Growing minds - the importance of STEM in early childhood

Honorary Associate Professor Marianne Knaus shares how STEM explorations lay the foundation for lifelong learning, plus activity ideas for little learners of all ages.

Smiling woman with long blonde hair and a fringe standing outdoors in front of greenery. She wears dark-framed glasses and a black top with a silver chain detail around the neckline. Smiling woman with long blonde hair and a fringe standing outdoors in front of greenery. She wears dark-framed glasses and a black top with a silver chain detail around the neckline.
Image: Dr Marianne Knaus, Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Education, Early Childhood Studies at Edith Cowan University in Perth, WA, and a part-time lecturer in Early Childhood at the University of New England, NSW.

Children demonstrate a natural curiosity to the world around them by experimenting and investigating across a range of learning areas. Learning is not compartmentalised into curriculum areas but woven into discovery and investigation. As children play and explore, there is a natural crossover between science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Everyday routines and play experiences are opportune times for learning about STEM.

Understanding STEM

Science is learning about the natural world through observation, listening, and recording. It includes reasoning, classifying, experimenting, hypothesising, making predictions and wondering.

Technology involves designing, planning and the making of things to support us in work and our daily lives. It includes all human-made objects, non-digital and digital. It is about being inventive, identifying problems and creating.

Engineering is solving problems, using a variety of materials, creating and building things that work. It involves planning, designing and working collaboratively.

Math is about problem solving, reasoning, looking for pattern and structure, and understanding measurement, shape and quantity.

An example of STEM involves children playing in block corner as they investigate maths concepts such as length, shape, measurement, number, estimation, symmetry, balance and problem solving. Block play offers opportunities to build scientific reasoning, test assumptions and engage in physics. It can also include technology and engineering concepts when planning, designing, creating and constructing.

The relevance of STEM in early childhood

Many of the STEM areas are interrelated. A cross-curricular approach is a critical foundation for learning. Rather than teaching topics in isolation, interdisciplinary teaching helps children make connections across learning areas and strengthens the disposition for lifelong learning.

STEM experiences that are connected to children’s everyday lives increase motivation and engagement. Children are full of wonder, interest and curiosity, and are constantly investigating and making sense of their world. It’s these foundational concepts of exploring, questioning and speculating that influence future educational experience and provide knowledge required for an innovative and creative world.

Focusing on real world issues and problems, STEM explorations support children to develop skills that have become increasingly important for 21st century learning, including:

  • critical thinking
  • problem-solving skills
  • innovation
  • creativity
  • information and media literacy
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • self-directed learning.
These skills are internationally acknowledged, with governments recognising STEM’s significance to generating jobs, boosting productivity and the economy. We look towards the next generation creating and inventing solutions to problems at an individual and community level.

Building educator skills and confidence

Educators are fundamental to the success of STEM experiences and require good knowledge of each of the four areas. It’s important to have a shared vision regarding STEM within your service and identify areas for learning and improvement. Well-structured and collaborative professional learning opportunities about STEM can support educators to build their capabilities. Examples include:

  • one-on-one coaching connected to the room they work in
  • discussion groups to practice, analyse and reflect on instructional practice
  • professional learning communities across a group of services
  • ongoing support from leaders
  • inviting guests with STEM expertise
  • learning specifically tailored to the teachers’ changing needs according to their careers.

Another way to build skills and confidence is to visit other services already implementing STEM to observe their practices and listen to the different voices and experiences. First-hand experience can allow educators to see the learning connections among the STEM disciplines.

The educator’s role in STEM

Many opportunities for STEM arise each day. Educators can enhance these experiences by extending, scaffolding and planning for STEM learning, and being responsive to children’s intentionality and questions.

Consider the following ideas in your assessment and planning cycle.


  • Include a STEM element in your planning template.
  • Facilitate provision learning through rich experiences and environments.
  • Add small changes to your program and build from there.
  • Allocate some planning time to the thinking and incorporation of STEM ideas.

Here are some to get you started.

