Five Things to Know about STEM Learning in Young Children

1. Children can develop the foundations for STEM learning right from infancy.

Children are active learners in the infant, toddler, and preschool years. They explore their environments and learn things from doing, seeing, touching, and hearing. Early STEM experiences can tap into their natural curiosity and give them opportunities to be engaged participants in their own learning.

2. Engaging in early STEM learning activities raises later reading, writing, literacy, and math scores.

Research has shown that teaching science in early years is associated with gains in mathematics, early literacy, and reading (Paprzycki, et al., 2017) and early mathematics learning is a strong predictor of later achievement in multiple domains (Center for Advancing Discovery Research in Education; Duncan, et al., 2007; Claessens & Engel, 2013; Aubrey, Dahl, & Godfrey, 2006).

3. There is a STEM opportunity gap for vulnerable children.

Children who live in poverty, children who are members of linguistic and ethnic minority groups, and children with disabilities have fewer opportunities to engage in STEM learning activities than their peers. This opportunity gap continues to widen as children move through elementary, middle, and high school.

4. Children with developmental delays and disabilities are especially denied opportunities to learn STEM.

School-age children from the ED’s Office for Civil Rights’ Civil Rights Data Collection (CDRC) showed the disparity in STEM opportunities for older children with disabilities, namely that they represent only a very small percent of students enrolled in Biology, Algebra II, Chemistry, and Physics courses. Although there is little to no research on STEM learning for young children with developmental delays and disabilities, there are signs that these children are left out of the scant STEM learning experiences in early childhood settings.

5. Many early childhood teachers need more supports to build the foundations of STEM learning, especially for young children with developmental delays and disabilities.

Many early childhood teachers are not eager and prepared to engage children in rich STEM experiences that lay the groundwork for later success in school and in the workplace. Beliefs that STEM content areas are “less central” or “too difficult,” “advanced,” and “abstract” or “developmentally inappropriate" for some children constrain teaching practices.