Thanks to Allison from @inspired_little_learners for sharing these fantastic, simple at-home STEM activities for little kids.
For preschool-aged children, research has shown that skills including curiosity, persistence, and motivation predict later science achievement (Bustamante et al. 2017). STEM (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education helps develop these skills along with collaborative, analytical, problem solving and reasoning skills. And these are skills we can begin to cultivate in young children, who are naturally curious about the world around them.
In fact, toddlers are already engaging in activities that involve the basic scientific steps of observation, prediction, and testing! For example, as a toddler throws a rock into a puddle or knocks over a block tower, she is observing what happens (How big is the splash? How far do the blocks fall?) and she repeats a similar “experiment” repeatedly, predicting and testing what happens (What happens if I throw a larger rock? I wonder why the tower fell?). Because of this natural curiosity and desire to explore their environment, we can think of toddlers as little scientists who are constantly trying to make sense of the world around them!
Even babies are mini scientists, who are constantly observing their environment. (This is why we offer a specific set of mobiles to our babies, right from birth!) You can encourage curiosity and this desire to observe by creating simple activities for your baby. For example, create a simple sensory bag by putting water dyed with food coloring and baby oil into a zip-top bag. Remove the air from the bag and seal with duct tape. You can tape the bag to the floor and let baby explore.
You can also fill a shallow pan with water and add some toys that float (like a rubber ducky). Baby can watch the toys float in the water and even reach in to splash. Narrate what your baby is observing: “Look at the toy float as you push it.” “Look at the water move when you splash it!”
These are early lessons in cause-and-effect!
For toddlers, you can set up simple science activities to encourage curiosity and develop critical thinking skills. Below are three easy at-home science activities for you to try with your little scientist
Toddler Experiment #1: Create your own Lava Lamp
- Pour vegetable or baby oil into a glass so it is about ⅔ full.
- Mix water with food coloring and add it to the glass, leaving a little space at the top.
- Break an effervescent tablet (like Alka-Seltzer) into four pieces and place them into the glass one at time.
The Science: The water sinks to the bottom because it is heavier than oil. The effervescent tablet also sinks to the bottom, dissolving in the water. As it dissolves, carbon dioxide is released and rises to the top, taking the colored water with it. The gas bubble breaks at the surface and the colored water will sink back down, creating a “lava lamp” effect!
Toddler Experiment #2: Watch Raisins Dance
- Pour water into glass so it is ⅔ full.
- Mix in approximately 1 tbsp baking soda (note: you may need more or less baking soda depending on the size of your glass; systematically manipulating a variable is a part of the scientific process!).
- Add 3-4 raisins.
- Slowly pour white vinegar into the glass. Alternative: Pour carbonated water into a glass so it is ⅔ full.
- Add 3-4 raisins and observe!
The Science: The raisins initially sink to the bottom of the glass. They eventually get covered with carbon-dioxide bubbles, which carry the raisins back to the top. Once the bubbles reach the top, they pop, and the raisins sink back to the bottom.
Further experimentation: Try this activity with popcorn kernels instead of raisins. Did the popcorn “dance” more or less than the raisins?
Toddler Experiment #3: Observe Milk Magically Move
- Pour milk into a shallow dish.
- Add food coloring.
- Dip a cotton swab into dish soap and lightly touch the surface of the milk.
(Note: This activity is a great way to use milk that has recently expired before you toss it.)
Alternative: Add food coloring into the center of the dish. Dip a cotton ball into dish soap and place in the center of the food coloring.
The Science: Soap molecules move around the milk trying to attach to the fat molecules in the milk. The food coloring allows you to see this movement.
Extension ideas: Generally, you will see the most color movement with higher-fat milk (2% or whole milk). As an extension, you can try other milk variants. Do some work better than others?
Benefits of Conducting At-home Science ActivitiesWhile doing these activities the child is:
- Learning how to follow directions
- Learning how to make predictions and discuss observations
- Learning about cause and effect
- Exploring changes
- Discovering new vocabulary
- Being inquisitive
Remember that one of the major components in the scientific process is observation. Even if a young toddler is not ready to participate hands-on in these activities, he/she is able to observe what is happening and the adult can describe what is going on or ask “What if…” or “I wonder why…” questions. In general, at-home science activities are an opportunity for young children to learn through observation, experimentation and inquiry along with the guidance of their parent or caregiver.
Bustamante, A.S., White, L.J., & Greenfield, D.B. (2017). Approaches to learning and school readiness in Head Start: Applications to preschool science. Learning and Individual Differences, 56, 112-118.