Today’s Post: Are you curious how you teach engineering to preschoolers? Are you wondering if it’s a waste of time? I teach engineering through our STEAM Activities for Preschoolers and not only are they loads of fun but they open up our early education years to exploring and problem solving challenges. Join me as we learn How to Teach Engineering to Preschoolers.
How to Teach Engineering to Preschoolers
When I mentioned I was writing about this topic to my husband, he is a mechanical engineer, looked at me perplexed. His next statement was – ” Well HOW do you teach engineering to preschoolers”? I laughed and said well that’s why I wanted to talk to you about this! In my mind it seems so complex but it’s not, it can’t be! We began our conversation like this…which in turn ended up in this whole article to share with you.
The more we talked and discussed I found it even more eye opening to just how many opportunities each day that I have to teach our toddler and preschooler the skills behind engineering. Many times in my mind I felt the need to make engineering a complex topic, when in reality engineering activities for preschoolers are in our everyday lives, all around us. That’s not to say there aren’t designated times that I choose a theme or project that we work on together…but there is a time and place for both.
Engineering doesn’t have to be a scary word, phrase or term within our vocabulary. Also it is not a learning style we should avoid because we feel like it’s only for elementary students or older.
First let’s define what Engineering is:
Engineering is a process to solve problems. So in a sense everyone is doing engineering in some way or some form. So for our little minds –> preschoolers –> as they are young, no they aren’t solving these massive problems but every activity we are doing with them is only leading up to problem solving larger “problems”.
Engineering is the process by which young children discover how the things in their world are built and how they work. Whether it is building a block tower or it is exploring a simple pendulum, engineering is a natural part of everyday, early learning.
In the end: The goal of engineering is problem solving.
So how do you teach Engineering to Preschoolers…the topic at hand, right? As Fun a Day says “Children are natural engineers. They love to design and build with almost anything they can get their hands on, don’t you think?”
But the question is how do you teach them to engineering…
For me it really simplified and solidified in my mind, it’s not as complex as I was making it!
- Let them explore! Give them opportunities to explore. While exploring you are opening up their minds to sensory play through them having an understanding of: this is what it does (whatever activity they are exploring), this is what it feels like, this is what it looks like. All of these things lead them toward different avenues down the road in the learning process.
- Let them play! Let them be kids and play in the dirt, play with sticks, blocks, sand, buckets, shovels, etc. I think way too often in our culture we don’t allow our kids to get “dirty” enough. Mud and sand won’t hurt them – this only creates opportunities to explore, create and imagine. I know as a kid we made many mud pies and some of them were quite creative! Let their minds explore, imagine and create.
- Designate Activities! Plan engineering activities, give specific materials to let them build and engineer with. Have a plan and purpose, this is just as important as the freedom to play and explore.
“Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength,” Remember, play is a cherished part of childhood. By finding the right balance between work and play, your children will grow up happier, better adjusted, and more prepared to conquer the world. – Parent Magazine
- Create Challenges! There is nothing wrong with creating challenges for your preschoolers to engineer and build. Give them a basket of blocks and challenge them to see how high they can create a tower. Gather rocks outside and create a rock tower. They will soon learn you can’t build, from the bottom up, with the smallest rock they found…rather the largest needs to be their base.
- Create an environment of building things! Give them a basket of materials and see what they can build and create. There are many times I will give my preschooler paper, glue, scissors, random craft supplies and let her create and imagine. Many times she tells me it’s a house, although it doesn’t look like that to me, she’s learning SO much through this “play”.
Engineering Learning Process
The whole idea behind STEAM preschool activities is to break toddlers/preschoolers learning into Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. There is a process you want to follow when teaching a STEAM activity. I won’t dig into that here, today, but if you want to read more on the process of STEAM learning head over to my article: Everything You Need to Know About STEAM.
As with the STEAM process, there is a process for teaching engineering as well. In a simple form it goes like this:
- Identify the Problem
For our preschoolers and as a mom/teacher you’ll want to simplify that engineering process a bit. Here is what I like to follow:
So you may be wondering how to put this engineering process for preschoolers into action. I’m going to give you a very simple example but hopefully you can then relate it to any other engineering activity for preschoolers.
Scenario- Preschool Engineering Activity – Building a Block Tower:
ASK: Now is the time to get conversation started with your toddler or preschooler about their block tower. Ask them questions like what materials are we using? What shapes are our blocks? How high do you think we can build the tower? Will our tower be tall and skinny or short and wide? Get them TALKING!
