I opened a STEM-based Preschool with almost no screens; even fewer rules. Here’s how its going.
An opportunity fell into my lap in October and came as opportunities often do, in the form of a total inconvenience.
If you’re interested in knowing a little about me; I have spent the past 8 years living the life of a stay-at-home mom. Anyone who has done it knows what it is; mostly boredom but somehow with more to do than can ever be done. Hugs, kisses, and firsts; beautiful moments mixed into a stew with stressed-out mom hair, out of style flared yoga pants and a total lack of adult interaction. Before this life, employed in a public schools’ Preschool for children with developmental delays, I learned vast amounts from incredible children. Watching a nonverbal student receive a piece of technology that would finally allow him to express himself without a tantrum was magic. Becoming best friends (I wish) with a spunky little girl who came each day in a wheelchair to learn English as her second language with more positivity than I can ever muster that early in the morning was humbling. Each day different than the one before.
Dustin, my husband, is a Software Developer currently engrossed in his flagship company as an entrepreneur. He met a fellow business owner who was musing over what to do with the empty space he held during the daytime hours before his after-school coding academy opened at 3pm each day. Dustin mentioned to him that I am Educated and experienced in Early Childhood Education and have experience helping him run coding camps for children. The idea was brought to me to start a STEM preschool in the space, making both of us brand-new entrepreneurs at the same time *GULP.
A daily schedule was set. Everything a regular preschool uses was purchased and prepared, and then the fun part came. STEM. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; the four fields of the future. The questions arose from a surprising amount of friends and family members “How on earth do you teach preschoolers STEM?” “Do they have to code all day?” “Will they just be staring at computer screens or playing computer games?” “Will they still learn letters, sounds, colors, art, etc for Kindergarten?” I was surprised at how easy it was for me to answer these questions and to prepare a program built to address all of these concerns. I suppose the combination of being married to a tech guy and working with children for so long had prepared me for this very time.
The first day came, and it was chaos in the way that the first day of preschool always is. Crying for mom, refusal to participate in group activities; the usual. The second day was much better. I purchased a set of “wiggle toys” as the kids call them. At any time during the day, the children are allowed to hold one of these toys in their hands when they feel that sitting still during group times is too tough. These are wonderful. Monkey Noodles are by far the favorites in the box, but they all help when the wiggles strike.
The first STEM activity I was excited to incorporate was a game called Robot Races, wherein one child is the “Robot,” and one is the “Programmer.” A large twister-esque mat is thrown down, and the programmer must use large arrows and instruction boards to guide the robot to the other side of the mat safely. There are instructions for making the game more challenging that we will work up to as the year goes on, but this was enough for my class so soon in the year. They were naturals at it. So excited to be part of controlling a robot and when inevitable roadblocks and mistakes were made, they acted like true programmers, going back through their “code” and correcting any errors, making it better than before. This game has been a favorite in our classroom.
The scientific method was next on my list to tackle with my junior geniuses. Bottles were filled with water and a teaspoon of orbeez. The children noted their hypothesis regarding what would happen as time went by. Each half-hour we made observations such as “half of the water is gone” and “my orbeez are getting bigger, but now they look wrinkly.” Once the day was almost over, we drew conclusions about what had happened inside to make the Orbeez look the way they do, etc.
Many more activities have followed such as creating an atmosphere using shaving cream, food coloring, water, and a dropper. The children were able to make water boil at room temperature and explore geodes, fossils and sharks’ teeth. While most of our learning is without screens, they do have their place. We have purchased several Oculus Go VR headsets so that the children may explore the topics we are currently studying through virtual-reality. Playdoh touch has been used to show cause and effect by allowing the children to create a real-life doh creation and turn it into an avatar in a simulation using iPads. A local yoga teacher comes in on occasion for a little storybook yoga class to give the kids the proven benefits of yoga for information retention, improvement in hyperactivity and relaxation for the brain and body.
Engineering has been a significant part of our days as well, taking advantage of legos, blocks, straw and connector sets, robot and automobile building kits for young kids. Some unexpected mediums have arisen. Innovation cannot be stressed enough with children. I have learned that though I have spent a lot of time and money by providing them with activities proven to foster teamwork and creativity, nothing can replace exploration.
Light boards have been a source of exploration I did not see coming. I purchased 5 light boards, generally used by artists for tracing, for my classroom. The purpose intended was to use the neon-colored plastic tubes, cups, dots, glass marbles, ping pong balls, shapes and fish as counters or some other educational or fine motor purpose. They love them for these purposes, but I have seen more joy in filling the neon plastic tubes with ‘diamonds,’ stacking them on one another and building massive structures that I would never have imagined and make-shift kaleidoscopes. My 4' 0" tall students are stacking these little tubes into towers 15 feet high and higher. They work together as a team to build them on the ground and hoist them into the air like Amish at a barn raising. I dare say that they are more inventive than any adult I know in their methods. I am sad to say that my first instinct was to tell the architects not to use the tubes in this way; that they were for use in the organized activities only. Instead, I sat back and watched to see how they would use them.
Children need unstructured access to the world around them. This, more than any activity, game or program we can give them will allow kids to design and implement the things that us adults can’t and won’t ever fathom. Let’s not stifle it. Let them use things that “aren’t a toy.” A hiring manager at a major tech company’s wife told me recently that her husband is often forlorn about the lack of creativity in the talent pool coming in to interview. They are educated but not ready to bring in new ideas and experiment with new thoughts. It may make a mess, and it may break. More than a few things have been broken (and often fixed) by students in our classroom. Stuff is cheap, innovation is priceless.