Tag Archives: STEM

Inventors of Tomorrow: Class Structure


I teach a Family Inventor’s Lab, a STEAM enrichment class for ages 2.5 – 7.

We have designed the flow of the class so we begin with letting the children explore and discover on their own, making their own connections, and discovering their own questions before we give them any answers. After that, we talk about some big ideas, then send them to play with those ideas some more, then re-gather to share their conclusions. The maps above show the relation of this class structure to the scientific method and to an engineering process. Let’s look in more detail about how this works.

Set-Up: Before class, the teachers have set up a variety of hands-on activities related to the theme. They always include: building projects, toys for free exploration, art projects, some big motor activity, a sensory table and/or a water table, and books on the concept. (Just click on the “Inventors of Tomorrow” category in the right hand sidebar, and you’ll find plenty of examples of activities we have done on various themes.)

Discovery Time: The first twenty minutes is “discovery time.” We let the kids explore freely, trying things out hands-on, noticing patterns, and making their own connections and interpretations before we present the concepts of the day. Some children come in with a lot of prior knowledge on the day’s topic (like our resident paleontology fans on dinosaur day!) and quickly build on that knowledge. Others come in with virtually previous exposure to a concept, and are really creating connections from scratch. They are “gathering information.”

Opening Circle: We then have an opening circle with all the kids combined (up to 24 kids, ages 2.5 to 7). We ask them to share what they’ve seen, we ask a few children to share what they have made. (During discovery time, the teachers watch for kids who are creating really good projects to illustrate some concepts – they ask those children if they will show their work during opening circle.) We ask them what they think the theme is and how the activities connect to it. After we’ve first grounded in what they’ve discovered, we introduce the key concepts of the day, and talk about the other activities we’re doing. Sometimes we’ll give them a challenge to work on during tinkering time.

Tinkering Time: They return to the activities with fresh information and interpretation, and have 30 more minutes to explore more, tinker more, and test out ideas.

Teachers encourage kids to test ideas, then adapt them a little, then test them again, to learn more about the topic. We also ask questions which extend learning.

Outside Time: Our Rockets (older kids, age 4 to 7) go outside. We often have more ideas related to the theme that they can explore outside. But this is also a little time to just run off some steam, so they come back in better able to relax and attend to opening circle. (Learn about the mood and concentration benefits of outside time here.) [The Robots – age 2.5 to 4 have closing circle first, then outside time.]

Conclusions Circle: In closing circle, we talk again about: what did you observe, what did you build, what did you test, what did you learn? We do more activities related to the theme, often including a book on the topic to wrap up the day’s concept.

A few days after class, parents receive an email, which often has follow-up activities they can do at home, or pointers to this blog to learn about activity ideas we had but weren’t able to fit into class time or logistics.

We find that beginning with hands-on discovery raises the children’s engagement. Kids are naturally curious, but this format specifically harnesses that curiosity as a learning tool. They arrive to the opening circle open and ready to learn more. If we started by “teaching” them, they wouldn’t learn as much.

Check out this great article: What’s Going On Inside the Brain of a Curious Child. (It’s from KQED’s Mindshift series which is full of fascinating stuff about how we learn!)


Book Series about Simple Machines


[An updated version of this post can be found at: https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2016/10/26/simple-machines-engineering-for-kids/]

There are several series of books about Simple Machines. I got samples from each series, and will write up here my first impressions of each. These are not meant to be in-depth reviews, just snapshots of my opinions. Of course, what book is best depends on your audience and your setting. I am looking for books to read aloud in group time to children age 2.5 to 7. Many of these books that I don’t rate high might be great for a 5 – 7 year old, but I’m trying to find something to appeal to a very wide range.

In this post, I summarize my impressions of the series, based on the books I read (starred). In the attached spreadsheet, I share my specific ratings for the books I read. Here are the four criteria I ranked them on:

  • Pictures: Are they good photos (current, focused, visually appealing) of things that are interesting to kids?
  • Words: Would this be a good read-aloud book for a group of 3 – 6 year olds? Easy to understand and interesting to listen to?
  • Big Idea: Does it get, and adequately convey the key concepts about this simple machine and how it works? (For my summary of what I think those key concepts are, see my Inventors of Tomorrow posts on each of the types of Simple Machines.)
  • Examples: Are there several good examples of the machine that would be interesting to children? (But I don’t want examples of every single way this simple machine can be applied, because sometimes that makes it hard for a young child to remember the big picture.)

Series Name: Amazing Science: Simple Machines. Author: Dahl
Books: Roll, Slope, and Slide*; Scoop, Seesaw, and Raise*; Pull, Lift, and Lower*; Cut, Chop, and Stop; Tires, Spokes, and Sprockets
Review: Engaging pictures and words, though a little high level for us. But I didn’t think the pulley book and inclined plane book did the best job of explaining key concepts.

