Sparking Interest in STEM through Animals and Literacy

Image Source: Jackie Steffen

What sparks your curiosity?  What sparks the curiosity of your children?  I would venture to guess that nature and animals might rank pretty high on the list of interests for you and the children you work with every day.  Using animals and nature with children is a wonderful opportunity to teach empathy, conservation and environmental stewardship.  Fortunately, Nebraska Extension has an exciting early childhood resource to share with you this year around animals and their habitats.  This year, we are thrilled to provide eight guides highlighting habitats such as the tundra, rainforest, and desert.

Image Source: Sarah Roberts

Nebraska Extension has created this great resource for parents, early childhood professionals, care takers, grandparents, and anyone who loves to read with young children that ties directly with local libraries’ summer reading programs.  Summer reading programs are taking place right now and the theme across the state is Tails and Tales.  Our STEM Imagination Guides are designed to provide several opportunities to connect with each year’s theme by featuring:

  • Familiar storybook suggestions:
    • The stories that have been selected for each guide are well-known stories and often children’s favorites.  It is okay if you child has already heard the story prior to taking part in the lesson.  Sharing a story multiple times helps children develop language and listening skills. 
  • Conversation starters:
    • When a two-way conversation is initiated with children during story time, participation in dialogic reading is encouraged.  Open-ended questions are provided in each lesson to foster dialogic reading which has tremendous academic and social-emotional benefits for young children. 
  • STEM connection experiments:
    • Children love finding out how things work through fun, hands-on projects.  The experiment included in each guide relates to the featured habitat and teaches a variety of STEM concepts that are engaging and educational.
  • Sensory explorations:
    • Sensory play stimulates children’s senses and is important for brain development.  During the suggested sensory activities, children use multiple senses which allows them to learn more from their experiences and retain more information.
  • Music and movement activities:
    • Research shows that music ignites all areas of child development and enhances skills for school readiness.  Not only is singing songs and playing games fun, but these activities also encourage self-expression and physical activity. 
  • Creative arts investigations:
    • When children create pictures of stories that they have read, comprehension improves and often motivates children to want to read and interact with books even more.  Art is an early form of communication.  Creative art suggestions allow children to express themselves and make meaningful connections with the stories.
  • Additional related readings:
    • Since each of the Imagination Guides focus on a different habitat, children often have additional questions and are interested in learning MORE!   Supplemental fiction and nonfiction books are suggested so children can expand their knowledge.
Image Source: Jackie Steffen

The STEM Imagination Guides can be utilized in a variety of ways.  No need to panic if you do not have access to the featured storybook.  Consider listening to the story online or sharing the story orally from memory.  Each Imagination Guide has a variety of options and can be customized to meet the needs and interests of the children in your care.  Incorporate all of the activities or just a few.  It is up to you!  The shared reading experience and creative play opportunities are sure to create an excitement for animals as well as foster a joy for reading.   

All of these resources are free and available for download and print at https://go.unl.edu/imagination.  This website also houses the previous year’s resources focusing on fairy tales.  This website is like a treasure chest of great literacy and STEM resources right at your fingertips.  All Imagination Guides, whether from this year or previous years can be utilized at no cost.  Enjoy this year’s habitat exploration!

SARA ROBERTS AND JACKIE STEFFEN, EXTENSION EDUCATORS | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Amy Napoli, Assistant Professor & Early Childhood Extension Specialist and LaDonna Werth and Lynn DeVries Extension Educators, The Learning Child

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Benefits of Reading Aloud

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Parents want what’s best for their children, and many ask what expensive toys they should buy, what extracurricular activities they should be involved in, or if they should be playing classical music at home to advance brain development. 

Jim Trelease, the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, has a straightforward answer in regards to what’s best for children.

He says, “Read to your children.

Starting at birth, reading with children puts them on the path to success. In fact, researchers determined that reading aloud to young children is the single most important thing that parents can do to prime children for school success.

Here are three benefits of reading aloud with children.

Benefit #1: Increased Vocabulary and Sophisticated Language Patterns

When it comes to prekindergarten skills, vocabulary is a prime predictor of school success or failure. When you read aloud to children, they hear words that do not ordinarily come up in conversations. Because of this, it expands a child’s vocabulary faster than anything else does. 

The value picture books play in vocabulary development should not be underestimated. Many of them are written grammatically correct and include sophisticated writing that is rich in content and meaning. As children listen to these stories, their vocabularies strengthen without effort. 

Benefit #2: Ability to Make Connections

Reading comprehension is critical. We take the work of decoding out when we read aloud. This lets children use their mental energy to enjoy and make connections, which improves reading comprehension. 

Children need to understand what they read and apply it to what they know. That is making connections. Children connect the information they encounter for the first time with other facts and ideas they have already encountered. They compare it to other stories they’ve heard, personal events they’ve encountered, and to the world beyond themselves. 

Without even intending to, children make connections every time a book is opened. Stories allow them to slip into another world, think deeply, bond with characters, and educate their hearts and mind.   

Benefit #3: A Love for Reading

More important than teaching children, the actual skill of reading is to cultivate natural curiosity and love of reading. When we focus on nurturing children’s love of stories, we get both kids who can read as well as kids who do read. A healthy reading life has a tremendous impact on children’s academic success.

In a world full of noise and the hustle and bustle, pulling a child on your lap and reading is one of the best uses of your time and energy. It may seem simple, but being fully present and sharing good stories makes a huge and lasting impact because a childhood filled with stories inspires and nurtures children. Therefore, read widely to spark that ember. Author Linda Sue Park said, “A book can’t change the world on its own, but a book can change readers. And readers? They can change the world.”

So, the next time you spend time reading with your children, just remember, each time you turn the page you just might be changing the world.

Resources:

Mackenzie, S. (2018). The read-aloud family: making meaningful and lasting connections with your kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1998). Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/PSREAD98.PDF

TEDxBeaconStreet. (2015, December). Can A Children’s Book Change the World? Linda Sue Park. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/40xz0afCjnM

JACKIE STEFFEN, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Linda Reddish, Extension Educator, The Learning Child and Lynn DeVries, Extension Educator, The Learning Child

Make sure to follow The Learning Child on social media for more research-based early childhood education resources!

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