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We are all told by articles, news reports and teachers that STEM is essential these days if our children are to have a successful future in school, college, and life. STEM can seem scary and we know that kids who develop a fear of it tend to do poorly in STEM-focused classes. But we don’t have to label our playful lessons "Science/Technology/Engineering/Math" or even "STEM." We can simply enjoy playing with our kids in this wonderful world, and allow them a natural affinity and love for these topics.

By allowing the kids to explore and by fostering their natural curiosity, STEM concepts will easily become more approachable. Children love to find answers, measure things, and accomplish interesting feats while playing.  By the time they are in school they are full of excitement to learn new ways to explore the world and later they realize that they have already fostered early STEM skills. Here are some examples of things I used to do with my kids to encourage their excitement for STEM!

Science

Science might be a frightening word for kids -- instead let them become amazing discoverers! Your kids are probably already discoverers. We are surrounded by scientific opportunities. One of the most wonderful ways to enjoy the outdoors is to search for life. My kids and I used to become discoverers together in our own back yard. Smaller kids get more excited about being discoverers than being scientists. To prepare for the game read some of your bedtime stories about explorers. There were so many discoverers even just in the US. With books you can explore big things, including the American continents like Amerigo Vespucci and Columbus or the Missouri River and the Passage Way to the West like Lewis and Clark.

After a night of reading those compelling adventure books, you can enjoy being a discoverer in the back yard and learn about passageways for ants and beetles. Ants are amazing to watch and observe in nature and you can find them in most gardens. You can record ants, watch the videos, and make comparisons. My kids enjoyed discovering insects, big and small, under rocks. They particularly enjoyed finding rollie polliesThen we learned about isopods and how rollie pollies are descendants of the most ancient living creatures on earth. It is also fun to look at rocks and minerals and discuss how they are used in the world today. For example, you may find a glassy mineral called quartz. You and your kids can talk about how quartz changed the world when people started to use it to make glass. You could also discuss how quartz is used in watches.

Hours, days, and even years of fun can be found in the yard, a nearby park, a forest, a beach, a pond, or river. Kids will discover an animal, mineral, or plant, and then you can discuss, read, watch videos, and learn about it to turn discovery into a science project.


Technology

Oh boy. Just the word “technology” introduces a challenge. But why? We are a highly advanced society and we are surrounded by all kinds of technologies. Together you can simplify the way you look at advanced technology. You and your kids can play with and learn about it to enjoy and understand technology. One of the easiest ways to get kids engaged is to allow them to ask their favorite questions, starting with the most popular question: "Why?" Later on as they get older you can progress to  “How does this work?” and “May I take it apart?”


It takes a bit of work to enjoy these journeys of discovery, but I promise you that once you get into it, you will enjoy it just as much as the kids.

Start by looking around the house. My son was fascinated by light and he made the connection between turning on the light switch and having the lights go on by the time he was just six months old. Most kids are naturally curious. I remember when my daughter asked me why the sky is blue when the sun is shining. It takes a bit of work to enjoy these journeys of discovery, but I promise you that once you get into it, you will enjoy it just as much as the kids. It is such a fascinating journey.

When a child asks a question, don’t close the conversation with the convenient, “I don’t know," or,  "I have no idea.” Instead tell the child, "I don’t know, but let’s find out together!" Then hit the Internet, or, like I did when my kids were very young, the local library or bookstore. All three are a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with kids. 

I'll bet that I already whetted your appetite for learning. You and your child will learn that the light switch works because it is connected to a copper wire that is linked to a electronic switch. When the switch moves it either connects or disconnects the copper wire from the flow of electricity. You can also go to a hardware store with the kids and you will be pleasantly surprised how lovely the sales staff will be in showing and explaining things to your cute, curious kids. Of course you can look it up on online as well.

When a child asks a question, don’t close the conversation with the convenient, “I don’t know," or,  "I have no idea.” Instead tell the child, "I don’t know, but let’s find out together!" Then hit the Internet, or, like I did when my kids were very young, the local library or bookstore. All three are a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with kids. I'll bet that I already whetted your appetite for learning. You and your child will learn that the light switch works because it is connected to a copper wire that is linked to a electronic switch. When the switch moves it either connects or disconnects the copper wire from the flow of electricity. You can also go to a hardware store with the kids and you will be pleasantly surprised how lovely the sales staff will be in showing and explaining things to your cute, curious kids. Of course you can look it up on online as well.

Engineering

There are many different types of engineers. Civil Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, Electronic Engineers, Locomotive Engineers, Software Engineers, Nuclear Engineers, Data Engineer, Big Data Engineer -- the list is endless! Many engineers are well-paid and hese jobs are growing in leaps and bounds. Parents dream for their grown-up children to have job security at an interesting, enjoyable job. Many of us worry that we don't know how to foster a love for engineering. But actually it is not quite as complicated as we might have thought. The key is to focus on what an engineer does, not the overwhelming term, "engineering." You'll then find it easy to incorporate it into the children’s play and home study time.

You can discover what an engineer does by walking around town and paying attention to all the little signs and symbols on the streets, sidewalks, and walls of buildings. We all see these signs all the time, but thanks to my children I learned a lot about them. You can watch videos and then go on treasure hunts and notice the signs when you go for a walk. Engineering is necessary for the design, organization and building of homes, offices, stores, streets, bridges, streets, railroads, products, video games, cars, just about everything. Engineers use scientific principles and apply the principles of science and mathematics to develop solutions to technical problems. Their work provides the link between scientific discoveries and new ideas and the actual products. Basically they figure out how ideas can actually be made into something that works. Lego, constructor sets, blocks, toothpicks, strings, and more sophisticated toys are the best way to introduce the topic without much fanfare. Inside you can build forts, train sets, and Lego sets. For outdoor play, try building canals at the beach, bridges over the canals, dams, and much more.

Math


The key is that everyday life provides many opportunities to use math naturally without even thinking about it as math.


The most fun way to learn how to do math is with games that teach basic fairness. You can teach simple math using a bar of chocolate that is shared by a group of kids. The child who is breaking the pieces into equal parts gets to keep the last piece. It is amazing how precisely children will naturally learn about the number of pieces needed, how the pieces might best be equal fractions. You don’t need to use the word math, you simply allow kids to be in charge of sharing. Sharing candy pieces merely requires counting and dividing. A large block of chocolate clarifies one of the basic concepts of math: division.

Later you can teach math with household tasks like setting the table for guests (planning how many place mats, forks, spoons, and knives are necessary). Pocket money is another fun way to learn about math. Children have an innate ability to purchase wisely, save money, compare their budget with their desires, and count how many weeks they need to save up. From there you can move on to measuring space for their new bed or desk or timing how long it takes to get to school and comparing the fastest route by foot, bicycle or car. Ask them how far it is from their friend's home to our home, how much weight they should lift at what age -- even get a trainer involved.

The key is that everyday life provides many opportunities to use math naturally without even thinking about it as math. When the kids realize that they already know most of the things that they learn in the first few years of math, they will experience a great boost for their self-esteem and they will not be afraid when learning more difficult concepts in class. 
Foster curiosity, have fun, and learn as much as your kids ask. As you and your kids learn, even you will seem so much smarter when you attend your next dinner party. The key for you and your children is to enjoy the journey.


About the All-Star Blogger

Edie

Edie Okamoto is a Bay Area resident who raised her children while running an international business consultancy from her home. Now that the children are grown she enjoys sharing her many wonderful parenting and business experiences, as well as observations about current events and culture.