Should my 2-year-old learn to code? How do we give our toddlers and preschoolers concrete Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math (STEAM) experiences in a Montessori home?
Sugar and ice experiment here
Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) education is an applied, exploratory approach that has gained prominence in education circles. Rightfully so, for STEM permeates modern society, from our built environment to how we communicate, and modern society needs the innovations that STEM can bring about so as to progress. More recently, educators have realised that STEM should be integrated with Arts (hence, STEAM) to cultivate truly multi-disciplinary, out-of-the-box thinkers.
If this is so, then STEAM and Montessori are highly complementary, with their emphasis on the child determining what he learns through hands-on experimentation. Children in the first plane of development (0-6 years old) are sensorimotor explorers, meaning they learn best by moving and using all their senses. In The Absorbent Mind, Dr Maria Montessori herself called it “one of the greatest mistakes of our day… to think of movement as something apart from the higher functions. The child uses his movements to extend his understanding. Movement helps the development of mind.” (p125-6)
Movement is not separate from cognition but connected in a feedback loop; movement is cognition. Dr Montessori presses her point: “The more delicate the work, the more it needs the care and attention of an intelligent mind to guide it.” (134)
Thus, jumping straight into abstract algorithms and coding betrays a fundamental misconception about how first-plane children learn, which is through concrete, hands-on experiences. There are even coding toys like Cubetto which some Montessori schools are trialling. I do think Cubetto’s rather genius, but would personally hold off introducing it till age 5-6, nearing the second plane of development (6-12) when children develop a reasoning mind capable of abstraction. NAEYC’s take: “Coding’s… only meaningful when there are strong higher order thinking (HOT) foundational skills first put in place”.
How do we lay these foundations? We do what we have always been doing, and we let children be children.
Or to quote Teacher Tom in his insightful post on STEM and play, “When we allow children to explore their world through play, we see that they are already scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. We don’t create them, but rather allow the time and space in which those natural drives can flourish…”
A few examples of simple Montessori-inspired works you can do at home for each aspect of STEAM:
Science is about investigating phenomena, even something as simple as bubble-blowing. (Yes I saw this activity in a Children’s House!) Even if you don’t want your kids to do it in restaurants, they are just drawn to it somehow. It’s just such a fun way to experiment with surface tension and speed of air… without even realising it.
Emmy even experiments with abit of technology as she tries to poke her straw through the funnel to see if she can still blow bubbles. More on technology later.
Something similar? Making bubbles with detergent and a whisk.
Technology is more than just computers and abstraction. If we define technology in its rawest state, it’s really about using tools, both simple and complex, to improve people’s lives (credits to this site for the STEAM definitions in my post).
Here we have a $2 fake fossil (fauxssil?) excavation kit with two tools, a scalpel for chiseling away at the rock and a brush for dusting debris.
The kids worked with this plenty after our visit to Natural History Museum (10 tips for bringing kids under 4 to museums here).
Before moving on to complex tools like computers, let the children master simple tools first. Even a spoon is a tool. And practical life around the home abounds in opportunities for children to use tools: cleaning tools, kitchen tools, you name it.
Engineering can be boiled down to recognising problems and testing solutions.
More Reggio than Montessori, I set up a tinkering kit of loose parts and modelling clay. The top row has things that attach, like wooden pegs and wires, and bottom row has things to be attached, like glass beads and metal bells.
The children could build any structure they wanted with those items.
Just had a barbecue? Try building with leftover marshmallows and satay sticks (wooden skewers) instead.
Truthfully, all aspects of STEAM overlap, but art and math seem especially inseparable. If math is about recognising patterns of numbers and shapes, art is about creatively expressing one’s concept of those patterns.
Seeing the children spin around in circles, I introduced centrifugal force to them with a wooden top, as well as a version for them to DIY. I got these free paper spinner downloads from RedTedArt– there are pre-coloured templates but Dylan went to town coloring the blank template, then pasting it onto the cardboard circles. I threaded some fishing line through and we got to see color theory in action by spinning them.
Look no further than the sensorial materials, especially the color tablets, to witness color theory in a Montessori classroom. And try a liquid version of color theory here (dyeing our own yarn).
I have briefly listed some STEAM/ Montessori-inspired activities above, but STEAM goes beyond activities and is about cultivating a certain set of traits or learning attitudes. My teacher friend Zhaoyue recommended Next Gen Science Standards, which lists 8 scientific practices, or ways of thinking, in STEM subjects and subsequently STEM careers. It’s a longish read at 44pages but just browse the K-2 column and you will see that “asking questions build[ing] on prior experience” (4), “carrying out investigations” (8) and “using counting and numbers to describe patterns in the natural and designed worlds” (10), are things that our children probably already do at the park, during bathtime, in the kitchen…
Finally, wanting to hear if these STEAM skills and mindsets would serve those in STEAM careers well, I reached out to two successful women scientists about what it took to be a good scientist- and I was surprised that their answers highlighted character rather than skills or technical expertise.
Ms Kui Lin, PhD student finding an alternative treatment for lupus:
To be a scientist, one should have a curious mind, to always question what seems to be the norm, and be unafraid to break traditional rules/thoughts.
To be a GOOD one though, I feel integrity is the most important value. Research these days is quite dubious, and it is not uncommon for some to falsify data just to get published.
Other than being curious, and having integrity, the next important thing would be, having great communication skills. This is really important for the transfer of technologies, and sharing of ideas. I’ve seen quite a number of people in the field being socially awkward, and fail to communicate and work well with others. They can have great ideas, but the fear of others stealing your ideas really breaks the whole technology advancement.
Dr Chong, a scientist researching the immune system, had this to say:
To me a good scientist needs to have
1) a curious mind
2) the thirst for new knowledge
3) perseverance to finish their discovery
4) to not be discouraged from multiple failures
To encourage young children to have a scientific mindset, I think it’s important that children
1) question often what is taught to them
2) accept failure as part of learning and achieving success
3) think out of the box and ask themselves how can I improve what I have at the moment. For eg, how can I make a car move faster; is there any other method to approach the same solution that is better?
4) to love learning and creating new knowledge.
And I would add perseverance n patience. Being in this industry can be depressing as you are faced with failures 80% of the time. So I think it’s important that kids don’t give up!
Intellectual curiosity. Integrity. Resilience. Perseverance. And above all, a sense of awe and wonder.
No fancy toys needed to impart the above character traits. Children are learning from their environment and problem-solving daily, from the child who folds her pants repeatedly and persists in fitting them into a very full drawer, or the kid whose intellectual curiosity leads him to build a structure bigger than himself.
I’ll be following the child, and asking questions instead of providing the answers: “I wonder”… or “what do you think will happen next?”