Fred Rogers’ Approach to STEM

Hedda SharapanI just came back from the NAEYC Professional Development Institute where I presented a workshop on Fred Rogers’ approach to STEM. STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math that’s become a major focus in education today, even in early childhood. I know that people tend to think of our work as primarily about social-emotional skills, but Fred addressed cognitive development, as well all through the Neighborhood series. He often described his work as “helping children understand more about themselves, about others and the world around us.”

I like to think of understanding "the world around us” as Fred’s way of helping us feel comfortable with STEM – seeing those concepts through a young child’s eyes and using everyday language. They’re not such scary academic words, and you don’t need to have all the answers. Here’s how Fred approached STEM:

SCIENCE – Science is really about nurturing a sense of wonder and curiosity. It’s about encouraging investigation and asking “why.” In early childhood, science is about everyday experiences, like why ice melts, what makes shadows, how plants grow, and where different animals live and what they eat.

TECHNOLOGY – Technology is really just a fancy word for “tools.” We tend to think of technology as digital equipment like cameras and computers or sophisticated machines in factories. But crayons and pencils are tools, too. So are rulers, scissors and even zippers.

ENGINEERING – Engineering is really about identifying a problem, thinking about solutions and trying them out. Haven’t you seen children do that when they’re trying to figure out how to make a strong foundation so they can build their blocks higher? Or when they’re at the water table making a tin-foil boat that will float?

MATH – Math is much more than counting. Mathematical thinking includes comparing, sorting, patterning, identifying shapes. Language, too, plays a big part in math, for example using words like bigger, smaller, higher, lower, farther, closer.

Here are two ideas that can help you with STEM conversations:

1) Create a meaningful context.

Before showing the crayon factory video, Fred was drawing with crayons. That’s what gave him a meaningful context for the video. I spoke with Craig, a wonderful kindergarten teacher who uses this crayon video in his classroom. Craig told me that he creates the context by putting out lots of different kinds of crayons. Then he asks the children what they know about crayons and what they notice about them. After writing a list of their ideas, he asks what they want to know …and if they have an idea of how people make them. And he remains nonjudgmental, even when the ideas are outlandish (which they can be because young children are such concrete and magical thinkers!). After the video, they talk about what they’ve learned and what else they’d like to know about crayons. They might even watch it again. Then he offers hands-on crayon activities that match the children’s interests. With those kinds of discussions and activities, you can put STEM learning into a context that’s both personal and relevant for the children in your care.

2) Build on everyday moments.

I recently visited a childcare center and saw Noel, a terrific early childhood teacher, build on an everyday moment. It was an exceptionally hot morning, and the children had been out on the playground. When outdoor time was over, they came inside the center and lined up to be counted. That’s when she asked, “Do you feel a difference between the air outside on the playground and the air inside here in the center? Is it hotter here? Or cooler here? Do you know why? We have air-conditioning inside. That’s what makes it cooler.” When you turn an ordinary moment like that into a teachable moment, you’re focusing the children’s attention on a simple but meaningful Science concept in their environment.

Now that I’ve been so focused on STEM myself, it occurred to me that even an Engineering concept could be added to the conversation. We could say, “It took a person to think about the problem of being too hot inside and to figure out a way to make a building cooler. Maybe it was a woman. Maybe it was a man. That person worked on a way to make air-conditioning. That’s what engineers do – they figure out how to make things better.”

Children are like little scientists trying to figure out how the world works. Their ideas may be way off-base or their questions might be distracting when you’re focused on a different idea or lesson plan. But remember that your interest in their ideas nurtures their curiosity – and children who are curious will be eager learners. Just as Fred did, you can help them learn in everyday ways to understand more about the world around them.

P.S. You can find more Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood factory videos as well as field trips to extend STEM learning at And you might be interested in earlier newsletters related to STEM concepts:

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