How play can build a STEM mindset

Learning about STEM doesn't have to be relegated to the classroom in preparation for a future career. At its essence, STEM is about exploration, observation and curiosity, which sounds an awful lot like another four-letter word - PLAY. So often when children are playing, they are testing theories, considering alternative possibilities, and most importantly, they try-fail-try again - all of which are the tenets of STEM.

Instead of molding every opportunity into a learning moment, parents can rest easy knowing that the need and benefits of more play can reap some profound STEM benefits. And, in many cases, simply asking "why" can turn playing with a toy or careening down a slide into fun, STEM-inspired play.

Here are five ideas on how to dial-up STEM fun at home:

1. Get messy. Your kitchen is the perfect setting for an epic science experiment, be it bubbling slime, erupting volcanoes or fireproof balloons. Virtually everything you might need for a homemade science day is likely lurking in your cupboards. Find the ingredients for a fun color experiment that teaches chemical reactions in your kitchen. Use recycled materials and tea bags to make your own rocket. A quick Google search will yield hundreds of easy-to-do science experiments at home. Plus, there's the added life lesson on cleaning up!

2. Take a hike! A hike in nature or even a walk in your own neighborhood can be a great way to observe the world around you. Put together a scavenger hunt to inspire your child to notice animals, trees, tracks, acorns and more. Hypothesize which animals might live in the trees and what they eat. Count the bunnies. While building observation skills (key for any scientist), watch your child light up as he/she is inspired by a wonder of nature.

3. Don't lose your marbles. Classic marble runs are an ideal way to encourage a child to try, fail and try again. Part collaboration, part competition (all science!) - building the best, biggest and fastest track is an excellent way to test the principles of physics. Whether a homemade Rube Goldberg contraption or a modern-day toy like GraviTrax, marble runs let kids test magnetism, kinetics and gravity. This hands-on, science-in-motion experience is likely to keep a budding engineer busy for hours, if not days.

4. Brake for screen time. The struggle with screen time is real but made easier when you find shows that are equal parts smart and entertaining. There are so many great STEM options on YouTube like SciShow Kids for the younger kids or Because Science for the tween/teen crowd. After a few episodes, you might even find yourself explaining the physics of Thor's hammer or what's inside a camel's hump during the next dinner party.

5. Ask questions. When you hear your child exclaim "I didn't know you could do that!" or better yet, "Did you know?" you can rest assured that in between playful moments, you're also growing a scientist. At the heart of open-ended play and collaboration, parents can inspire a growth mindset nurtured by asking lots of "why" and "how come" questions.

Most experts agree that kids need more play - more unscheduled time to imagine the possibilities and think about the "why" of things. With very little organization and some thoughtful questions, you can turn any playful moment into a STEM-inspired mindset for your child. So get out there, have fun with your kids and inspire their curious side. It's easier than you think to find little moments to inspire your future scientist, programmer or engineer through everyday play.

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