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Women in STEM Q4 2020

Helping children engage with STEM through play

Image provided by Early Childhood Ireland

Maire Corbett

Digital Co-ordinator, Early Childhood Ireland

Engagement in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) should start as early as possible in life as the benefits are immeasurable.


A child’s interest in STEM happens through access to materials that encourage them to be curious, to explore with adults interacting in a playful, exploratory manner.

Addressing STEM barriers   

There are undeniable barriers to this happening, especially for girls. One large toy retailer famously had so called ‘boys toys’ in one aisle and ‘girls toys’ in a separate aisle. While this may be gone, still today when I looked at the Pokémon section of a toy shop website, only boys appear in the images, while mostly girls feature in the doll section. Thankfully, however, both girls and boys feature playing with science sets. 

I recently read an article looking at the messages on boys and girls clothes: boys clothes frequently feature slogans such as ‘superhero’, while those for girls send messages such as ‘princess’. These subliminal messages need to change. Parents and others who buy toys for young children may perceive that STEM subjects are for older children, so may not think to buy toys and books that promote an interest in these subjects.  

Ensuring girls and boys are exposed to and have equal opportunities to explore STEM from their earliest days is vital to a vibrant, creative, innovate STEM sector in the future. 

Giving children freedom to explore  

However, toys are often not needed! So called ‘Loose Parts’, (a term coined in the 1970’s by architect Simon Nicholson) give children the opportunity to explore, be creative and expand more on their ideas than with traditional toys.  

We are all familiar with the child who derives more fun out of the box the toy came in, than the toy itself! Loose parts, sometimes called open-ended materials, consist of natural materials such as stones and sticks as well as household items like hubcaps, fabric, pegs and boxes.  

Here are some ideas to engage children in STEM: 

Science: water play/ sinking and floating; finding worms in the garden; seasons and weather. 

Technology: taking photos; researching things online together. 

Engineering: playing with wooden blocks and Lego; looking at and drawing plans and maps, exploring distance on stepping stones (or logs!). 

Maths: shapes and patterns; counting; cooking (weights and measures).  

What’s important is that materials are available and fun. Didactic, formal learning can be counterproductive by destroying curiosity! Chat, laugh and explore STEM in a playful manner and you’re well on the way to having curious, interested learners.  

Ensuring girls and boys are exposed to and have equal opportunities to explore STEM from their earliest days is vital to a vibrant, creative, innovate STEM sector in the future. 

In Ireland we have an early childhood curriculum framework called Aistear with 4 key themes.  

Exploring and Thinking is the theme most relevant to STEM.

Encouraging curiosity is key to supporting children to develop an interest in STEM subjects.  

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