Monday, January 9, 2017

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Engineering for Preschoolers & STEM Activities

STEM has become such a huge focus lately that even preschool teachers and parents are looking for ways to incorporate it into their schedules. Engineering for kids (especially preschoolers!) can seem daunting, but it is super easy to plan and loads of fun to add into your curriculum and routines!

Engineering is simply designing, building, and using structures and machines.You're probably thinking your kids do that all the time, and you're probably right! If left to themselves, kids' play often includes engineering. You can easily encourage this with specific comments like "I can see you've been engineering" when they show you the cool tower they built with blocks or the new house they designed for an electronic pet.

Adding more engineering activities in to your preschoolers' curriculum is really easy too, and I'm going to share some great ideas today to get you started!

I use two approaches to including engineering and STEM activities in our preschool curriculum (these would also work great if you need to integrate STEM activities for kindergarten): 1- Include theme-based engineering and STEM projects in our weekly and daily activities. For example, when we learned about polar bears last year we did this polar bear STEM activity. 2- Have a weekly time designated just for an engineering or STEM project. Engineering for kids is TONS of fun--we usually do a group history or STEM activity on Fridays as part of our "Friday Fun Day." Sometimes these are just activities that seem like fun, but have little to do with our current themes...and that's okay!

I'm going to divide the rest of this post into three sections:

1- Engineering for Preschoolers Activity Ideas: These are specific projects, activities, or challenges you can incorporate into your themes or use as a weekly engineering or STEM activity. This is a pretty big collection so that you don't have to hunt for ideas!
2- Other Ideas for Engineering for Preschoolers: These are not just projects, but systems that you can have set up that encourage your preschoolers to engineer on their own.
3- A Few Thoughts on Engineering Vocabulary for Preschoolers: One of the biggest favors you can do your preschoolers is to use big words with them. I'll tell you why and how here.

1- Engineering for Preschoolers Activity Ideas:

I'm going to include 12 of my favorite engineering activities for preschoolers here! I will be putting up another page with dozens of STEM activities that all have an engineering component soon, but these activities below feature engineering. These activities are also important because preschoolers are completely capable of doing them without help. I share a lot of projects here that are fantastic for older preschoolers, but younger preschoolers would need to work with an older child or adult. Everything in this collection can be done independently by children as young as three years old. They still require supervision, but you can watch while your little engineers get busy designing and building by themselves!  

1- The apple toothpick tower challenge! I created this variation on the classic marshmallow/toothpick tower challenge when I had a preschooler who couldn't eat marshmallows, but it turned into an engineering experience with its own merits! You can even do this regularly and watch as your kiddos develop new building skills!

2- Magnetic Paperclip Tree Challenge! You can make these magnetic trees any time of the year (though we did it at Christmastime and called them Christmas trees). They especially go great with a bird theme -- you can make little nests to put in the "trees" too!

3- Dinosaur Nest Challenge! Let your kiddos get creative...and a little dirty too!

4- Turtle STEM Challenge: Let your preschoolers design a stack of "turtles" -- did they find any tricks to make it taller?

5- Sand Castle STEM Challenge: It doesn't have to be big and fancy for your little engineers to build and design with! 

6- Penguin Feather STEM: Here's a design project that is also art, sensory, and science!

7- LEGO Car Challenge: A 3-year old's car will look very different than a 6-year old's car, but once your 3-year olds figure out how to set a base on top of a set of wheels, their car-making will become unstoppable!

8- Pool Noodle Structures: Again, your older preschoolers will have very different looking towers than your younger preschoolers, but all ages can design and build something with these easy-to-get tools. Plus, they will learn a little about gravity and balance while they work!

9- Plastic Cups, Bowls, & Plates: We have done this so many times and I've never thought to write it up! Debs does a great job telling you how easy it is to set this up!

