The Do’s & Don’ts of Developmentally Appropriate STEM Play

Kiddie Academy
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From baking soda volcanoes to magnet car races, I’ve explored many STEM activities with children over the years. And the number one thing I’ve learned is that no child will enjoy an activity that they are not developmentally ready to tackle. At the end of the day, learning about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is all about the experience, not the end result. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I’m not a scientist, I don’t know where to start,” my advice is to start with the basics and play to your child’s developmental level.

Which STEM Activities Should I Avoid with My Kid?

Analyzing the “red flags” and “green flags” of a potential activity can help you determine what activities are appropriate for your child. So what are some red flags? Choking hazards (small items that fit inside a choke tube or toilet paper roll), chemicals, anything that can be inhaled and items that previously held dangerous contents that could confuse children as to what’s inside (like a spray bottle used for cleaning that you are repurposing for water) are just a few. If your child isn’t ready to handle these items without being in danger, you will know the activity is not appropriate for him or her.

Green flags include using recyclable household items for stacking and anything sensory. The messier, the better! If you’re mess-adverse or your child has a sensory disorder, you can always put the sand, paint, etc., in a clear, plastic bag for easy clean up and to serve as a barrier from your hands. Filling and dumping is an activity that is safe for all ages when you use age appropriate materials and is a basic building block of STEM knowledge.

Most importantly, remember you can always keep it simple when it comes to STEM play. For really little kids, STEM might not even look like how adults see it. But simple concepts like ice melting, mixing colors, stacking blocks, things lighting up and more–concepts that we take for granted–really form the base of STEM development.

Here Are Some Age-Appropriate STEM Activities to Incorporate into Playtime:

For 2-Year-Olds: Rolling on Ramps
Create ramps of various sizes and heights using a variety of materials. Then, have your children roll toys down the ramp to identify how objects move. Ask open-ended questions as your kids adjust their ramps and experiment with many toys, identifying why some objects roll down the ramp and some do not.

List of Materials: Flat materials to create ramps (such as large cardboard box scraps, plastic balance beams, poster board), propped materials to anchor the ramp and adjust the height (such as a chair or box), various toys which may or may not roll (such as cars, balls, plush toys).

For 3- to 5-Year-Olds: Rocket Launch
Help your child make a rocket to propel towards the sky! Use safety scissors to cut rocket shapes out of construction paper and adorn the paper rocket with stickers and markers. Tape the decorated rockets to one end of a coffee stir stick. Insert the stir stick into a drinking straw, and then blow on the end of the drinking straw. The rocket will launch! Explain that the force of the air from our breath is pushing the rocket upwards and that this is called propulsion.

List of Materials: Construction paper, child-safe scissors, crayons, tape, coffee stir sticks, drinking straws, markers, stickers

For School-Aged Kids: Crack the Code
Work with your kids to create a simple code for the English alphabet, inviting children to pretend the code was discovered by scientists exploring another planet. The code can consist of different combinations of shapes and colors to represent each letter, for example: A= one red triangle; B= a tall blue rectangle; C= one yellow circle, and so on. Post the code key on a large poster, and let your child decipher messages by matching the letters to the symbols. Use the alien code to write their names or spell secret messages for friends!

List of Materials: Poster board, construction paper, writing utensils, markers, crayons, stencils

For more STEM-based activities you can do at home, visit KiddieAcademy.com.

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Joy has over 20 years of experience in early childhood education. As Vice President of Education at Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care, she oversees all things curriculum, assessment, training and more. Joy earned a B.S. in Education from Salisbury University.

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