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Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood


STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is important in an ever-evolving world, and it provides children and young people with essential lifelong skills. It empowers them to be thinkers, ask vital questions, and encourage discussions. The subjects in STEM are also a part of our everyday lives and can positively impact our economy and benefit our society (Department for Education). Therefore, STEM education is more important and relevant than ever.

While STEM is traditionally for students in secondary schools and above, it is becoming more widely recognised as essential in early childhood and early years learning. Children today are growing up in a world that is rapidly changing economically, socially, environmentally, technologically and politically. Learning STEM subjects can help them succeed in their future endeavours and positively contribute to modern society.

This blog post will give readers insights into why STEM learning is important in the early years and its concepts and impacts. It will cover strategies to promote these subjects in early childhood.

Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood

The Importance of Early STEM Education

From birth to eight years old is the most crucial period of human development (UNICEF). Children quickly grow physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially and will develop essential knowledge and skills. During this period, what children learn will significantly influence their development and set the foundation for their success in education and overall life (OFSTED).

Young children naturally explore the world around them, interact with their environment and are interested in many things, whether splashing in puddles, picking up worms, creating mud pies, building structures or playing with toys. They will ask questions, figure out how things function and have a natural curiosity. Therefore, nurturing their real-world experiences and play can form part of their STEM education.

STEM education is an interdisciplinary approach incorporating four subjects, i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Current research also suggests including a fifth subject, art, i.e. STEAM (Perales, F. J. & Aróstegui, J. L. 2021). Introducing STEM concepts in early childhood is crucial for a child’s development for the following reasons:

  • It helps them better understand the modern world around them, which can help build confidence and self-esteem and enable them to thrive.
  • It establishes vital lifelong skills, such as critical thinking, language, communication, collaboration and problem-solving.
  • It provides children with a robust foundation to help them prepare for learning these subjects in higher education (Leung, W. 2023).
  • It can help increase their chances of ongoing academic success if they have knowledge of these subjects from early on.
  • It helps children to develop new ways of learning, enhances literacy and numeracy, and promotes creativity and curiosity.
  • It provides a fun and engaging way for early years children to learn these subjects so they develop an interest in them later on.

Early childhood experience with STEM is an emerging field of research (Johnston et al. (2022). However, Campbell et al. (2018) observed STEM practices in the early years and conducted surveys and interviews. They found that children’s self-belief enhanced their ability to learn STEM and triggered an appreciation for it and its value in everyday life.

Much of the research highlighting the importance of STEM is on pupils in secondary school and students at college and university. However, most of the findings found that it has many positive impacts, and there has been a growth in students opting to take STEM subjects (Department for Education). Therefore, STEM education is also likely to be important in early childhood, as it is when children are the most impressionable, and it can shape the rest of their lives (University of Bolton).

Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood

STEM Concepts for Early Learners

The best way to look at STEM is that it is not new. These four subject areas are already incorporated in some way in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Statutory Framework in learning and development requirements, e.g. understanding the world and mathematics. It is just knowing how to incorporate STEM concepts into the curriculum and child-centred play-based pedagogy.

STEM education can start at any age, and it is never too early for children to learn these vital concepts. However, they must be age-appropriate and meet children’s needs. For example, for children aged 3-8, STEM should be incorporated into play to make it engaging and fun, and adults should provide different types of activities, resources and toys to encourage participation. Young children should be able to use their imaginations, be creative and collaborate while learning.

STEM does not require expensive resources or specific training. Nor does it need to occur at a particular time, day or setting. In fact, STEM concepts can be integrated into everyday experiences, as these subject areas form a part of our daily lives. Whether it is adding up the cost of items when shopping, comparing foods when choosing groceries, measuring ingredients when cooking, discovering nature on a walk, using technology or growing plants from seeds, it all counts.

To introduce STEM successfully, parents, caregivers and educators should understand the philosophy behind the STEM approach and know how to nurture creativity and exploration in the children they are responsible for.

Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood

Strategies to Promote STEM Learning

Caregivers and educators should promote STEM learning as early as possible, as it is essential for young children’s development. STEM activities can consist of planned and unplanned activities and a mixture of free and adult-led play. Some practical tips and techniques caregivers and educators can adopt to promote STEM learning are as follows:

