12 - 48 Months

How to Build Your Toddler’s STEM Skills at Home

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“The more that we can demonstrate to children that we are learners alongside them, the more children are actually going to persist with tasks later on.”

Dr. Sarah Lytle, Director of Outreach and Education, Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), University of Washington

Babies are born wondering. They have to piece together the world around them by gathering information, and they do this by observing, experimenting, and asking questions. In this way, children are like little scientists. If you have a toddler in the house, there’s no shortage of questions in your daily conversations. But is it a two-way street? How many questions are you asking your toddler?

Jessica Rolph welcomes Dr. Sarah Lytle to this episode. She is the Director of Outreach and Education at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington. She says parents have a critical role to play in promoting early learning and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). And this starts with asking questions of your toddler.

Key Takeaways:

[1:26] What does STEM learning look like for toddlers?

[2:42] Early math skills are a strong predictor of later school achievement. Does Sarah’s research support that finding? 

[3:49] How do you make math part of the every-day with your toddler?

[5:06] Guided play versus instructing.

[7:52] The power of narration for preverbal children, as well as for toddlers.

[9:06] Sarah gives examples of how parents can shift from a narrative style to an inquisitive one: Why do you suppose birds live in trees?

[11:50] Sarah explains the scientific concepts children are learning while playing with water. She models some questions parents can ask their children while they are splashing around.

[14:35] We tend to associate technology with screens, but what kind of technology learning is Sarah promoting at I-LABS that is screen-free? 

[15:55] What kind of tools can support spatial awareness?

[17:53] Sarah offers her advice for parents around block play and suggests how parents can really get engaged and help their children discover the joy of learning through blocks.

[19:09] Women continue to be under-represented in STEM fields. Sarah explains how to encourage little girls to have positive experiences in STEM from an early age.

[20:46] What did Sarah’s parents do to get her excited about science? 

[21:32] What other activities can we do with our toddlers that really bring math, science and engineering to the forefront? 

[23:49] Jessica summarizes the key takeaways from their conversation.

Mentioned in this episode:

Learn more about I-LABS.


What Does STEM for Toddlers Look Like?

Jessica: Hello Sarah.

Sarah: Hi, Jessica.

Jessica: It’s so great to have you here. I’m so excited to explore. What does STEM learning look like for toddlers? 

Sarah: Sure. So STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, is really a set of skills that hang together because they have a common way of thinking, exploring and creating for kids. So STEM skills use evidence to gain knowledge. You’re creating new things. You’re solving problems, and toddlers are using STEM skills constantly. If you think about what the job of toddlerhood is, it’s really to make sense of the world around them, and that very fundamentally involves STEM skills. 

So if you think about children as little scientists, they’re performing these experiments over and over again to see what happens and to see what rules govern the world that’s around them. If you think about a child learning to walk, for example, they’re constantly learning about physics. They might have fallen and then gotten back up and tried to walk again, figured out that balancing on one leg is harder than standing up on two legs. 

Children are dropping toys constantly. If you’re a parent who’s ever had the endless dropping of the sippy cup, that is physics at its fundamental level, and that’s part of STEM.

Math for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Jessica: And then I read that early math skills are the strongest predictor of later school achievement. Does your research support that finding? 

Sarah: Yes. It’s so interesting, isn’t it? So what we see is that preschoolers’ math skills predict both third-grade reading and third-grade math scores. And if you think about what that compares to, in contrast, if you look at a preschooler’s early reading skills, that’s only predictive of later reading skills. Not to say that reading is not important. It certainly is, but there’s something about these early math skills that seem to harness some general skills that help children learn across domains. 

And so math is really integral. And if you think about why that is, math and a lot of these STEM skills really get you to this idea of asking questions and being curious and learning about the world. And because you can incorporate math into anything, including reading, which I hope we’ll talk about later. It really allows you to build skills not only in math, but in a wide range of domains. And so it’s one of those reasons that helping children with those early math skills is just so very important.

STEM Activities and Playtime for Toddlers

Jessica: Make this come alive for me if I’m a parent of a toddler. How do I really do this in my home? How do I make math part of every day? 

Sarah: We like to think of math as being everywhere. It is absolutely incorporated into anything that a child is doing, particularly in these early years. If you think about reading, for example, there are certainly certain books that focus on math and that’s great, but you don’t need a math book to talk about math with books. 

