By now you’ve probably heard of STEM, the kind of learning that will basically make or break your child’s future. But don’t be alarmed—your kid is getting a STEM education (that’s science, technology, engineering and math) all the time, just by observing the way things work. But if you want to dial things up a notch, introduce your future Bill Gates to one of these simple STEM activities for kids to spark their curiosity (and give you a much-needed break).
1. Toothpick Towers
The materials aren’t hard to come by for this project but the opportunity for learning is big. With only a pack of toothpicks and a bag of marshmallows, your budding engineer can learn through trial and error. This architectural activity encourages imagination (will she build a castle, a house or maybe a bridge?) as well as critical thinking and fine motor skills—she’ll have to skewer that marshmallow just the right way to achieve a structure with staying power. The road to success will likely be paved with frustration, but that’s how STEM learning (and life) goes. Bonus: this activity features a built-in bribe if things get too intense.
2. Water Experiments
If you have a tiny human, you already know that water is a big hit with the under-five set. When kids would rather spend all afternoon in the tub, you might as well surrender—but make it educational. Here’s how: Grab a measuring cup and fill it with water. Next, set up a large baking sheet with deep sides and arrange a variety of materials that your child can use to test the behavior of water like cellophane, a sponge, wax paper, paper towels, a cup of oil, a squirt of dishwashing soap and tampons (before you cringe, you should know that this one will be the winner when your kid decides to play super soaker). From there, all you have to do is equip your child with a dropper or syringe and a central question: Which materials repel water and which ones absorb it? Discuss your mini’s observations and get ready for questions that might make you hit the books again.
3. Shiny Pennies
If you find a penny, pick it up...then pour a heap of salt on it, douse it with vinegar and watch a chemical reaction unfold. Now you have a pretty penny (without spending one). In this science experiment, the salt and vinegar combine to form a weak acid and when this solution meets the ruddy copper of a well-loved penny, the metal oxides are dissolved and a shiny new coin is revealed. For more advanced chemistry lessons, check out Exploratorium for detailed instructions and variations on this theme.
4. Build a Fort
Forts are perennially popular with children and they’re also a great STEM activity, provided you aren’t the only architect. Pull out a large sheet and some clamps (you can buy heavy duty plastic ones at a hardware store but chip clips and extra-large binder clips will work in a pinch) and let your kiddo’s determination do the rest. The process—draping a sheet over the furniture, using clamps and knots to secure it and then discovering through trial-and-error that the dimensions don’t quite work—will keep your child occupied for at least twenty minutes, and the engineering challenge helps develop critical thinking skills.
5. Magnet Play
This one is as simple as it sounds and it’s a great way to teach kids of all ages about magnetism. Equip your child with a fridge magnet tied to a string and instruct him to roam around the house exploring which everyday objects the magnet is attracted to. Once your little one has a small collection of found ferrous objects, give the activity a twist: Scatter the collection on the floor and ask your child to “go fishing” i.e., try to pick the objects up using the magnet. And there you have it—a workout for the brain that also boosts fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
6. Lego Math
There’s a good chance you already have Legos in your home but did you know that these bricks are good for more than just building (and hurting the soles of your feet when you step on them)? To encourage your budding genius, lay out a piece of white paper, poster board or whiteboard as your child’s worksheet. Draw two horizontal lines to divide the paper into thirds. Next draw a rectangle on the right-hand side of both the top and middle sections. Set out a bucket of Legos and your little one is ready to start this fun lesson in simple math. Place a small number of Legos in the top and middle sections for your child to add together and record the sum in the bottom rectangle (use a pencil so the worksheet can be reused.) Here’s an example: Place five bricks on top and six bricks in the middle—add them together and write 11 in the bottom. This hands-on game gives young children a head start on math by providing a helpful visual aid. (You can also teach them subtraction with this method.)
7. Bake Bread
So much learning can take place in the kitchen, especially when it comes to chemistry. The benefit of bread-making is twofold: a delicious result and a science lesson you can cook up at home. To make this hands-on activity educational, choose a recipe for a rising bread (here are some ideas to get you started) and have your child help make the dough. Explain how yeast feeds off of sugar and creates a chemical reaction. (Quick chemistry class refresher: the product is carbon dioxide and it’s these gas bubbles that make the bread rise.)
8. DIY Slime
Kids can't get enough out of this ooey-gooey stuff and that's not such a bad thing: Slime is a great tool for sensory play and also helps develop fine motor strength. Making your own has the added bonus of teaching kids about chemical reactions (read up on the endothermic and cross-linking properties of slime here) plus keeping little hands occupied on a rainy afternoon. Here's how to make slime using things you almost definitely have at home.
9. Sink or Float
This fun, water-based STEM activity is suitable for even the youngest children. To try it out, fill your tub and curate a selection of water-friendly items from around your home. (An older child can be more hands-on with this part of the experiment prep; a younger one will want to drown your iPhone.) What should you test? Your kid’s favorite truck, a Ziploc bag, a ball of tinfoil or the cork from the Chardonnay you just opened. Record the results and ask your child to offer his own theories before testing the buoyancy of each item, then offer yours while you suds him up.
10. Paper Airplanes
Back in the day, folding a piece of paper into an airplane was a fun way to pass a note in class. But did you know your crafting mischief was actually a lesson in physics? Paper airplanes teach children the four basic concepts of aerodynamics—lift, thrust, drag and weight—through trial and error. But we aren’t just talking about the hit and miss that happens when your two-year-old crumples up his artwork, tries to throw it at you and misfires. Help your child follow one of these tried-and-true patterns and she’ll learn all about precision and patience, too.
11. Homemade Ice Cream
If there’s one science lesson all kids can get on board with, it’s the one that ends with an ice cream sundae. Don’t be fooled, this activity is much more than just a complicated dessert recipe—it teaches children about phases of matter, freezing point, and freezing point depression. This edible experiment will give your kiddo a physical workout, too (there’s a whole lot of shaking required). You’ll need sugar, salt, half and half, ice cubes and some elbow grease. Check out the recipe here and get your child ready to exercise her biceps, brain, and taste buds all at once.
12. Make a Marble Run
Sure you can buy a marble run kit but where's the fun in that? Instead, get your young one’s wheels turning with a DIY challenge: create a marble run out of recyclable materials...go! Depending on the age of your child, you might need to lend a helping hand (with scissors and tape) but the gist of this activity is that your mini can explore physics with ingenuity and patience. With nothing more than strong tape (duct or packaging will work) and toilet paper tubes, she can send a bouncy ball zipping through some serious chutes and curves. Those false starts along the way? That’s engineering.