Child’s play, serious learning

Preschoolers develop STEM literacy through everyday activities and play.

Two preschoolers, a boy and a girl, are playing with blocks at the Elisabeth Amen Nursery School on Wheaton’s campus. They are building a bridge. He steps back, examines the structure, and then consults with her before making changes.

What looks like ordinary play is so much more, according to Professor of Education Vicki Bartolini. In this case, she says, the youngsters are learning about engineering. “The structure is complex. They’re using physics concepts. They’re exploring the concept of gravity.”

Professor of Education Vicki Bartolini (on stairs), her Wheaton students, nursery school director Marge Werner and staff gather for orientation and workshops.The professor—along with her Wheaton students—has been paying close attention to the significance of play in the learning process. Her research focuses particularly on how young children learn the foundational concepts of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The work is in keeping with a growing national interest in improving STEM education in the United States. In 2009, President Obama launched a nationwide effort to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade.

As the 2010 recipient of the Dorothy Reed Williams Faculty Chair Award in the Social Sciences, Bartolini has been working to develop a national campaign—aimed at parents, caregivers and educators of young children—to promote the use of playful, everyday activities in building literacy in STEM skills during early childhood.

In addition to enlisting her students in the campaign as future parents, voters and professionals, she regularly gives presentations to policymakers, business people, educators, community organizations, parents and the media. Bartolini also edited the early STEM policy recommendations to the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.

-The priority in early childhood education traditionally has been reading and the language arts. Reading is important, says Bartolini, but “to measure up internationally, we also need to improve our STEM scores.” The United States is falling behind India, Korea, China and many European countries in STEM education, she says. “We can’t wait until middle school to introduce these subjects. Early childhood provides opportunity for children to begin to ‘play’ with these subjects and for adults to support their play as learning.”

And as technology becomes a cornerstone of education and industry, young people need a solid STEM foundation “to survive and thrive,” she says.

Does this mean that toddlers should memorize math facts and log long hours on the computer? “Absolutely not!” says Bartolini. “We can build on the natural curiosity of children.” She believes that, for young children, play is academic. The adult’s role is to provide everyday materials and opportunities and to listen to children and their questions as they look for answers through their play.

This “instructional scaffolding” happens every day at the Amen school, which serves as a laboratory for education and psychology students at Wheaton. Students from Bartolini’s “Issues in Early Education and Care” course videotape children at play, looking for moments when children are learning STEM concepts. After students edit the videos, they are posted to, which allows different users to add audio commentary. These video documentaries have been presented as far away as Belfast and are helping Bartolini develop an early STEM literacy model.

Heather Sykes, a senior psychology and education major, took Bartolini’s “Issues in Early Education and Care” course and captured the video of the young boy and girl building the bridge together. “You wouldn’t think that kids playing with blocks would learn so much,” she says, “but they were developing spatial concepts, solving problems and using logical reasoning.”

Bartolini also explores STEM education in her “Teaching Math and Science” course, and several Wheaton students are working with her on early STEM literacy through independent studies.

Two years ago, Bartolini was part of a Massachusetts delegation to Washington, D.C., for a leadership conference sponsored by the ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). There, she met with the Massachusetts congressional delegation to discuss the importance of early STEM literacy. Currently, she is collaborating with the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach and the University of Massachusetts-Boston, among other institutions, to further her cause.

“In five years, I would like to see the same kinds of ads we saw around Laura Bush’s reading literacy campaign,” she says, “ads urging parents to turn off their televisions and tinker, or take a walk in nature with their children. We need to develop a habit of really listening to young children, building on their questions and curiosities, and seeing them as competent learners.”

Photos by Amie Rosenblum ’12 and David Laferriere