On any page of a book, you can count the number of characters. You can talk about comparisons. Which character is taller than another character? That’s math skills. You can talk about the number of categories. If you’re reading a book that highlights a grocery store, how many red apples are there and how many green apples are there? Categories are math. 

So you really can start to integrate this kind of language in any of those interactions you have with a child. It could be reading, but it could be bath time. It could be while you’re preparing dinner. Any of those interactions can really, with your language as a parent or caregiver, can really become rich math interactions.

Guided vs. Free Play for Kids

Jessica: So I read that in one study that children learn more about shapes when an adult guided their play rather than instructing them or letting children play on their own. Can you tell me about what this actually looks like, the guided play versus instructing? And then can you tell me more about what the study found? 

Sarah: Absolutely, and this really goes back to the heart of what we talked about before, this idea that children are explorers and they really need to be able to be that active explorer in their world. 

And so if you think about some of this research that you’re referring to, they looked at the difference between this direct instruction versus guided play, and also looked at some free play for children. And what direct instruction is really you can think of the classic school classroom atmosphere where there’s an expert, and they’re talking at you. “This is the way to do it. And there’s only one way to do it, and this is how you’re gonna do it.” And perhaps not a big surprise, children don’t actually learn all that well from that method of instruction, particularly in those early years. 

When learning really comes alive for children is in this guided play and to a certain extent in the free play situations, though guided play is oftentimes helpful for learning new concepts and expanding children’s repertoire.

And so guided play is a situation where a parent is gonna scaffold, provide that support for a child when they’re engaged in a particular activity. And so with block play, for example, you might talk, “Show me which one is longer?” Or, “What do you think would happen when… ” You’re asking lots of these open-ended questions for children that really push them to maybe think about things differently. 

If the children’s natural inclination with blocks is to always build the tower. The tower is great, but let’s think about what else we can build. If we wanted to build a house, how do you think we would build a house? If you wanted to build a bridge, how would we build a bridge? How do we get the middle of the bridge to stay up? How do we support it? Lots of those kinds of questions that really push children to expand their repertoire of knowledge and think about things in new and different ways.

And the study that you’re talking about did this with some shape learning and thinking about how kids might start to learn the properties of different shapes. And it turns out that this kind of guided play was most effective for children learning that, “Hey, a triangle has three points and three sides that are all connected.” And once they’ve engaged in this kind of guided play with questions and the ability to explore and tinker with it for themselves, kids are much more able to understand that a triangle doesn’t have to be that classic equilateral triangle with the point pointing north. 

This kind of guided play, when adults and caregivers can really start to push children to think about things in different ways, ask those open-ended questions, that seems to be really useful for children’s learning.

Narration, Language Development and Questions

Jessica: Yeah, I remember when my children were just becoming more verbal, I’ve realized that I was doing so much narration, but also instruction. And I wasn’t doing as much of this question-asking. How do you have this shift, mindset shift. Instead of pointing out, “Oh, look at that building over there. The building is red.” What else could I say at that moment? 

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I will say that narration is very good and narration has a time and a place, particularly for children who are pre-verbal and not really speaking a whole lot yet. 

And narration is even good in the toddler and preschool years, particularly if you’re narrating what a child is doing. So if a child is engaged in something and they’re really engrossed in whatever they’re playing with, narrating it can give language to what they’re doing, like, “Oh, I see that you’ve stacked these in order of biggest to smallest,” or, “Oh, you’ve put the red blocks over here and the blue blocks over here.” But certainly as we think about the kinds of questions that we can ask children, it’s a lot of the who, what, where, when, why, kinds of questions.

And so if you’re out on a walk in the world, oh, maybe, “That’s a bird over there. What color is the bird? Where do you think we might see another bird? Why do you think we oftentimes see birds in trees? Do you think it might be because they live there? Where else have we seen birds?” 

Start to connect it and make those connections. Perhaps you’ve read a book recently that had a bird in it. Think about the comparisons of the bird in the book and the bird that you saw on your walk out in the world. Again, helping a child understand that a bird can exist in a book and it can exist in the real world. And so as you’re starting to ask those questions and, “Tell me more, and what do you think? And why do you think that might be?” I think one of the things that’s most challenging for us as adults is to get out of this space of thinking that we need to be experts about things, because that’s certainly not true.

