While many children love to spend their free time exploring the outdoors, playing with friends, building structures, and otherwise stretching their imagination, the advent of the omnipresent screen has altered the balance of play. Common Sense Media published a report in 2017 showing that screen time for children between the ages of 0 and 8 averages over three hours per day.
That being the norm, it got me to thinking: How can we provide children with quality Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) opportunities that do not require a digital technology device?
To do so, we need to rethink what our go-to definition of technology is. While many view technology simply as the smart devices, screens, and the wi-fi that keeps everything running, there is much more depth to the concept and its applications. The Oxford Dictionary defines technology as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” This definition points to broader concepts of technology that go beyond a screen.
Using this as a jumping off point, I developed a list of STEAM activities that parents and teachers can use to broaden children’s understanding of technology. I hope this inspires your kids and students!
Building and Making
Hopefully, your children have experienced some sort of physical construction project, whether at school or at home. Legos. Wooden blocks. Stacking blocks. Erector sets. Pillow forts. They all count. Engagement can vary widely, especially when following out-of-the-box instructions. Some children may elect to build and rebuild the same structure over and over.
There are myriad ways to extend a child’s experience with these same objects. For instance, if you have a set of blocks of different shapes, you can create challenge cards that encourage children to build different structures with more than 25 blocks or 18 inches tall. You can find more examples of challenge cards on this site. Through these cards, kids work on identifying units and categorizing types of blocks, and they extend their creativity. The cards provide prompts that will generate conversation between you and your child and inspire more ingenuity!
Storytelling and Stop Motion Animation
If your children enjoy telling or writing stories, a fantastic way to make the ideas come alive is to use stop-motion animation. Children create a character and setting out of materials at home. They can use anything, although I recommend using clay for its ease of manipulation and reusability.
To start, children identify characters, settings, a plot, and dialogue/narration. Then, they can create a storyboard using a template to plan what their scenes will look like. Once they plan, design, and set up what the characters will doing in each scene, they (or the adult “staff photographer”) will take pictures of their scenes.
Mathematically, students must consider spacing and scaling as it relates to each frame in their animation. From an art and design standpoint, students must consider the meaning of each of their clay figures as they pertain to the story. Facial expressions, actions and gestures, and colors are examples of variables that students should consider when conveying meaning.
Technically, you don’t need a separate app for this project, although I highly recommend using one such as Stop Motion Studio or iStopMotion. The app will take the guesswork out of moving pieces from scene to scene. I have categorized this project under Building/Making because much of the work does not require technology; in fact, the photographing of scenes does not have to be done by the student.
While there is much to discover from the comfort of your own home, there are many ways to engage your children with STEAM when you are out and about. This year, I introduced my 3rd–5th graders at Lowell to the concept of a “design challenge.” The design challenge comes from the curricular framework of Design Thinking. Students work to identify problems that connect with their lives in a meaningful way and generate solutions to the problem. Later, they prototype and test their work.
Believe it or not, you can engage your child in a design thinking when you are doing something as simple as errands. When you are stopped at a traffic light, consider the logistics and efficiency of the intersection—how could the traffic flow be improved? Should the light timing change? Should traffic be diverted differently? Next time you are at the supermarket or big box store, question the layout: what could make shopping more efficient? How could checkout speed increase? By having these conversations with your child, you are encouraging the development of a maker’s mindset.
Museums, Programs, and Maker Faires
In the DC metro area, there are lots of museum options and Maker Faires. .
- The KID Museum in Bethesda puts on a wealth of programs for children, including weekend “Open Build Time,” an Invention Studio focused on engineering, and offering skill-based workshops on topics such as textiles, 3D modeling, and woodworking.
- Smithsonian museumssuch as the National Air and Space Museum—both in DC and near Dulles Airport—and the National Museum of Natural History provide hands-on learning opportunities. The DC Air and Space Museum has a variety of Discovery Station activities, and the Dulles location as a STEAM Lab that provides educational resources. The National Museum of Natural History has many “Immersive Experiences” appropriate for a range of ages.
- Other exciting maker museums include the National Building Museum, the Spy Museum, and the National Cryptologic Museum. These places and events provide chances for STEAM to inspire your children in applicative ways. Maker Faires celebrate maker culture and feature hands-on activities. , Many are local to our area.
If you want to use a screen…
There are ways to use screen time in very specific, intentional ways to support a mostly techless tech project. The aforementioned stop motion activity requires the use of a device to simply take pictures and manage the manipulation of scenes. An added bonus of this type of tech use is that children will use the device in a simple way to create something complex and multilayered—in other words, taking advantage of the stop motion app’s photographic layering assists with the creation of the stop motion animation without replacing the need for moving characters around on the “set.”
Other examples of STEAM activities for students that can be screenless or supported minimally by digital tech are programming vehicles like the Bee Bot (for younger students) and the Probot (for older students). The little bumblebee and race car pack a serious programming punch, and with a variety of mats and other accessories to choose from, the possibilities for programming challenges are endless. Blue Bot—the newer Bee Bot variant—does have an associated app that students can use for coding to gain experience with block-based programming. They can program the Blue Bot remotely and can visualize the code from start to finish by using the mobile app associated with the device. While not a requirement to use the Blue Bot, the app can serve to increase the value of the child’s experience coding.