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Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Cameryn Griffiths is a Communications Intern with Let’s Talk Science

Children are natural, curious learners and the way they explore and discover the world is inspiring. They have an innate desire to gather information, explore everything, and test theory after theory. Nurturing these skills and characteristics early in a child’s life builds a solid foundation for their continued growth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Encourage abstract reasoning

Encouraging children to ask and answer questions about the world fosters the development of reasoning skills that are essential to learning about and working in STEM. Children begin to think about their world by making connections, exploring and eventually understanding intangible concepts. They then begin to reason abstractly, allowing them to classify, predict and understand.

But how do they get there? Early on, it is crucial to ask “how” and “why” to challenge children to think differently about how they ask questions. While you might ask a toddler, “what colour is this leaf,” consider asking a child in the primary grades “how / why does a leaf change colour in the fall?” Then questions can progress to “Why do some parts of the world have different climates than ours?” When children are older and better able to deal with more abstract concepts (around Grade 7), they will be ready for more challenging questions and discussions related to topics, like climate change.

Encouraging children to learn how climate affects their lives, the foods they eat and the weather, at the earliest of ages, will help them better understand and potentially want to explore the impacts of climate change on their lives and communities as they grow older. This may even motivate them to join STEM fields to find a solution to real-life challenges.

Creating a learning environment that encourages young children to ask questions, make connections and explore new ideas is critical to developing curious, critical thinkers as they grow older. Questions open the door to inquiry and wonder in children. They stimulate discussion, interest and exploration that may otherwise go untapped.

So where can you start? Ask questions that relate to their world about things they see regularly or elaborate on a topic they have shown an interest in. For example, for a child who likes dogs and cats, ask them, “How are cats and dogs similar? How are they different?” Or while out for a walk in the evening, ask them, “Where is the sun at night? While driving to school, encourage them to think about “Why do cars need wheels?”

Encourage curiosity in their environment

Children naturally have a desire to learn and are curious about their environment. It is important to lean into this desire from an early age. This curiosity can be fostered no matter where they are – at home, school or at play. In the process of identifying, comparing, and predicting, children can be encouraged to explore sizes, shapes, patterns, and quantities.

By facilitating a broader understanding of a topic by fostering meaningful questions, children are able to engage more fully in STEM. For example, it is important to help a child learn to identify plants, but it would be useful to explore what makes this plant different from others.

When talking about the environment, encourage them to identify the weather or different seasons. Encourage children to ask questions about changes in their environment and model life-long learning by exploring with them why leaves fall off the trees, why some clouds produce rain, and others don’t!

Ready to start a conversation and encourage questions?

Encourage play-based active learning

Young children learn through play. Recent studies show that play builds many skills, including language and grammar skills – which in turn develops questioning abilities that support continued learning.

Play-based learning can take many forms, using resources we have right in our homes.

1. Water Play

Water can be used to help children grasp concepts such as more/less, same/different, many/few, empty/full, before/after, greater than/less than, and counting. Incorporating soap into water play can help children understand the concept of cleanliness. Explore with children how a dirty rock cleans up when soap is introduced to water.

2. Sand Play

Incredibly versatile, sand can be used to learn about states of matter. Show children that though sand may seem like a liquid when it’s in water, it is a solid. You can use our activity outlining properties of liquids and solids to help them learn even more!

3. Block Play

Through block play, children learn how to build math skills and problem solve as they create different structures and buildings. Problem-solving through play empowers children to feel confident in their own intelligence, which is important in fostering a healthy self-esteem from an early age and is very important in STEM. Moving forward, you can begin to introduce more complex creations available in our educational resources, such as building a toy that moves!

4. Digital Play

Parents and educators can use digital play technologies to help children become familiar with the digital landscape, foster creativity, and pursue their own interests through the variety of software available.

Through unique programs that promote inquiry-based learning, Let’s Talk Science uses STEM to support critical skill development and inspires children and youth to think about their futures.

Try new things with your kids and look at the world differently. The key is to not be afraid to encourage their questions and maybe even ask a few yourself.

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