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STEM and STEAM are some of the biggest buzzwords in education lately. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Add in “art,” and then you have STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). Both educational approaches to how we teach and learn these subjects, STEM and STEAM are increasingly popular among academics, partly due to the growing demands of a fast-changing professional world.
If this subject matter sounds too fancy or complex for kids, don’t worry — anyone can make STEM and STEAM learning activities fun and approachable for kids. Activities that focus on STEM and STEAM ideas don’t have to include advanced concepts to be educational. In fact, Christine Hernandez, an early childhood educator from Saratoga Springs, New York, says, “STEAM activities also help foster well-rounded children with the ability to think critically, problem-solve and, of course, use their creative brain!”
STEM vs. STEAM: What’s the difference?
In short, the difference between STEM and STEAM is the addition of the “A,” which stands for “art.” STEAM integrates art into this learning while STEM does not.
Why the addition of art? Well, the subjects of science and math are often misunderstood as prioritizing memorization over creativity, but as technology continues to advance, creativity plays a huge role. This is why the transition from STEM programs (that don’t include art) to STEAM programs has been so successful, as all of these subjects have great potential for overlap in education.
When it comes to introducing kids to these concepts, Hernandez explains that STEAM activities are “often hands-on, which encourages active participation and experiential learning.” No matter what subject you’re introducing to a child, a participatory and experimental mindset will be a plus.
Here is a variety of fun STEM and STEAM activities for kids, which were collected from early childhood experts, parents and social media. Have kids focus on science, technology, engineering, art and math — and all the ways they overlap in between.
1. Practice observing on a nature scavenger hunt
Turn a neighborhood walk into a scavenger hunt! Before leaving for a walk or hike, create a list of things you might see, including different plants, insects and natural objects. Bring a marker and check them off the list as you see them.
According to Hernandez, taking part in a nature scavenger hunt “introduces young children to basic scientific observation, a huge part of STEAM.”
2. Learn to grow plants
Gardening includes so many scientific processes. If you have access to a garden, show the kids how to plant seeds, water them and watch them grow over time.
Hernandez says that in her classroom, they “plant seeds and talk about what seeds need to grow, how plants grow, how we can help them.” She adds that growing seeds “teaches young kids about biology and the natural world.”
If you want to add a math concept into this idea, try measuring how much the plant grows every week.
3. Simulate a volcanic eruption
As Emily, the parent behind the @sandboxacademy TikTok handle, demonstrates, it’s easier than you think to create an exciting and colorful volcanic eruption at home — and without too much cleanup either. All you need is a lemon, some baking soda, food coloring and a straw.
Cut the lemon in half and a few drops of food coloring to each half of the lemon. Then, spoon some baking powder onto the lemons. When you start mixing the powder into the lemon with a straw, the citrus in the lemon reacts with the baking powder to create a mini eruption that kids will love. You can even turn the volcanic eruption into an art project by putting a small canvas or piece of paper underneath the erupting lemons and seeing what they create!
4. Try the ‘sink or float’ test
This activity is super simple and can incorporate a kid’s favorite toys or household items to make it more engaging for younger ones. Fill a bowl or bucket with water (or fill up the bathtub!) and collect a few items that can get wet, like a dinosaur toy or a block. Then, have kids make predictions about which items will sink and which will float.
“This teaches young kids basic science theory and [about] creating hypotheses,” says Hernandez. They can test their hypotheses by dropping the item in the water and observing what happens next!
Technology and engineering activities
5. Make friendship bracelets (in binary)
Whether a younger child is mesmerized by computers or an older one is already fully immersed, it’s a good time to teach them the basics of computer language (aka binary code). As the LA County Library shows on their YouTube channel, beaded friendship bracelets are an easy way to introduce kids to the concept of binary in coding, and much more approachable than starting with a bunch of zeros and ones.
Start by grabbing thread and choosing two colors of beads for the bracelet. Decide which color will represent zero and which will represent one. Then use a binary letter chart (Team Cartwright offers a free Binary Code Alphabet download) to match up the letters of the child’s name with the corresponding binary code. Help kids put the beads on the bracelet in the same order as the binary code, and their bracelet will end up spelling out their name in binary code!
6. Plan and assemble a fort
Pillow forts can be an amazing showcase of complicated engineering! Take your basic pillow fort to the next level by encouraging kids to come up with their own ideas about how to make a bigger and better pillow fort. Encourage kids to use their imaginations, and your pillow fort could become a castle, a cave, a mansion with multiple rooms — the possibilities are endless.
