you can keep the quarters for parking meters or laundry). It may not seem like much, but it adds up over time. Every few months, work with them to dump out their piggy banks and roll their coins. (Your bank will give you the paper rolls for free – no need to buy them at the drugstore.) Counting, sorting, and rolling the money will be especially interesting when they know it’s theirs.
Then, talk about plans for the money. This is a chance to help instill some values while you’re working out percentages. Do you believe in donating to charity, or to a religious organization? Do you think saving is more or less valuable than spending?
Here’s the tough part: let them decide what to do with their money. After all, you didn’t notice it was missing. Feeling autonomy and power over their finances will help them appreciate money – and ideally, the math skills they used to understand it.
3 | Pull out your tape measure
You’ve probably got one – check your sewing kit or toolbox. Extra points if it’s retractable, because how fun is that? Depending on their ages, your children may not be ready to do the measuring on their own, but working together you can measure and record all sorts of items in your house. (Pro tip: this is a good project to start when you want to hang up curtains or move furniture; your child becomes the free labor as well as the impetus to do some rearranging.) You can note the dimensions of the bedrooms in your house and compare that to your own heights. How much room do we take up?
This is one of those activities that can go on long after you head to the kitchen to make dinner – my daughter is too little to understand the details, but she’ll “measure” and compare things til bedtime.
4 | Don’t forget about snack time
You can talk about the origins of each snack food – almonds grow on trees, grapes grow on vines, cheese comes from cows’ milk. You can slice fruit into pieces and watch as the pieces get smaller – how many will I have if I cut this half into half again? You can discuss how all types of fruit have seeds and show them the differences in size. Heck, why not plant one of those seeds in a little pot of dirt and put it on the windowsill? We’ve never successfully grown a watermelon in a mason jar but it’s not for lack of trying.
A kitchen garden is an excellent way to start to instill an understanding of the natural world, even if you live in a cold climate or a small space.
5 | Repurpose your recycling
Before I throw anything away, I always look at it twice – can I use this in a new way to delight my daughter? These days, I go beyond pure delight to try and include engineering and tech in my dumpster diving. Fear not: there is still room to include our beloved dolls, toys, and imaginative play.
Toilet paper and paper towel rolls make awesome tunnels and garages for matchbox cars. Give a few to your child to experiment with, and make one yourself that’s slightly more advanced. My goal invariably is to use a combination of gravity and 45-degree angles to make the cars go super fast. (I may be the kid in this relationship.)
Amazon boxes are ideal for building dollhouses. If you don’t have an online shopping habit, see if you’ve got a neighbor that might. These boxes almost inevitably get tossed without a second use, but they’re in great condition and can be cut, stacked, and taped in interesting ways to house anything from an Iron Man action figure to an American Girl doll. Your kids will feel they are working towards a goal (an all cardboard Barbie Dream House!), but it’s the process that gets their brains thinking about engineering in an exciting way.
6 | Go outside whenever you can.
A nature walk – whether on the beach, in your backyard, or in a city park – is an opportunity to learn about what sorts of objects fall from which sorts of trees, which birds molt the biggest feathers, and what species leaves behind the most detritus. (Hint: it’s probably us. Luckily, archaeology and anthropology count too.)
If the information is not coming naturally to you, enlist a science-y friend or relative (my sister-in-law is a biologist, thank goodness) or look to Google to help fill in the gaps when you get home.
7 | Invest in toys that allow them to build
If you are going to spend a little money, try to buy things they can use in lots of ways. TinkerToys, Legos, Lincoln Logs – the toys we grew up with (and in some cases, our parents and grandparents too) allowed for creativity while helping children experiment with engineering. I tend to lean towards the simple ones, because there are more opportunities for creative exploration.
Magnatiles can be arranged in almost infinite ways, for example, but a set of Mega Bloks that is meant to build a train wash for Thomas the Tank Engine – well, that’s pretty much all it can build.
Then again, if it’ll get your kid building: go for it. You can always expand out from there.
8 | Let them see you using STEM concepts in daily life
Remember that pocket change? The reason I have it is that I use cash for small purchases. It’s a habit that helps me teach my daughter about adding and subtracting. When we bake, we talk about why certain ingredients bubble, or why cakes rise in the oven. When we drive over a bridge, my husband and I talk to her about the engineering that went into it. And the car we’re in, or the train we’re on, or the airplane overhead – how does that thing move, anyway? And are there really computers inside?
One conversation leads to another, and if you’re willing to say, “I don’t know, but let me find out,” you’ll find you learn something too. Suddenly it’s evening, and your little ones are exhausted from all that brain-fun they’ve been having. An early bedtime for them means extra Netflix for you. Because hey, even scientists need downtime.