10- Cup STEM Tower Challenge: Sarah did this at Christmastime, but you could make a cup tower any time of the year! Be sure to click over and see some of the fun designs her kiddo made!

11- Build a bridge: I have lots of different bridge-building possibilities here--some are appropriate for young preschoolers and some are not, so choose what will work best for your kiddos! Seriously, engineering for kids has never been more fun!

12- Design a store! I don't have pictures, but I have watched my 3-year olds set up stores using kid tea sets and little toys indoors, rocks and sticks outdoors, and extremely elaborate shops with blankets, chairs, interior decorating and more! 

2- Other Ideas for Engineering for Preschoolers:

1- Use engineering centers or stations! If you like Montessori-style, have engineering bins available for your preschoolers to use whenever they choose. If you use centers or stations, make one of them be engineering themed! What could you put at an engineering station or in an engineering bin for preschoolers? Wooden blocks, magnetic toys, circuit sets, and nuts and bolts are my favorites, but you can use just about anything that will encourage engineering! Even paper and drawing supplies make it easy to design! 

You may want to check out my posts on preschool STEM with wooden blocks, circuit sets, and nuts and bolts to help get your ideas flowing.

2- Design Time! Give your kids time to "Design a ___!" This could be expanded to almost anything you talk about! In the winter, you could design a hibernation cave. In the summer, design a tropical get-away. Whether it's something they love or something you're in the mood for, designing is part of engineering. So, beauty salon, construction site, dinosaur land, campground, rain shelter (this is really fun with umbrellas), etc. My kids favorite thing to do with their designs is actually build it--just make sure there is room in your playroom or classroom and let them grab chairs, blankets, toys, or whatever they need to create their plans. If full-size redecorative designing is stressful to you, let them make a miniature world in a shoebox or bin. Just provide enough small supplies so that making a small world isn't stressful to your kiddos (hint: playdough works really well)!

3- Outdoor Play and free play! Scheduling free play time -- indoors and outdoors -- allows your preschoolers time to engineer and create on their own schedule and at their own pace. It is okay for your kids to be bored!! Often that boredom turns into something that requires planning and design, and it is so much more exciting to discover a project on their own than to have an adult hand it to them. When they tell you about it afterwards, you can use some of the tips from the next section in your conversation.  ;)

3- A Few Thoughts on Engineering Vocabulary for Preschoolers:

One of the best ways you can give your kids confidence in the sciences is by helping them feel comfortable with the vocabulary. Engineering is not just for people who speak Latin, and using real words - even with young preschoolers - helps them realize they are real scientists.

Some people worry that their little preschoolers are not ready for such big words, but their brain is designed to learn vocabulary quickly and process complicated sounds! You don't even have to explicitly teach them--just use the right words and your preschoolers will pick up on them!!

What words should you be using? Here are some of my favorites:

observation, hypothesis, engineer, design, analyze, test, experiment, evidence, measure, create, question

Print this little poster and hang it somewhere to remind you to use science, engineering, and STEM words as part of your regular vocabulary!

The fun thing is after you use these words with preschoolers, they will start using them in their own language...and it is both adorable and wonderful to hear tiny people saying things like, "I have a hypothesis!" or "Look at me engineering!"

Teach them that they are already little engineers and then they will not be afraid of the field when they are older!


Do you have any questions about engineering for kids (especially preschoolers)? I spent a lot of time putting this post together for you, and I'd love to know what you think of it! I hope it helps you relax and introduce engineering to your preschoolers in an excited and deliberate way!

I'm writing this post as part of the A-Z STEM Series at Little Bins for Little Hands! Be sure to click over and check out all the other great ideas!

As always, you're welcome to send me an email or leave a comment!

Happy Educating,

Have you seen HEEP? It is a preschool homeschool curriculum! Learn more here!

I may share at any of these parties!

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Kids Songs said...

Hi! I just found your blog. I love your preschoolers and stem activities unit! Great idea with great stuff! Thanks for sharing.