Tyler Dawson, a parent of three in Los Angeles, says, “Building activities are a big favorite around here, as are structural builds, like forts, that do double duty as imaginary play.”
7. Construct a house (that the Big Bad Wolf can’t blow down)
This activity can go hand-in-hand with reading a beloved children’s story. “Everyone has heard of the ‘Three Little Pigs,’ right?” asks Dana Oliver, founder and president of Texas-based child care organization Adventure Kids Playcare.
Put out some art supplies like popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners or recycled materials (empty tissue boxes work great) and ask the kids to build a house for one of the three little pigs. Then, Oliver suggests putting the structure to the test to see if it withstands being blown by the Big Bad Wolf (try your best to blow it down or grab a fan to make it even harder).
8. Code a Lego maze
Did you know kids can start learning coding basics without even using a computer? The Plano Public Library has the perfect, short demonstration on how to use Legos to create a maze and practice coding.
Start by building a maze out of Legos (or any small blocks you have around the house). Then, cut out small squares of paper and write commands like “turn right” or “go forward” on them. Pick a small toy or figure to travel through the maze, and kids can choose commands to get them through the maze. At the end, they can see all the steps (aka, the coding) needed to complete the maze.
9. Engineer a boat
Oliver calls this activity “Saving Sam” and begins with telling a story about how Sam, who can be any small toy or figure, can’t swim. Then, ask the kids to build a floating boat to save Sam!
“Give the children access to recycled material and have them build a boat then test it out in a container of water,” says Oliver. Make sure to give them a variety of recycled materials so they can test out what will work and what won’t.
Not only does this teach about engineering and the science of floating, but it also encourages children to try many ideas and learn from their mistakes — an important STEAM tool.
10. Build with cardboard
If cardboard packaging is piling up in your recycling, there’s no better way to reuse it than to let kids turn it into something new. Cardboard boxes can be used as perfect structural material to build castles, spaceships, cars … anything little ones can imagine!
Dawson says her kids use cardboard creations to inspire imaginative play. “The activity feels like a winner,” she adds, “when it takes on a life of its own beyond the creation itself.”
11. Create with origami
Origami and paper-folding creations are artistic and require engineering, too, making it a favorite in the Dawson household. Buy some origami paper and show kids how to follow the instructions to make different animals and shapes, or pull up a how-to video on YouTube. For little ones who aren’t ready for multi-step instructions, give them some colored paper and see what they’re able to make by folding it.
12. Paint with salt
This salt-painting art project lets kids get creative while learning about science. This works best for toddlers if you set it up for them beforehand, but older kids can participate in the setup process.
Use glue to draw a shape on a piece of paper, like the turtle made by Peeja, the parent who runs the TikTok @nhfzslhdn account. Then cover the glue with salt and let it dry. Next, put out a few small cups of water dyed with food coloring. Give the kids plastic droppers so they can drop colorful water onto the salt drawing, and they’ll discover that the salt absorbs the water and creates a beautiful piece of art.
13. Make nature collages
You can use this idea in conjunction with your nature scavenger hunt, or do it on its own. Dawson says her kids love making nature collages “with items found on walks or hikes.”
Have the kids collect the coolest-looking leaves, flowers, sticks or anything interesting they find on a walk or hike. When you get home, give them paper and glue or tape and let them create an artistic masterpiece, using the materials they collected.
Math (and logic) activities
14. Turn food into fractions
You can use almost any food to introduce fractions to kids of any age. For example, as shown on the Kids Activities Blog, you can make a PB&J (or even a grilled cheese!) sandwich and talk the child through it as you cut the sandwich into halves and then quarters. For an easier way to explain fractions to beginners, say “one out of four” rather than “one quarter.”
15. Do puzzles
Puzzles create a fun opportunity to expose children to math ideas, like shapes, sizes, matching and spatial reasoning. According to Dawson, “puzzles are beloved by all” in her house.
You can find simple puzzles for young kids or ask them to help you out with a bigger puzzle by finding pieces with certain colors for you.
16. Match the stickers
This fun activity demonstrated by parent Sarah Izzard, aka @sarahizzard on TikTok, reinforces learning about colors and shapes and gives kids a chance to practice matching while keeping their hands busy for a while.
Set the project up by grabbing a big piece of paper or cardboard and creating a large shape made up of many tiny circles of different colors. Older kids can draw these out for little ones too. Then, give the kids a few sheets of colored circle stickers (you can get them for cheap at dollar stores) and have them fill in all the circles with stickers of the same color. By the end, the bigger shape or drawing you created will be revealed.
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