IMAGINE: Through the asking you’ll spark their imaginations for ideas. i.e. When you asked them “Will our tower be tall and skinny or short and wide?” Their minds may have begun to create a triple block tower vs. one block at a time. Let them imagine and run with their imaginations!
PLAN: If they have verbally told you enough (depending on their age will depend on how much communication) then it’s time to help them plan how they will start their tower. Talk about the foundation being the most important part and how will you build the foundation so that your tower will stand when it becomes tall, etc.
CREATE: Give them the materials and let them GO! Give them freedom, let them explore, let them fail…when they fail they will learn the most! As a parent and teacher, letting them fail and not stopping them when we see them make a mistake is hard. Yet when the students make a mistake this is when they process so much learning from their failure.
IMPROVE: When they have made a mistake or failed…i.e. the tower fell before it got as high as we had planned. Here you need to have even more conversation…why did it fall? How can we improve our tower? Let’s try it again with that improvement and see if we can get it as high as we had planned. Always encourage them to keep trying when the plan didn’t go as planned!
TIPS: (because this scenario WILL happen!)
If the child gets frustrated – saying that they can’t do this – lead them through the process again by asking them what the problem is. It can sometimes be hard to get them to communicate this answer but help them communicate it in some way. Preschoolers you will have to help with investigation to some degree when it comes to identifying the problem and how to solve it.
Another simple scenario – lets say we are engineering a project and working with scissors…
The preschooler says “I can’t get the scissors to work.”
You ask “Why? Is there glue on them? Is there tape? Is that why they won’t work?” provoke them to thought. The key is having a lot of one on one conversation with your preschoolers or toddlers through the engineering process. You aren’t telling them the process you are just leading them through the engineering learning process.
When you finish an engineering activity ask if they could make it better? Don’t finish just to finish. Finish to do your best. Push them to their best even in the end.
Preschool Engineering Projects
There are numerous sources where you can find preschool engineering projects, engineering activities for preschoolers, engineering lesson plans for preschoolers and classroom activities. I’m not going to spend a ton of time going through those projects but I will say…
Raising Lifelong Learners has some great everyday engineering resources and activities from cereal pouring Rube Goldberg, to building with random pieces of wood/pipe/pvc, challenges for bridge designs, marble runs and low budget DIY cork blocks and more.
Teach preschool engineering through everything you are doing whether an art project or a science project.
- The easy way out, when it comes to teaching, is to just shrug off a problem when it arises in our everyday activities. Rather than shrug it off use real life problems and situations to figure out what is going on, teaching their young minds to problem solve.
- Use resources in your everyday life to give them challenges.
In closing I’ll share a few of our favorite engineering activities we’ve done that are simple, incorporate science, technology, engineering (obviously), art and math – so all elements of STEAM learning.
- Engineering a Bird Feeder – we have loved this and have done this preschool project several times, so much STEAM learning built into this one activity.
- Anytime candy/food is involved it’s always a hit! Using jelly beans + toothpicks let your kids engineer shapes and structures. Using a FREE printable to get their minds started and before you know it they’ll be creating amazing structures on their own.
- Did someone say ABC’s + Playdoh? Well that’s always a fun hit at our house! Engineering & Building ABC towers!
- Another version of #2 but with marshmallows and toothpicks! Engineering Shapes and Structures.
- Building a Snowflake was one of our first engineering activities for preschoolers and we still talk about this one!
Engineering Vocabulary for Preschoolers
Lastly, I’ll leave you with some thoughts I gathered from Preschool Powol Packets where she talks about using “big words” and vocabulary with your preschoolers. They are never to young to soak in these words…their minds are excited to hear big words and begin processing them. She shares some great vocabulary to start introducing them to:
What engineering activities do you love doing with your preschoolers? We are always up to hearing new ideas and giving them a try. Leave your ideas in the comments below!
We are a husband and wife team, pairing our strengths together to teach our preschooler in the most fun and engaging way we possibly can. The mister is a high school educator at Northlake Christian school in Covington Louisiana and over the Innovation Center, which is all things STEAM. I am a SAHM that blogs pretty much everything we do in our little paradise, from what we eat, to where we travel to how we teach our little one. We hope you are inspired to incorporate STEAM into learning with your children.