Once again, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to ask Congress to help states fund early childhood education. The fact that he needed to raise the issue again is a signal that our nation is not yet taking seriously the opportunity to truly improve educational results by assuring that our youngest children have access to high quality early education.
Every year we wait, another cohort of children starts their education too late. If we are serious about preparing our young people to succeed in an increasingly technical economy, we cannot let this continue.
There is abundant research supporting the value of high quality early childhood care and education. Truly, it consistently proves to be a strong predictor of a child’s later success in school and in life. Children who enter kindergarten with a history of exposure to science- and math-related words and experiences are much more likely to succeed throughout their entire academic careers. Children who are supported in asking questions, making observations, testing their ideas, and articulating their experiences are children who are developing the thinking skills that are so important in school and life.
Nearly half aren’t kindergarten-ready
Currently almost 50 percent of Minnesota’s children enter kindergarten before they are ready. And most of us don’t need to be reminded that the achievement gaps between white children and children of color are the highest in the nation when measured at fourth grade.
Research indicates that quality early childhood education programs can help prepare children for school. Yet many families don’t have access to high-quality preschool due to its cost, varying quality, and accessibility. Because our state lacks academic standards for pre-K, there are widespread disparities in the content, approaches, and opportunities for early learning. But all children deserve to have an education that is grounded in basic skills and that will set them up for success once they are of elementary school age.
And among those skills, even at an early age, are the skills of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Setting children up for success
Why STEM? The thinking skills fostered by deep engagement in these disciplines — for example the ability to ask questions, make observations, test ideas, describe patterns, and manipulate their environment — are thinking skills that are natural to young children. Early childhood educators who are comfortable and competent with the STEM disciplines and who can approach these in the classroom with intentionality and purpose can support children in their learning and development. This sets children up for success in their later years by providing a solid grounding in the practices of science, the habits of mind required to think scientifically, as well as building a strong foundation in math literacy.
Children who have been supported in these disciplines will be better prepared for kindergarten, yes, but also better prepared for learning just about anything else, including language and social studies. These are children who will be confident articulating questions and observations, who can think about evidence, look at patterns and notice changes. They are children who will make conclusions based on observable evidence, just like scientists. They are children who, like mathematicians, can manipulate objects in space, recognize and create patterns. They can measure, modify, sort and group objects with ease. They are children who, like engineers, can create things based on their ideas, re-making them and collaborating with others.
Don’t leave it to luck
These are practices that should be nurtured by all educators, and this is especially so in the early childhood and kindergarten years. Children are natural scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. When children are lucky enough to have teachers who support them in their growth, many doors open.
This is an issue that should not be left to luck, nor a gift that’s given to a lucky few. This is a gift that all children in Minnesota deserve. It is time to make early childhood education — including early childhood STEM education — available to all of Minnesota’s children.
Patty Born Selly is executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. She has been involved in nature and science education for more than 10 years. She is the author of “Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth” and writes the Small Wonders blog. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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