Series Name: Blastoff Readers: Simple Machines. Author: Manolis
Books: Ramps*; Levers; Pulleys*; Screws; Wedges; Wheels and Axles*
Review: These would be my top choice if I had only 5 – 7 year olds, but they’re a little too long and too sophisticated for my little ones. Brightly colored and engaging pictures. Good diagrams and descriptions of key concepts – very clear. Nice examples

Series Name: Early Reader Science: Simple Machines. Author: Dahl
Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Wheels and Axles*
Review: Pictures OK, but not especially appealing to young ones. Length-wise, it would be OK for circle, but vocabulary a little high level. It gives examples of so many kinds of wheels and axles (steering wheels, gears, sprockets, cranks, cams, etc.) that the basic concept is lost. Does not mention friction.

Series Name: How Toys Work. Author: Smith
Books: Ramps and Wedges*; Levers*; Pulleys*; Screws, Nuts and Bolts*; Wheels and Axles*
Review: I want to love these books. The pictures are great. The language is age appropriate and engaging. There are lots of good examples, all of which are toys and other things that appeal to young children. In some of the books, the big idea is explained well (Pulleys and Screws) But others seem to miss the big idea. (Ramps and Wedges; Wheels and Axles.) I would use these books to engage the younger students, but also want some of the other series to share with the older readers to better explain concept.

Series Name: My World of Science. Author: Randolph
Books: Inclined Planes in my World*; Levers in My World; Pulleys in my World; Wedges in My World*; Wheels and Axles in my World [there doesn’t appear to be a Screws book]
Review: Pictures are fine; words are appropriate level and the book is a good length for circle time, big idea is explained well, and there are lots of examples, but they all tie together in a clear logical way to the same big idea. It ends with asking “can you think of [wedges] you see around you?” Then offers a picture glossary of key words. This is a reliable, useable, but not exciting series.
Note: this series is bilingual English / Spanish. So Wedges in My World is also Cunas en mi mundo. Each page has the text in English first, then Spanish.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Armentrout
Books: Inclined Planes, Levers*, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges*, Wheels*
Review: The language level and the length would be fine for 5 – 7 year olds, but too much for our little ones. They also go beyond what we need with our younger age group (level book addresses first, second and third class levers and compound levers.) Pictures are fine, examples are good, but in some books there are so many examples the big idea is lost.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Bodden
Books: Inclined Planes; Levers, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges*, Wheels*
Review: They’re pretty books, but photos may be a little artsy for little kids. Words are a little dry. In general concepts are very clear and easy to understand and examples clearly illustrate the ideas. But, I thought the screw book was unclear and jumbled examples together that it wasn’t clear how they related. We used several of these books in our circle times in class, but tried to balance with How Toys Work, which are brighter and more fun.

Series Name: Simple Machines. Author: Tieck
Books: Inclined Planes*, Levers, Pulleys*, Screws*, Wedges, Wheels and Axles
Review: A little long, a little old, and too dry for our purposes. But, I think these are the best descriptions of the big idea. We didn’t read these in circle, but I did have them on the bookshelf for the older kids to check out.

Series Name: Simple Machines to the Rescue. Author: Thales
Books: Inclined Planes to the Rescue*; Levers ttR, Pulleys ttR, Screws ttR*, Wedges ttR, Wheels and Axles ttR
Review: I see these recommended on other people’s sites, but I’m not a fan. The pictures aren’t great, the language is a little advanced. And I just find that they do the weakest job of explaining simple machines concepts. For example, in the screw book, their first example is a lid on a soda bottle, then a spiral staircase, then Archimedes screw, then an olive oil press, and then it talks about things that are held together by screws. Nowhere in there does it really describe what a screw is and what type of work each of these tools has in common.

Series Name: Useful Machines. Author: Oxlade
Books: Ramps and Wedges; Levers; Pulleys; Screws*; Wheels
Review: Good pictures, engaging and easy to understand for 5 – 7 year olds. I have only read the screw book, but I like it a lot. However, I would not use it as the intro to screws. Once kids had a solid grasp of the basics of screws, it does a nice job of giving examples of all the different applications

If you’re teaching about Simple Machines, be sure to check out my Inventors of Tomorrow series… I give examples of lots of hands-on activities you can use with kids 2.5 – 7 to teach these concepts.

What children learn in a multi-age classroom

A while back, I wrote about mixed-age play and the benefits of multi-age classrooms. Today, I’ll describe what the learning experience is like for different ages of children at my Family Inventors’ class. We enroll children ages 3 – 7. When I say that to many preschool teachers, they are startled, saying “that’s a really wide range of developmental abilities! How does that work out?” We think it works great!

Why do we teach mixed age?

We want to be able to welcome a whole family in to participate. We are a parent co-op, which means that parents work in the classroom once a month, and they typically “stay and play” with their child on the days they’re not working. We want it to be possible for parents to be able to attend the class with all of their children. About a third of our families have two children in the class. We’ve had a couple families where three kids fit in our age range!

