What is a cloud? Why do boats float? How does a car work? If you have a preschooler or kindergartener in your life, you could hear 100 questions like this every day. Little learners have such a wide-open curiosity about the world, you may have caught yourself wishing you understood more about the science of clouds or bridge engineering or botany yourself—just to explain things.
Despite the ravenous interest so many little ones have in STEM topics (science, technology, engineering and math), that enthusiasm tends to fade as they get older. But with STEM careers making up a huge part of today’s (and likely the future’s) economy, it’s clearly not a bad idea to keep feeding that fire. STEM activities need to be introduced early on because in today’s age of information, the ability to innovate, be technologically fluent, and understand how and why things work together is incredibly important.
But finding STEM projects for kids the average parent or teacher can facilitate is not always easy. Fortunately for you, we’ve taken care of the guesswork and compiled a list of 11 simple STEM activities for kids you can employ as early as preschool.
11 Simple STEM activities for kids
These simple STEM projects for kids will help reinforce important life skills and help to potentially spark a lifetime interest in this crucial field.
1. Cloud in a Jar
Condensation, water cycles and states of matter all get some attention with this delightful activity. A few simple household ingredients (water and hairspray) come together to demonstrate the formation of a cloud for kids.
This activity can be very simple for the littlest ones—or scaled up for older kids into an experiment with two different methods to create a cloud, along with conversation about how water cycles work in the environment. For bonus points, take the kids out on a foggy or cloudy day and perform this activity to help them connect the dots.
2. Oil Spill
Why not try an activity that will connect back to real issues? In this activity, you simply mix oil and water in a large container and add a few feathers to the mix. Then pass out materials like sponges, paper towels or little spoons and instruct the children to try to remove the oil from the water and feathers.
Have the kids try to remove the oil without removing too much water. You can use this activity to show how oil spills can affect the environment, letting them observe how the oil affected the feathers and how difficult it was to remove it from the water. The basic elements of this activity (mixing oil and water) make it easy for the learning level to be scaled up or down depending on the child’s age—oil can obviously be messy, so use your discretion with younger learners.
3. Sticky Note Number Match
With a sheet of paper taped to the wall, some sticky notes and a marker, you can set up this movement-oriented math activity to help kids understand the meaning of numeric values. Instead of memorizing lists of numbers, this “game” lets kids hunt for sticky note numbers and stick them on the wall over the grouping of dots (or stars or banana stickers, if you like) that matches the number.
The setup for this activity could not be simpler, and anyone with tape and paper can make it happen! If your kids are still working on the concept—numbers 1-5 can be an easy place to start.
4. Coding a LEGO® Maze
In this activity, children can begin to learn the basics of coding. This activity from ResearchParent offers suggestions on how to scale the activity down for younger kids, as well as how to complicate it for elementary school and even middle school children.
With free printable materials like different mazes and instruction cards, your child puts themselves in the shoes of the “user” and lines up different codes (printed instructions) in order to “guide” their LEGO person through the maze. As kids perform this activity, they learn to estimate the perspective of something else and build a rudimentary understanding of command codes, sequence and looping that can help them with coding basics later on.
5. Crystal Sun Catchers
Making crystals with salt is a popular kid’s science activity—for good reason! The ingredients are cheap, available at the grocery store—and the results are lots of “Ooooh’s” and “Ahh’s” from your kiddos.
This particular activity also involves making the crystals into a sun catcher! And for those of you who like to throw some art education into the mix, the post also includes hyperlinks to an art icon whose work was inspired by warping geometry, much like the crystals.
6. Building a Hand Crank Winch
This STEM project is perfect for those kids who love to get crafty and learn how things work. The concept of the winch is a perfect way to build an early sense of how people can build awesome things with simple machines like pulleys.
Little ones will probably need your help constructing the winch—but with tools like cardboard paper towel rolls and a spool of ribbon, the parts are all kid-friendly (and inexpensive).
7. Build a Balance Scale
This activity involves a plastic hanger, some cups and string. Make your young ones a hanging balance they can use to experiment with weights. Or, if you have an older child—enlist their help in building the scale as well!
To encourage their sense of experimentation, Hands On As We Grow suggests asking questions like, “How many LEGOs does this toy car weigh?” With lots of options to add variety (sorting by shapes, by materials, etc.), this homemade scale can be a STEM project you return to again and again.
8. Magnetic Slime
Homemade “slime” activities are a staple for many parents and educators looking for a fun tactile activity. This variant adds a splash of science by adding iron oxide powder and magnets into the mix. Getting the slime consistency right can be a little tricky, but most issues can be resolved with either adding more glue or more liquid starch. Once the starch is ready, you’ll need a strong neodymium magnet (or more) to start manipulating the slime.
This activity is an excellent conversation starter as kids are sure to have a lot of questions about how magnets work—so don’t forget to brush up on the subject yourself before getting started!
9. Jellybean Building
All you’ll need is a pile of jellybeans (or large marshmallows) and toothpicks for your student or child to start learning about structures. By connecting toothpicks with jellybeans, encourage your child to see which shapes hold together well, which shapes stack well and which shapes are most interesting to look at.
This activity can help them start to understand the thought, design and technology behind structural engineering. Try challenging them to create a house or a specific structure—it’s a blast to see them considering their options as they build.
10. Pipe Cleaner Counting
For the student or child just learning to count, understanding that numbers increase in size can be confusing. With just pipe cleaners and beads, you can help your child learn to count while also getting a visual of how numbers increase in size. Simply take small pieces of paper and label each pipe cleaner with a number. Then, have your child order the pipe cleaners from smallest to greatest and start stringing on the correct number of beads while counting aloud.
11. Stop-Motion Animation Video
Here’s an excellent option for creative STEM learning. We’ve all seen the fun stop-motion videos online, but you probably never thought of creating one yourself or, better yet, with your kids. With just a few objects, a smartphone or iPad® and a stop-motion app, your kids can learn about the technology behind movie-making and create a video unique to their own likes and interests.
STEM projects for kids that fit development
Now that you have some simple and inexpensive STEM activities for kids, you are well-equipped to help your little ones explore the exciting foundations of science, technology, engineering and math.
As you can imagine, there are tons of STEM activities for all ages floating around out there. You might be wondering how to find more ideas that are age-appropriate for the kids in your life. A big part of that is understanding early childhood development yourself. When you know more about the way young children learn, you might have the inspiration to create a few activities of your own!
Check out our article “Early Childhood Development: Understanding the Milestones“ for a refresher on the paths children tend to chart as they grow and learn.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019.