  • Provide young children with STEM toys to combine fun with learning. Toys may include science kits, building sets, magnetic tiles, number sets, etc. There is a cost, but some second-hand toys may be available, e.g. from charity shops.
  • Incorporate STEM learning into everyday activities, e.g. teaching young children about maths when measuring ingredients for baking or cooking, or spotting, identifying and counting wildlife on a walk for science.
  • Ask young children open-ended questions to get them to observe, think and reflect on what is going on. For example, if a child is building a tower with building blocks, a good question may be, “What do you think you will need to keep it from falling over?”.
  • Use free resources and materials, e.g. toilet roll tubes, cardboard boxes, lollipop sticks and plastic bottles, to build structures and teach young children about engineering and how things work. STEM Learning have some ideas here.
  • Run safe experiments to teach young children about science. Various kits are available to purchase or use simple ingredients and items for demonstration, such as coins, bicarbonate of soda, vinegar, etc. Crafts on Sea has some great ideas for science experiments on their website.
  • Use printable resources and worksheets with various activities to teach young children about STEM. Learning resources have free downloadable activity sheets here.
  • Use online interactive games and quizzes to teach young children about science, technology, engineering and maths theory, e.g. BBC Bitesize.
  • Use STEM storybooks and activity books to support learning, e.g. STEM Learning.
  • Allow young children to have time to engage in their own play with minimal adult interference, but provide appropriate resources and an environment for them to have plenty of opportunities indoors and outdoors. They will still be learning while playing.

A STEM-friendly environment should foster investigation, curiosity and creativity. It should allow for STEM learning to happen anywhere and at any time. It does not mean buying expensive equipment or materials; many free and budget STEM activities and online resources are available. Young children will naturally explore and investigate the world around them, which can also provide STEM opportunities.

Fostering a STEM-friendly environment at home and in educational settings can have many benefits. It can teach young children valuable skills and provide the tools they need to succeed. It can also make it a fun way to learn and boost their cognitive development, which can help them as they progress in their education.

Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood

The Role of Play in STEM Education

Play England’s Charter for Children’s Play describes play as:

“What children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons.”

Play is so important that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognises it as a right of every child. The reason is that children have an innate drive to play, so it is crucial for the enjoyment of early childhood. It has many benefits, as it stimulates brain development, fosters creativity, helps develop essential skills and allows children to make sense of the world around them. It also builds a strong foundation for future learning.

Play-based learning (PBL) is where children learn while playing. It can be child-led, where children direct their own play while an adult observes but not intervenes, or adult-led, where adults, such as parents or teachers, guide play. They select activities and materials to focus on specific areas and reinforce key concepts.

PBL combines free play with specific learning outcomes for early years children. Therefore, it is important in STEM education, as it provides many learning opportunities for them to explore, create, discover, experiment and imagine in playful and fun ways. Teaching STEM through PBL helps keep young children engaged and motivated to learn (Bilton & Watts, 2018), enhancing their literacy, communication, numeracy, problem-solving, social and creativity skills.

Some examples of STEM-related toys that encourage exploration and problem-solving are as follows (these are not endorsed or tested by us, but just some suggestions):

  • Snap Circuits – teaches basic engineering, electronics and circuitry. The beginners set is 5+ and the plus set 8+. It was voted one of the best overall STEM toys on Mumsnet.
  • Horrible science kits – have different experiments and games for children 6+ and 8+ to explore scientific concepts.
  • Microscopes – can help children discover the world around them, e.g. GeoSafari Jr. My First Microscope 3+. They can explore natural materials, such as leaves, insects, pebbles, etc. There are also bug viewers/magnifiers, which are cheaper.
  • Magnetic tiles – these enable children to learn to build stable structures using various coloured magnetic tiles in various shapes and sizes, e.g. Magna-Tiles 3+.
  • Balancing toys – these are great for learning maths, especially counting. It requires children to balance numbers with toys on a scale, e.g. frog balance toy 3+.
  • Educational games – use numerous games for STEM learning, e.g. board games, jigsaws (big pieces), card games, such as snap, etc.

Some toys are expensive, but plenty of cheaper and second-hand ones are available. There are also STEM games for those on a budget, for example (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Free online games from BBC Bitesize (maths games) and WowScience (science games).
  • Hunting for items indoors or outdoors, counting them, e.g. egg hunts, and seeing who has the most.
  • Filling jugs with sand or water and putting them into buckets and tubs. Children could measure the right amounts to avoid overfilling.
  • Making paper planes to teach children about engineering and science and see whose plane goes the farthest.
  • Plant seeds to teach children about growing, i.e. grow sunflowers and then measure them to see which has grown the tallest.
  • Play traditional games, such as I Spy, which requires children to solve clues and guess objects.
  • Drawing and painting specific objects and labelling parts to understand how things work.

Parents, caregivers and educators should choose STEM toys and games based on a child’s interests and age and what they will find fun and captivating. They are unlikely to be motivated to learn if they find something boring. Observing and asking them questions is the best way to identify their interests. If possible, provide a selection of different toys and games to keep them engaged. There are many to choose from, so a creative mind and imagination in adults are essential.

Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood

Overcoming Gender Stereotypes in STEM

Gender bias can lead to gender stereotypes, “a generalised view or preconception about attributes or characteristics, or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by, women and men” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). These stereotypes can be harmful, as they limit children’s potential, which can be damaging later in life (Nursery World).

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields, with only 29.4% of women making up the STEM workforce (Government Equalities Office) and 31% of females enrolling on STEM courses (Stem Women). One of the reasons for this is that from birth, gender stereotypes teach boys and girls how they should behave and appear, what they should do and what is and is not appropriate according to their sex, e.g. pink for a girl and blue for a boy or boys should show no emotion and girls should always be nice. It is a societal norm that expects boys and girls, men and women, to be a certain way to tick the ‘gender box’.