  • Use routines as opportunities to talk about STEM. For example, when washing hands: Where does the water go? Where does it come from? Mealtimes, nappy changing and driving in the car all provide prospects to inquire and ask questions.
  • Offer materials that lead to discovery, such as boxes, blocks, cardboard tubes, and balls in different sizes and types.
  • Encourage play and curiosity with toys that foster trial and error, cause and effect, repetition, discovery, problem solving, counting, learning about attributes, sorting and matching, filling and emptying.
  • Make the most of everyday experiences like cooking, folding the washing and setting the table. Provide interesting mobiles to look at and toys to explore while nappy changing.
  • Provide opportunities for sensory exploration while playing with sand, water, mud, clay, playdough, bubbles, slime, shave cream and goop.
  • Provide natural experiences being in the outdoors, like splashing in rain puddles. Natural materials such as shells, rocks, leaves, bark, seed pods and clay offer new insights and exploration.
  • Allow children to use tools, including magnifying glasses, tongs, tweezers, digital devices, ramps, inclines and eye droppers.
  • Provide art materials so children can draw, paint, collage materials, cut and create.
  • Encourage role play with dress-ups and provide implements to pretend with, like phones, tea pots and cups, dolls and strollers.
  • Use music to encourage dance, singing and instruments to explore sounds and listen to.
  • Provide provocations to invite learning and provoke thinking, such as a light table with a collection of fascinating objects or clip boards with photographs that children can draw on and ponder. Draw inspiration from children’s interests, for example a bird’s nest or eggs, pushbikes or engines – they invite many possibilities.
  • Talk about the weather, seasons, birdlife, animals or natural cycles. Ask questions like: Where do the vegetables, fruit or milk come from? Or how do you make butter and cheese? This could lead to further investigations.
  • Provide tools in playful contexts, like the sandpit. Include pulleys, levers, ramps and wheels to explore cause and effect, problem solving and reasoning.
  • Go on excursions to explore and discover authentic real-world STEM learning. Even a walk to a park can provide stimulus for new learning. Excursions or incursions can orient children to first-hand observations and experiences. When working on a project, invite experts in to talk to children. Or, for instance, if your project explores how bread is made, visit a local bakery.
  • Encourage creative art experiences like box construction, printing, painting, drawing and sculpting. These activities can lead to thinking across other STEM areas other than art, such as engineering or mathematics.
  • Instigate dramatic play, music, dance and choreography to express their feelings and innovate.
  • Use children’s literature to inspire STEM opportunities. For example: Who Sank the Boat, Mr Archimedes Bath, There’s a Hippopotamus Sitting on my Roof Eating Cake, What the Ladybird Heard or Alexander’s Outing.
  • Supply materials to design, construct and build using blocks, manipulatives like Lego, and construction kits to encourage engineering, maths and science.
  • Set up a tinkering space for children to create and invent. Stock up on electronics, magnets, circuits, robotic toys, LEDs, alligator clips and recyclable materials, plus supplies to join things together such as blue tac, playdough and tape.
  • Create opportunities to produce constructions. Provide a carpentry bench with timber, nails, hammers, screwdrivers, saw, vice and recyclables to add to creations.
  • Schedule nature experiences to explore shadows, wind, weather and reflections, or to observe plants, insects, birds and animals. Extend on these based on children’s interests and motivation.
  • Design activities to ask questions to measure, weigh, sequence, sort, order, classify and compare.


  • Purposefully include dedicated time to STEM learning.
  • Weave STEM into everyday situations in the indoor and outdoor environment.
  • Use the relevant language throughout investigations to match the vocabulary to the appropriate concepts.
  • Expand an inquiry into a short-term or long-term project.
  • Practice sustained shared thinking, where educators co-construct learning by sharing knowledge and understanding to support and extend learning, rather than just transmitting information.

Observation, analysis and reflection

  • Observe children’s learning and interests to plan from.
  • Capitalise on children’s natural curiosity and inquiry for planning – the learning is meaningful, relevant and strengthened through intrinsic motivation.
  • Be guided by questions or issues when planning STEM experiences.
  • Tap into children’s families and neighbourhoods – they can be rich sources for investigations.
4 children standing around a table outdoors using eyedropper tools to mix coloured water. There is a clear box to the left side of the table with yellow-coloured liquid in it and another to the right side of the table with blue-green liquid. 2 of the children stand in front of a clear sectioned tray with green liquid in each of the sections. 4 children standing around a table outdoors using eyedropper tools to mix coloured water. There is a clear box to the left side of the table with yellow-coloured liquid in it and another to the right side of the table with blue-green liquid. 2 of the children stand in front of a clear sectioned tray with green liquid in each of the sections.
Image: STEM explorations support children to develop skills that are critical to 21st century learning, including problem-solving, collaboration, innovation and critical thinking.
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