We were fortunate to have Peggy Ashbrook, Carrie Lynne Draper, MEd, and Beth Van Meeteren, PhD present  Supporting Young Children’s Creative Thinking Using Problems They Care About: Engineering Design In ECE on June 5, 2019. Many of the participants had questions that we were unable to ask the presenters.  They were kind enough to answer them and they are posted below.  Here is a link to the recording: Supporting Young Children’s Creative Thinking Using Problems They Care About: Engineering Design In ECE

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Thank you for your questions! We sorted them into categories and did our best to answer them without delay but we recommend that for full understanding you review the webinar again and also participate in another archived webinar, “Engineering in Early Learning Environments: Module 5” by Beth Van Meeteren, part of STEM for Early Learners series from PDG AEM.

Coding and robotics in Early Childhood Education

Q.1. How does coding and robotics fit in with this?
Is robotics considered as the engineering or STEM? Or, is it more about technology? Or both?

A. 1. From Beth Van Meeteren, PhD

Yes, coding and robotics fit in with engineering, but a very narrow part. Coding is also mathematics. We wonder if coding has as much intellectual payout as more concrete stem experiences and look forward to hearing the ideas of others.

Patterns lead to coding. A computer coder she described how she got her interest in computer coding as a child working with pattern blocks. She did not like the provided pattern worksheets and instead, focused on creating her own patterns. She saw this as a precursor to coding. This makes me think, “Why do we not respect foundational precursors and instead jump to more abstract coding? Constance Kamii and Rheta DeVries often coached me on the difference between tasks and intellectual work. Tasks are a job to complete; the purpose is to follow directions and hand it in for checking. Intellectual work challenges children to ask and pursue answers to questions in which they are curious. It leads to connecting concepts within and among disciplines. The question Kamii and DeVries told me to continually ask myself: “What is there in this experience for children to figure out?” If there are only one or two answers, this indicates it may be a shallow task. If a child loves their teacher and has developed executive functions, they will happily completed a shallow task. If not, the banality of the task may result in “misbehavior” or “noncompliance”. If children’s answers about a task come quickly and are many, this indicates an intellectually engaging task worth the children’s time.

For 18 years, I taught in a school where children were schooled into doing school. They did all sorts of shallow assignments willingly and happily because they wanted to please me. When I began to teach at Freeburg Early Childhood Program, I had a roomful of children who were not schooled into “doing school.” They made it painfully aware to me when what I asked them to do was a shallow activity. It was then I began to understand what intellectual work could do for a child’s holistic growth; growth in all domains including socio-emotional development.

I benefited greatly from working with Kamii and DeVries who were guided by their genuine interest in figuring out what is best practice in early learning.

A.1. From Carrie Lynne Draper, MEd

For EC educators, my suggestion is first, ask yourself what is your digital & technology philosophy? Many do not believe it belongs in Preschool. Why?

We can grow children’s vocabulary and interest with coding, programming and computers. It will be the design of the curriculum and social setting that is crucial (Clements). We have to consider where to access trusted resources.

I prefer to look at parts– batteries, light, gears, wires, sensors and other small parts and explore with children what are they, how do they work. These are the digital/technology components found in devices and needed for coding, etc. Let’s first explore circuits, switches, and small battery operated items such as a calculator.

We can also ask young children how does a computer ‘speak’ and ‘think’? Children can play games using directions; giving commands; and designing a program of instructions. Have children create a pattern. A pattern is the pre-cursor to coding. Children love to take commonly found materials and create their own codes (messages).

It’s interesting, we are helping children to develop reading readiness skills (reading left to right) yet, when we write numbers, we start on the right, and as they get bigger we move to the left, YIKES! When they code, they will be dealing with binary and working right to left a lot!

I like doing a lot of gross motor development and playing a “programmer & robot” activity. Using painters tape, we make a 6’x6′ tic-tac-toe grid on the floor. One child is designated the robot and stands in a square. Another child stands outside of the grid and plays the part of programmer—the one who gives directions to make the robot move about the grid. Then they trade places and try their partner’s role. I ask students which did they prefer playing? Often a child has a definite opinion which they prefer 🙂 Guess what my preference is?? 🙂



Engineering in specific places or domains such as in nature, or art

Q.2. Hello from California! It is so wonderful to find out that engineering is everywhere. How can we find engineering themes out in nature? What are the domains in early childhood? In addition to exploring, how teachers can emphasize engineering design and incorporate developmentally appropriate math, science, and technology skills in an early childhood?


Engineering can be found in all domains of early learning: science, mathematics, literacy, and social studies. Look for ways children are using the materials in every area—from the outdoor areas to the dress-up materials—in creative ways to design solutions to problems they are interested in. Outdoor materials such as leaves, sticks, sand, and mud, are great for building structures or making tools.
To include all domains, look for ways to have children measure, and use spatial language when describing their engineering designs, have children draw and write or dictate to describe what is happening in photos of their work, ask children to talk about how solving the problem will help them and other people, and how the properties of the materials are important to the design.


