Before March 2020, there were many conversations about the benefits of minimizing screen time for young learners. Since the pandemic hit, educators and parents have had no choice but to rely on screens to reach and teach students. But screen-based learning is not always developmentally appropriate for young learners, and it is not well suited to some forms of learning. STEAM lessons in particular, with their exploratory and experiential elements, may seem impossible to deliver in a remote learning model.
But with the right tools and the right approach, we can keep engaging our young learners in STEAM. Here’s how educators, whether they’re teaching 100% virtual or in a blended learning environment, can teach STEAM concepts in a hands-on, playful way.
Grounding learning in hands-on manipulatives
Jean Piaget, an influential educational theorist who explored the way young children learn concepts, described their cognitive development as progressing by stages toward more abstract thinking. Children in preschool and early elementary grades are in what Piaget called the “pre-operational” stage. They are grounded in the physical world, and they engage with concepts through the objects and materials immediately at hand. To think about abstract concepts that aren’t immediately tangible to them is a cognitive skill that children do not develop until later.
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As a result, young learners aged 2 to 7 learn best by experimenting and engaging with concrete objects. When introducing new ideas, educators can ground lessons with physical objects that students can touch, feel, and move around in a physical space. That’s one of the reasons robotics is an effective way to introduce computer science, engineering, computational thinking, and critical thinking—the robot becomes a physical expression of the STEAM concepts that the teacher presents. If young students learn the foundations of coding using a physical object like a robot, they will be more successful in constructing their own understanding of the abstract concepts of sequencing and algorithms.