If you worry your 21st-century kid may pick up your own ambivalent relationship to subjects such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—topics schools are teaching earlier than ever—researchers have some tips for you.
Get kids started sooner rather than later.
And let them work in groups. When kids feel they are part of a team, scientists say, they enjoy STEM activities more.
Investigators at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, in Seattle, recently invited four-and-a-half-year-old children to work on two different STEM activities, one math related and one spatial (a puzzle).
The children performed one activity alone and one with a group. However, in the group setting, they didn’t actually collaborate with each other. They were simply told they were part of a team and given indicators like a team T-shirt and flag. Interestingly, says Allison Master, lead study author, “When told that they were part of a group, the children persisted longer, did better, enjoyed the task more, thought they were better at it, and chose that task over a task they did as an individual.”
How to Encourage Teamwork at Home
Preschool teachers already know that working in small groups helps kids learn social skills like conversation, cooperation, and compromise. In a group, kids help each other problem solve and focus on the task at hand. They learn and practice listening to each other, expressing feelings, asking questions, and even decoding body language.
To help your child begin to embrace group experiences at home, recruit siblings, cousins, neighborhood pals, and other playmates, and try these tips:
- Word it well. Use “we” and “us” language with your child whenever you can. Say, “Time for us to eat breakfast!” or “We are all going to play a game together!”
- Set goals as a family. The key is to emphasize process and collaboration over outcomes: “We will pick out something new at the library every week” instead of “Stella will learn all her letters.”
- Make it a game. Regular rounds of Candy Land, Go Fish, and other games with rules steep kids in the give-and-take of group experiences. Plus, they get practice in accepting and responding to both wins and losses. It is not too early to learn about being a good sport. Try playing games in pairs or teams too.
- Be a cheerleader. Model for kids how to be a supportive friend or family member. Praise them when they encourage a sib who’s struggling or make a helpful suggestion.
- Let everyone contribute. Include kids in family projects and tasks, like gardening, meal planning and cooking, or crafts (“We are all going to work together on this gift for Grandpa!”). Show them they have a role to play and that you value their participation.
- Teach conflict resolution. Arguments are almost inevitable when two (or more) kids are collaborating. Learning how to resolve them is so valuable! If you witness a conflict, see whether kids can work it out. They might need help listening to each other and problem solving (“Can you think of a way you can both paint?”). Or they might need a cooling-off period or a distraction, and then they can try again.
Start Out with STEM
You can also help your child get excited about STEM learning at home. Try doing experiments like these together:
It’s also valuable (and easier than you think) to talk about math, and there are lots of fun math games and activities you can share too. And of course, cooking together brings science and math learning right to your kitchen.