But it’s also because we believe in the benefits of multi-age classrooms: the younger kids tend to learn faster and learn more when they can observe the older children’s learning process. The older kids learn empathy and responsibility by interacting with the younger ones, but they also learn the academic concepts better through the process of explaining their ideas to the younger kids.

Can the little ones follow all the ideas you cover?

We are a STEM-based program. Some of our themes this year are: Chemistry – Solutions; Biology – Habitats; Building Towers, Tunnels and Bridges; and a multi-week unit on Simple Machines. We talk about these ideas in circle time and read books about them, but we also have lots of hands-on exercises to help children explore and discover some of the foundations of science. We expect that our 5 – 7 year olds will understand everything we teach. And they do. They’re able to understand the ideas, apply them to the class exercises, and extrapolate from them to a deeper understanding. They remember the concepts we talked about in circle.

Our pre-K age kids (age 4 – 5) get some of the ideas. They definitely understand the hands-on exercises and experience “gravity” and can describe to you what it is that they’ve learned about how gravity affects something. They don’t necessarily make any leaps beyond what we cover in class, and they may or may not remember the concept behind the exercises a few months later. (But, if you ask them to repeat an activity they learned in class… like asking “If I roll a toy car down this steep ramp and another one down this not-so-steep ramp, which will go faster”, they will remember that hands-on learning.) They definitely grasp more concepts by watching the older kids’ “a-ha moments” than they would grasp if the class was just adults telling them stuff.

Our littlest ones, the young 3’s, may not get the scientific concepts at all. And we don’t expect them to. What they get is a great preschool class with water play, sensory play, play-dough, building with blocks, stories, songs, and outdoor time – things that build small motor-skills, large motor skills, musical skills, language, and social development. They get exposed to lots of opportunities to play with how the world works. They rub balloons on their hair to make their hair stand up. We play with things that float on water and things that sink. We play with balls that roll down tracks. Some day, later in life, when someone talks to them about static electricity or buoyancy, or when they want to build their own marble maze, they’ll have this foundational knowledge in their brain, ready to be built upon.

What about the social dynamics?

In general, our olders play very well with our youngers. They naturally mentor them and help them out with simple tasks, like writing their names or tearing off a piece of tape. The children who are older siblings do especially well at this. But, for those who don’t have a younger sibling at home, it’s a great chance to practice interacting with someone who is younger and less knowledgeable than they are.

Our younger kids love having the big kids to follow around. They learn from them, play with them, imitate them. They may turn to an older child for help with things instead of always turning to adults for help, and learn more in the process.

For us as the teachers having this wide age range is definitely a challenge for curriculum planning. For each activity, we think about how each age of child can learn from it. For example, a simple activity might be setting out plastic bugs and containers on a table. The littlest children just play with the bugs and move them around and in and out of containers however they want (practicing small motor skills). The middle-ages may be encouraged to count them OR to taught the difference between beetles and spiders and flying bugs and asked to sort them. The oldest kids are asked to figure out what the three types of bugs are, then sort them into categories and then count how many of each category there are.

If we’re building pompom launchers with plastic spoons, rubber bands and craft sticks, we show the young ones how to build one (and help them as needed) then encourage them to play with them. For the older children, we let them figure out how to build one by looking at the prototype. We have them test it, then set a goal for themselves – do they want it to launch multiple pompoms? Or launch further? Or with more accuracy? We encourage them to tinker and adapt their designs using other available materials to achieve their goals.

We can’t assume that any of our students know how to read, but many of them do. And parents are always around to read for them if needed. So, we do put out signs at each activity that explain how it connects to the concepts of the day. And some weeks, like our “What is a Scientist” week, we put out worksheets that encourage children to do an experiment and record their results (like how many times a flipped coin lands heads-up or how many drops of water can they put on a penny). We’re hopeful that our oldest kids get some math and writing practice at those stations, but we figure our youngest kids get to learn how to flip a coin and notice that it has two different sides, and get to learn the fine motor skill of using an eye dropper and the hand-eye coordination of trying to get the drops to land on a penny. There is learning at every level.

When providing all this individualized learning, it helps a lot that we have a lot of adults in the room. In addition to our teachers, as a co-op, we also have some parents working in the classroom each week, and because we’re a Saturday class, the majority of parents actually stay-and-play each week. So, there’s always a grown-up around to help, but we also encourage the parents to sit back and let their children explore independently and support each other’s learning whenever possible.

The most exciting part is when kids come back year after year – we’ve had children join us for three or four years in a row. We see them go from the three year old who is splashing in the water table and finger painting to the 6 year old who is exploring our challenge projects, and stretching their learning to new levels of understanding. Although they may be doing the same activity they did the previous year, their level of skill mastery and understanding has stepped up a huge notch.