Expert Articles

Integrating STEM Learning into Toddlers’ Daily Lives – Exploring “Water”

Author: Ms Esther Chong
Lecturer at Yew Chung College of Early Childhood Education

Toddlers taking their first steps are natural explorers. Free exploration and play are the best ways for toddlers aged 13 to 22 months to learn, and undoubtedly, parents who spend time with them are their best playmates. Parents can support their children’s exploration through questioning, singing, and humming songs together. When toddlers feel secure in their environment and have their primary caregivers as partners, they gain the confidence to venture out and discover their STEM world. Evidence from the past 30 years of research shows that children can engage in and test their own theories, just like scientists (Gopnik, 2012; Gopnik, Schulz, & Schulz, 2007; Gopnik & Wellman, 2012). STEM learning is closely related to our daily lives and can even be integrated into toddlers’ everyday activities. Parents can explore STEM with their children through regular routines.

Even without using any learning tools, daily interactions between parents and toddlers can already build confidence in exploration.

  • Frequent physical contact with the child, such as holding them close, gently rocking or stroking them, and engaging in baby exercises like stretching and bending their legs or changing their body posture, are all excellent ways of interacting.
  • By maintaining frequent eye contact with the child, parents can gaze into their eyes within the child’s visual range (20 to 25 centimeters or 8 to 10 inches for newborns) and interact with them using interesting and exaggerated facial expressions. The gentle gaze and facial expressions of parents encourage toddlers to explore their surroundings and build confidence while exploring.
  • Talking, responding to their sounds, singing softly, and humming gently. Babies are particularly drawn to the gentle voices of their parents. Responding to toddlers will prolong your interaction with them. Express positivity through your voice and body, allowing them to feel encouraged to explore and stimulating their curiosity about daily life.

Parents can incorporate small elements into the daily routine activities of toddlers to aid their overall development. Taking the concept of “water” as an example, when you drink water, clean, wash hands, or bathe with your child:

  • Parents can engage in open-ended conversations with their child, asking questions like “Where can we find water?” or “When do we use water?” Parents can self-ask and answer questions to provide vocabulary input for the child, such as “Turning on the water tap provides water, the shower has water, and the kettle has water,” or “We drink water, we use water to shower, and we wash our hands.”
  • Parents can hold their child’s small hand, allowing them to feel the sensation of water flowing through their palms and fingers. During the process, parents can describe the activities the child is observing and engaging in. For example, during water play, say, “Try to catch the water.” “The water feels cool and wet.” “The water is flowing away.”
  • Parents can use everyday objects or even the child’s body to experience the process. For example, parents can try using their hands as containers to hold water, guiding the child to observe how water flows between their fingers. Alternatively, use different objects, like cups, to hold water, allowing the child to see the differences. You can also pour water from different heights using a container while bathing the child, letting them observe the variations.
  • By inviting the child to explain their observations, parents can encourage their logical thinking (Kegare & Lombrozo, 2014; Walker, Lombrozo, Legare, & Gopnik, 2014). Parents can let the child play with simple tools, such as a showerhead with adjustable temperature or a faucet with adjustable water flow. The child can observe the relationship between their actions and the results, thus developing their causal thinking.
  • During a warm water bath in the winter, you can use your fingers to draw pictures or write on the steamy walls or glass, experiencing the three states of water with your child. During this process, you can naturally explain to the child, “This is water vapor. When the temperature is high enough, water evaporates and becomes water vapor.” They may not fully understand the underlying principles, but they will know that water and water vapor have different forms, and the small water droplets on the glass are water vapor. When they learn similar concepts in the future, they will grasp them more quickly. By introducing conceptual vocabulary to children early on, parents can support their vocabulary and cognitive load development (Kail, Lervag, & Hulme, 2016).
  • You can also play with water while washing hands, for example, by using your fingertips to create water droplets on different parts of the child’s body or gently splashing water on their face or body. Your child may burst into laughter because of it. It’s easy to combine water play with STEM. You can give the child small toys and let them freely manipulate them. The child may repeatedly drop the toys into the water and repeat these actions many times. It is also one of their ways of testing cause and effect, this is also one of their ways of exploring the world.
  • Incorporating water-related books or picture cards into your reading time can further enhance your child’s understanding of water. You can use simple and colourful books that introduce water-related concepts, such as the water cycle, different bodies of water, and the importance of water for living things. Discuss the pictures together, point out different water sources, and ask questions to encourage their thinking and language development.
  • By integrating the concept of water, you can also extend the concept of “water” to other life concepts, including weather (rain), food (ice), and the environment (rivers and oceans), among others. This is one of the benefits of using broad concepts instead of specific themes. When parents use theme-based learning, the content is easily limited to the current theme and lacks extension. By starting with scientific concepts, we can discover that the same scientific concept can be seen in various aspects of life. 
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Integrating STEM Learning into Toddlers' Daily Lives – Exploring "Water"