And in fact, the more that we can demonstrate to children that we are learners alongside them, the more children are actually gonna persist with tasks later on. Once they understand that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to not know the answer to everything, that gives children confidence, in fact, to explore and to make their own mistakes and to learn from them.

That is a fundamental shift for adults who oftentimes like, “We are that teacher. We have been on the Earth for many, many decades, and how can we show children all the things that we know?” And that’s great, but perhaps better to think about being a curious learner alongside children.

Jessica: I love that because I think for me, oftentimes I do put myself in the sort of, like, “I’m the professor. You’re my student.” And I think that what I realized, and I’m re-realizing in talking to you, is these open-ended questions. You might have an agenda when you say, “Why do you think birds are often in trees?” 

You might have an agenda as to what you think the answer is, but really having that open mind and being in that space to explore how they answer that question and making that valid for them and adding another hypothesis creates the sort of inquiry in the scientific mind so much more than, “What color is the bird?” “Blue.” “No, it’s red.” It’s like the type of questions and how you ask them, too. There’s a nuance to it, and I love hearing you explain that.

Sarah: Absolutely, and I would just add, as you suggest that, ask questions that you legitimately don’t know the answers to. And that’s a great way to, “Well, I wonder if… ” And have those conversations, and it’s okay to not land on the answer. I think that sometimes with the Internet at our fingertips, we’re so accustomed to landing on a particular answer at the end of a conversation. But that certainly doesn’t have to happen and, in fact, kids learn from it when it doesn’t happen, being comfortable in that uncertain state. And so ask the questions that you don’t know the answers to, and wonder along with your child about what that might be or why it might be.

How Questions Promote STEM Skill Development

Jessica: And so let’s get grounded in something like water play, something so simple. And based on everything we’re talking about, they’re not just playing, but they’re learning some key scientific skills. Can you bring to life what are these skills and what are some questions parents can ask when they see their children splashing around? 

Sarah: Sure, I love water play. I think you can do so many things with water. You can paint with water. You can have water in a bucket and splash around in it. And as children are exploring water, they’re learning the properties of water. How does water behave when you drop something in it?

If you’re a parent or caregiver, you might wonder along with your child to say, “If we drop this rock in, do you think it’s gonna be a bigger splash or a smaller splash than the pebble that we dropped in?” Or “What do you think will happen if we put the apple in the water?” 

One of the best ways or I think a classic example of water play is playing the sink-or-float game, so collecting a bunch of things and having a bucket full of water and predicting, “Which of these things are going to sink? Which are going to float? How do you know? Why do you think that? Why did the sponge float and the rock sink to the bottom?” Think about that theory development. This is all math, science, STEM, all of that wrapped up together as children are basically doing the scientific method, as they’re playing with water.

And you can certainly help that as a parent or caregiver by, again, modeling curiosity, asking those open-ended questions. “What do you think will happen? What did you do? What happens there? Tell me, report on what you found. Or how do you think this works?” 

I love introducing a variety of really open-ended tools or toys that you can use in water. If you think about cups, you can think about pouring water back and forth. How many cups, cupfuls of water, is it gonna take to fill this other bucket?” Predict, then do it and see how close you got, and wonder and marvel at how close you were or how far away you were, and that’s okay. The point is going through that routine and having that experience.

Jessica: Yeah, it’s so fun. Pouring is just amazing to see how their brains work to figure out, “When am I over-pouring?” So we have some different-sized containers at Lovevery… And it’s really teaching children to control and understand and judge and predict, “When is this gonna spill over?” 

Yeah, I remember having this moment with my baby where I was really trying to teach the older baby, young toddler, about the difference between heavy and light. I’ve really craved having an example, because a rock is heavy and a feather is light, but they’re two totally different things. And so we have these two balls at Lovevery that are identical, and one of them is really heavy, the other is light. And then one of them sinks in the bath, the other floats. 

And I love hearing these questions that we could ask to really enrich that learning as opposed to just, “Oh, look. The heavy ball is sinking.” There’s all these ways to ask why. And “What else do you think would sink? And why do you think it sinks.” 

So, so fun to bring that kind of science at home. What about technology? We tend to associate technology with screens, but what kind of technology learning are you promoting at iLabs that is screen-free? 