As children grow, gender biases and stereotypes can influence the opportunities and activities they have access to, what they learn and how they develop. Parents, caregivers and educators can inadvertently reinforce these stereotypes by speaking differently to boys and girls, having different expectations of them and assuming they want to do certain activities, e.g. boys want to play with trucks and climb trees, but girls want to play with dolls inside.

Gender stereotypes in STEM education can mean girls missing out on opportunities later on in life and boys steered in a direction that is not right for them as individuals. It is essential to tackle gender bias and stereotypes in early childhood and early years learning by encouraging girls and boys equally in STEM activities, for example:

  • Teach all young children about STEM, why it is important, and the careers available regardless of gender.
  • Share stories about men and women in STEM so they can potentially see themselves in these roles. Get those in STEM careers to visit the setting or take children on outings to meet male and female role models in STEM.
  • Create a gender-neutral learning environment, i.e. providing a mix of various toys, games and activities and guiding their learning by using provocations (prompts, Piaget) (Norland College). It may also be advisable to have materials, resources and books that describe males and females in STEM fields rather than outdated ones that reinforce gender stereotypes.
  • Allow children the freedom to choose their own interests and activities and the things they want to play with, regardless of whether girls choose construction toys or if boys choose dolls. It should be their choice, and adults must not force them to play with something because of their gender.
  • Be mindful of not inadvertently reinforcing gender stereotypes, i.e. “Are you sure you want to choose that toy as science is not really for girls”.
  • Try to include STEM in activities where boys and girls choose ‘stereotypical’ toys or games. For example, if girls want to play with dolls, it may be an idea to suggest they build a pram from materials and tools.
  • Choose toys, games and activities to encourage boys and girls to play together where they can learn collaboratively.
Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood

The Impact of Early STEM Education

STEM education is becoming globally recognised for its importance and its role in early childhood and learning. Here are some case studies and success stories to highlight the positive outcomes of early STEM education:

  • Tiny pupils show why Kinnaird Waters is the first Falkirk Council ELCC to gain the top STEM award – Falkirk Herald.
  • Pupils from a North East Primary School collaborated with scientists to design a board game (Climate Change: It’s In Our Hands) which allows young people to explore the issue of climate change – Northumbria University, Newcastle.
  • Deri Primary School’s STEM club were runners-up in a competition to identify a solution to make roads safer. They created a moving motorway from Lego and recycled materials and were awarded £2,000 – South Wales Argus.
  • West Lothian pupils had to design or upgrade a feature of their town as part of the Whitburn Academy Cluster Schools STEM showcase. It highlights the innovative ideas pupils came up with after taking part – Daily Record.
  • STEM Glasgow has a case study on how STEM is fully integrated at Shaw Mhor Early Years Centre and some of the activities they carry out.
  • STEM Moray has a case study on three primary schools that participated in a STEM bags pilot to engage parents in STEM learning. It concluded that it positively impacted pupil’s enthusiasm for practical/experiential STEM learning.

Starting STEM learning as early as possible has many long-term benefits for children. It helps them develop various skills they will need in further and higher education and in their careers. It also helps them become more independent and confident and helps them work with others in a team, which can enhance their future success.

Early STEM education can also increase interest in these subject areas, meaning young people are more likely to study a STEM subject at an advanced level. For example, the research findings by McDonald et al. (2023) suggest that early engagement in out-of-school science-related research events may increase knowledge, interest and understanding of science in young children. They also think it can influence the chances of studying science at A-level.

According to the Department for Education, having a UK STEM degree can increase the chances of accessing higher starting wages, and achieving two or more A Levels in STEM subjects adds more than 7.8% to earnings compared to just gaining GCSE level qualifications. Early STEM education can increase children’s understanding of these subjects, resulting in higher attainment and better job prospects.

Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood


Even though STEM education has targeted secondary school-age children and beyond, its role in early childhood is becoming increasingly apparent due to the numerous associated benefits. Not only does it help young children to develop essential lifelong skills, but it also increases their chances of a successful education and career later on in life.

In a rapidly changing world, science, technology, engineering and maths are highly sought-after subject areas, which are likely to increase in the future. As technology develops and challenges, such as climate change, overpopulation, disease and famine, increase, we need more people entering STEM roles to think outside the box, innovate and develop new ideas.

Preparing children for a STEM-focused future helps them understand their interests and place in the world. It can boost their confidence and self-esteem and also break gender stereotypes so they can be who they want to be and set and achieve their own goals.

Parents, caregivers and educators stimulating interest in these subjects in early childhood may encourage young people to study them at an advanced level and choose jobs within STEM-related fields. It does not take much to start and incorporate the subjects into everyday activities and life. Hopefully, the strategies and tips in this blog post can be used as a starting point.

Promoting STEM Learning in Early Childhood
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