STEM activities are all the rage in education right now, and for good reason. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) – and the Arts for STEAM – are crucial to kids’ learning and our future. But how to get your younger children interested?
They might not be ready for coding, but many preschoolers under age 5, and even toddlers, can enjoy some basic STEM principles through play. Although one of my family’s admitted guilty pleasures is relaxing with a little screen time, I was inspired by the upcoming national Screen-Free Week (April 30-May 6, 2018) to take my daughter on a STEM binge instead.
We built an apple boat, a toothpick-marshmallow castle, attempted a pom-pom drop, and indulged in baking soda science. Read on for a list of 25 tried-and-true screen-free STEM activities to do with your preschooler.
Now, like any good scientist I made a hypothesis about what would happen if I pulled the plug on screens. Prediction: my young daughter would be complaining in under 10 minutes that she was bored. Meltdown to ensue. So I came prepared, pulling together all sorts of fun tools and props for our mega tinker session. It was sort of surprising what we already had on hand: popsicle sticks, masking tape, red plastic cups, food coloring, mason jars, cotton balls, plastic utensils, coffee filters, loose change, toothpicks. We gathered it all into our newly christened “tinker box” and away we went to building, sorting, and experimenting.
Find out more about Screen-Free Week, or try some more of our favorite at-home boredom busters, including exercise games and even sensory fun for babies.
1. Build an Apple Boat
James may have tried to set sail in a peach, but an apple would have built a sturdier vessel. Learn how to build an apple boat and set sail for the open seas (or nearest bathtub).
2. Check Out Your Library
Libraries are a great place to discover STEM. Many host all kinds of FREE classes, events, and workshops to introduce their youngest patrons to STEM.
3. Engineer with Marshmallow Shapes
Develop engineering skills while constructing basic shapes out of toothpicks and marshmallows. You can build shapes using the marshmallow as a connector to hold the toothpicks together. Challenge your kid to invent new shapes or build three dimensionally. Make a castle, or a car! Get creative.
Coffee-filter chromatography is a fun way to combine art and science.
4. Experiment with Coffee-Filter Chromatography
This laboratory technique separates pigments to see how many colors it takes to create a marker. With a magic marker draw a thick circle around the center of the coffee filter where the ridged part meets the center. Fold the coffee filter in half and then in half again to create a cone shape. Using a shallow glass of water, set the tip of the filter cone into the water. Be careful not to get the marker ring wet. Watch and observe the colors flow up the paper. Talk about molecules and the uses of chromatography in the lab.
5. Make Magic, aka an Ice Melt
Demonstrate “change of state” by melting ice with salt. Fill a bowl with water, and let it freeze overnight. Add a few drops of liquid water color if you want to color your ice. Remove the ice from the bowl and place on a tray. Simply shake table salt over the ice and watch the magic happen. Talk about the properties of each item that caused this change of state.
6. Sprout Seeds in a Jar
Pour about a teaspoon of Chia seeds into a mason jar and cover with about one cup of water. Using an elastic band, secure a piece of cheese cloth on top and allow to sit over night. In the morning, drain the water. You should see sprouting in a day or two!
7. Test Building (and Reading) Skills with a Solo Cup Tower
Add some literature to your STEM by building this Cat in the Hat tower with solo cups and pieces of paper. A basic understanding of physics is required for success!
RELATED: 50 Easy Science Experiments to Do with Kids at Home
Make a baking soda mosaic with just a few ingredients.
8. Play with Baking Soda Science
A little baking soda and vinegar can open a whole world of fun to tiny scientists. Cover the bottom of a foil tray with baking soda. Fill an ice cube tray with vinegar––for extra fun you can add a drop of food coloring to each compartment. Using a dropper or pipette (great for fine motor skills, too!), watch the baking soda fizz and froth in a chemical reaction.
9. Dissect a Flower
Kids are naturally curious about their natural surroundings. This flower dissectionlets them dive right in to the natural world around them, including a little botany, or plant science.
10. Create a Rain Cloud in a Jar
This is one storm I can handle! This fun and easy experiment demonstrates how rain forms in clouds, a natural project for little kids who are always curious the sky and everything that falls from it.
11. Plant a Garden
Gardens grow more than just fruits and vegetables; they can plant the seeds for early STEM education. From planning a garden bed to counting seeds, this project hits all the marks. You might even find yourself talking nitrogen, precipitation, and more advanced subjects.
12. Go on a STEM Hike
Take this show outside, get some fresh air, go for a hike, learn something, AND get some weeding done- then a STEM hike is for you.
Build a bridge and test its strength.
13. Build a Better Bridge
Use recyclables and household objects to see who among you can build the strongest bridge.
14. Make Pyramids with Egg Cartons
If you ever get the feeling that your kid would build the next Great Wall if only you had enough blocks, then egg carton building blocks are for you! Construct towers, pyramids, and more.
15. Build a Pom-Pom Drop
This STEM challenge an be assembled with paper rolls, tape, and a wall, and it looks super cool once constructed. Toddlers will delight in dropping the colored pom-poms through the tubes and watching them come out the other side. Get all the details here.
16. Craft a Sugar Cube Masterpiece
Sugar cubes aren't just good for tea and coffee; kids can use them to construct an igloo, ice castle, tower, or anything they can imagine. Just mix a little water and confectioners sugar together until it forms a paste like “cement” to hold your sugar cubes together.
17. Host a Building Contest
Teamwork makes the dreamwork! When have you ever seen a construction site with ONE person? NEVER! Pool your resources (blocks, cardboard boxes, Manga-tiles, Duplos) and host a construction play date!
18. Paint With Rain
Check out these five different ways to paint with rain, and make some predictions about the outcomes.
19. Make Seed Bombs
Inch by inch, row by row, somebody make this garden grow! Seed bombs are a fun lesson in mixing proportions, plus kids get a cool finished product, which is always satisfying. Check out this simple recipe.
Ready to make water walk to create a rainbow?
20. Turn Water into a Walking Rainbow
This activity covers all your hands-on-STEM bases: squirting color, pouring water, making observations, and predicting outcomes. It also looks really pretty, drawing the eyes of little scientists. Get the details here.
21. Make ’em Fly with a Marshmallow Catapult
There’s a lot of science behind making those marshmallows fly. Learn how to design a catapult.
22. Will it Float or Sink?
Fill a small tub with water. Gather objects from around your house or yard and place them in the tub, pool, or sink. Ask you son or daughter if the object sank or floated and see if you can figure out why. Increase the challenge to see if they can predict which will happen before you drop it in.
23. Grow Food from Trash
Instead of tossing out the base of a celery stalk, regrow it into new plants. Place the celery in a small saucer or bowl with water, base side down. Let the celery sit in the water for about a week. New celery will begin growing from the center of the base. After you have a bit of new growth, transfer the plant into a pot with soil.
24. Make a Polymer
Combine glue, water, contact lens solution, and baking soda to create a polymer––more commonly knows as slime!
25. Create Your Own DIY Tinker Kit
Although there are plenty of fancy, STEM subscription boxes for kids these days, you can actually make your own––just as we did––for very little money. Bring it out on any rainy day, or to create an impromptu screen-free moment with your kids. Check out this DIY one using mostly Dollar Store items.
All photos by the author