Screen-free Technology for Toddlers and STEM Learning

Sarah: Sure. Technology certainly incorporates cellphones and computers and all of that. But it’s not just that. Technology also encompasses other man-made objects that help us accomplish things in the world, and so you can think about things like wheels or levers, scissors or even spoons. 

Spoons are an interesting one, but they’re an invention that humans created to help get liquidy foods into our mouth. And so it’s a kind of technology. When children are playing with these tools, oftentimes what we see with technology is that children are really exploring cause and effect. So if I do something, what effect is that going to have on the world? And you might think about the ways, the very creative ways, that children invent and use to get things that are potentially out of their reach. 

They might use a stick to grab that ball and start it rolling toward them so that they can grab it, or they might use scissors and they cut that piece of construction paper and they see that they had an effect on the world.

And that’s a really important piece of learning in those early years this cause-and-effect relationship, and tools are oftentimes the way that kids get to that.

Jessica: And when we think about tools, there’s also what kind of tools can support spatial awareness? On the iLabs site, a study was referenced that found that children whose parents exposed them to more spatial language like “above,” “below,” “inside,” “outside” performed better on a spatial awareness test. And so we have a hammer set in our two-year-old play kits, for example. And there’s some cards that a child can prop up and then try and match the two-dimensional world to the three-dimensional one that they’re hammering these little pegs into a set. 

How is a hammer set actually helping them explore concepts, spatial awareness concepts with their child? And how else can we support that kind of spatial understanding and learning? 

How Tools Help Kids Learn Spacial Awareness

Sarah: Spatial awareness is such an important part of this early STEM learning. You can think about spatial awareness as been everything from what fits inside something else to as an adult, “Where did I park my car in the parking lot?” Having that sense of how to navigate back to your car, a very important life skill. But for children, things like a hammer set, hammers allow you to put something into something else, and there’s a little bit of, “Does it fit?” 

And as we start to think about the language that surrounds these kinds of interactions, spatial language is things like “in” and “out,” “on top of,” “beside,” things that describe those spatial relationships between two or more objects. And so as parents and caregivers, we can start to really do some narration about this, but also start to ask questions.

“If you want to build that block tower, where does this next block need to go? Does it need to go beside the other block? Does it need to go on top of the other block?”

Jessica: Yeah, and one of the things that we researched and understood at Lovevery in all our parent testing is we discovered that the parents didn’t have the… They expected too much of their children’s block play too early, if you will. They kind of imagine their two-year-old building like elaborate castles or even the three-year-olds, and when they’re really focusing on stacking six blocks on top of each other at that age, for example. 

So what kind of advice do you have for parents around block play and how parents can really get engaged and help their children to discover the joy and the learning through blocks?

How Parents Can Engage in Play

Sarah: Yeah, I think everybody sometimes needs a little bit of inspiration. And sometimes you’re inspired to build that castle out of blocks, and sometimes you’re not. And one thing that I love to think about across domains, whether it’s blocks or books and walks out in the park, is really kind of connecting experiences for kids. And so it may be that you’re gonna read a book and in the book the character visits a doctor’s office. 

Perhaps, then after you read the book with your child, you’re gonna get out the blocks and say, “Let’s build the doctor’s office,” or another aspect of the book that the child really started to connect to. And in this way, you can start to follow the child’s lead, think about what they’re really interested in. But then you’re connecting those experiences over time, which we know is really good for reinforcing a lot of those core concepts with kids.

Jessica: I love that. I’m so inspired to now play with blocks in a different way with my five year old. I think that that will actually get her more engaged ’cause I do find it’s tricky. I’m like, “I want her to play with blocks. I want her to understand structure and support and all these things.” But sometimes it’s hard to get her activated. 

Speaking of girls and women, women continue to be up under-represented in the STEM fields. And so it’s particularly important for little girls to get positive experiences in STEM from an early age. What do you recommend? 

Exposing Girls to STEM Education

Sarah: Well, a couple of things are really coming out of our research. I think one, we know that girls need to see representation, and as parents and caregivers, we can start pointing that out. When we go to the zoo, for example, and we see zoo workers who are women, we can talk about how they are scientists. That’s what they are doing at the zoo. 

If you have a female doctor, talk about how that doctor is a scientist and doing some really important work. And so I think part of it is sort of making those representations, those moments of representation very obvious and explicit. 

The other thing to do is, I think as adults we oftentimes, for whatever reason, think that we have permission to say things like, “Oh, I’m not really good at math.” But it’s sort of an interesting thing because it’s not as if we would ever say, “Oh, I’m not really good at reading.” It’s somehow so socially unacceptable to say we’re not good at reading, but it is acceptable to say we’re not good at math. And we can start to tweak our own language and what we say around our children.

Jessica: And one thing that helped me because I have to say I did fall prey to the stereotype of not enjoying math, but the word “yet.” So with my children if I find that my older children are practicing their times tables and they’re in the 12s [chuckle] or in the 14s or later we’ll be doing differential equations or whatever, I can always say, “Well, I’m not really good at that yet. Yet, still working on it.” 

 So what did your parents do to get you excited about science? 

Sarah: Yeah, I love the addition of “yet,” I think that’s so important. And as we know, growth mindset is all the rage, this idea that you can improve your own abilities in a particular area. So I love that addition. And I think in my household when we were growing up, we did a lot of curiosity and exploration of the world, and I think that was really important. I will say that I think the thing that really got me into math and science was cooking and baking. 

I come from a long line of cookers, of cooks and bakers. And we were forever doubling recipes or having recipes and thinking about what happens when you add the baking soda and that’s oftentimes an explosion of sorts. But I think that’s really what got me into math.

Engineering, Math and Science Activities for Preschoolers and Toddlers

Jessica: I love that you brought up baking. What other activities can we do with our toddlers that really bring math and science and engineering to the forefront? 

Sarah: I think one of the best things about STEM is that it really does happen all day, every day. There is one study that I love to cite and reference because it finds that preschool-aged children explore or use math-related concepts about half of the time when they’re engaged in free play. And what that tells me is that kids are already engaging in a ton of math and other STEM activities. And so the challenge for us as caregivers and parents is not so much to create new opportunities for STEM learning, it’s to recognize the opportunities that are already presenting themselves.

When you think about children who are perhaps dressed up in princess costumes playing with a castle, but all of a sudden they start talking about, “Well, this doll has to be the daddy because he’s taller or he’s bigger.” That’s math in complete princess costume, but that’s math. And so I think the more we can start to recognize some of those opportunities that are already present and how some of these concepts can fit into everyday opportunities like we talked about baking and cooking, a great time for STEM.

I like to think about folding laundry. If you can get your child to help you fold laundry, when you put them in charge of socks, as they’re pairing socks, that’s category building and that’s math.

We talked about water play. That’s bath time. So it’s not so much about creating these new or different opportunities for math and other STEM skills, it’s really thinking about infusing that kind of language, infusing that curiosity and exploration and that almost scientific method, those who, what, why, when, how questions into those everyday activities that we’re already doing.

And of course, I think that’s always a nice thing for parents to hear as we are constantly overscheduled and very, very busy, but… So it’s not so much this idea that you need the new thing, the new activity, just think about how you can infuse this into what you’re already doing.

Jessica: I love that, Sarah. You’ve been so helpful to us today. Thank you so much for being with us.

Sarah: Well, thank you.

3 Episode Takeaways for Parents

What luck! STEM is everywhere. And our toddlers are naturally drawn to it.

Use Guided Play and Narration:

STEM learning really comes alive during guided play. You can support that learning by asking questions. Infuse those why and how questions into everyday activities. “I wonder?” and “what if?” are also good ones! “How can we get this bridge to stay up?” “What if we add a block here?” It helps children to think about things in new and different ways.

Include Math When Reading

While reading with your child, don’t forget to incorporate math! Count the pages, number of objects, or talk about comparisons. Which character is taller than the other? Preschoolers’ math skills predict both third-grade reading and math scores. 

Share What You Learn:

Humans are social beings — we reinforce our learning by sharing it. When toddlers talk about what they see around them and interacting with you, they are making important brain connections. On a walk, ask your child: “Where do you suppose those birds are going? Where else have we seen birds?” As they explore water, ask: “If we drop this rock in the water, will it make a bigger or smaller splash than the pebble?”

Don’t feel like you need to be an expert — it’s OK not to have the answer. The more you can demonstrate that you are learning alongside them, the more you will foster curiosity in your child. 

You can find more STEM activities on the Lovevery blog.


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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, Math, Science, Water Play, Blocks, STEM, Child Development, Playtime & Activities

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