Request to elaborate on points in webinar

Q.3. Can you please elaborate more on the sixth point – attention to ethical consideration


Happy to! Engineers need to think about the impact the design will have on the environment, humans, animals, and society. This demands the use of ethics. With young children, they are developing an awareness that their actions have implications on others. This is where engineering is very helpful. For example: building with blocks on a hard surface can be noisy. The class can address this as a problem to be solved so everyone can learn safely and happily. In another example, if a child takes all the materials or all of a certain kind of a material, this is an opportunity to engage in conflict resolution and assist the child to look at the situation from another perspective. The ability to view a situation from another perspective has huge intellectual implications. There is more than one way to solve a math problem, more than one way to look at a character in a story, more than one way to figure out what a word is…


Q.4. I’m a little confused at the “naming developmental engineering”. Is that what they are doing? as in … balance, length, measure? or something else?


In early education, we look at developing readers, developing writers, not expecting perfect performance, but celebrate approximation. We don’t expect a six-year-old to write an outline, rough draft, and polished draft of writing with correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It is a process of development. Over time developing readers and writers become accomplished readers and writers. Engineering is the same. By supporting and nurturing engineering habits of mind over time, developing engineers can become accomplished engineers.


Q.5. I like the books shown on the end of the slideshow. Which would you say is the best one to start the STEM introduction to a program?


Refer to the handout listing resources. Look for books or purchased curriculum that have children’s problem-solving at the center, not a problem presented by the teacher or found in a book. Use resources that recommend providing uninterrupted time for children to design and redesign their work, as long as they are interested in working on it. As you teach, look for problems the children encounter and support their problem-solving and developing engineering habits of mind by asking open-ended questions that encourage children to consider alternative solutions, expand their design, try again after something “doesn’t work,” learn from each other, discuss and explain their work, and coordinate the use of space and materials with peers.


Q.6. Do you have suggestions of the types of questions teachers might ask themselves (and children) that would help them deepen their understanding and think about next steps to scaffold children’s learning? Can you please send few question on the project which we can ask a child on his work ?


Yes. STEM Learning with Young Children has a lot of these. A few are:

  • I noticed that when you ____ it ____. I wonder why it did that.
  • Do you suppose there is a way to get it to _____.
  • I wonder if ___ has an idea of how to get it to work?
  • What do you notice happening here?
  • I wonder what would happen if you _____.
  • You got it to work! Does it always work or sometimes work?
  • Is there a way you could add to it?


Q.7. Is the time of exploration proportional to the age?


It’s all about the child’s interest and the open-ended nature of an experience. Open-ended experiences keep children going for days, weeks, months. Ramps & Pathways is an experience children engaged with from ages three through second grade, and probably could longer if teachers gave them the opportunity.


Q.8. Do you have any strategies for holding the whole class interested in the same exploration?


We have found engineering with Ramps & Pathways, air dynamics, water dynamics, chemistry with cooking, tinkering with tops engages many children for a long time. What keeps it going is a teacher who listens to children and follows their lead in designing, and documents and posts photos of the children’s process (not just finished product) on the walls of the classroom. This shows children their work is important and respected by their teacher and others who view the documentation on the classroom walls and comment on it. Children can revisit their process and reflect on and talk about their work. When there is not “cookie cutter” artifacts (everything is nearly alike) posted on the walls and there is a variety of ideas being displayed over time, it becomes evident the teacher is promoting engineering habits of mind.


Q.9. Executive functioning is a challenge for kids on the autistic spectrum – any comment


Autism is a spectrum meaning every child is different. That being said, executive functions develop in meaningful experiences that require categorization, logic, reasoning, and challenge previous ideas. It has to involve the interest of the child to be the most effective.


Q.10. How can teachers encourage administrators to ensure children have long periods of play/exploration in the classroom. How do you explain to parents the importance of letting children explore? Gift of time is the key and one of the biggest challenges where we struggle and always in a rush to follow the daily schedule 🙁 do you have any suggestions on how to give a child who is so focused in building with blocks and as a teacher i feel bad having him to stop just because its lunch time? One of the things that I have been practicing is taking a picture but sometimes a child might not like the idea and is sad to clean up. Any ideas would be appreciated, thank you


Other participants had some suggestions we agree with:

  • When a child is working hard on something, and needs more time that we just don’t have. I take a picture but also we put the “work” into the “Under construction” area so that child can finish it later without it being messed up.
  • In our class, if the child is really into building blocks and it’s time for lunch we ask them to stop but not necessarily tidying it up. They put their name and they go back working when they want it.


Q.11. We usually have “magic time” on Fridays where we have science experiments started by the teacher and the kids get to do it after. I work with 3-5 year olds. I have trouble mixing “magic” and Science. In my mind they are quite different


We agree with you. We find it respectful to enable children to learn about the world and how it works through developmentally appropriate experiences. Calling natural phenomena “magic” interferes with the development of logic. There is beauty in discovering a pattern. For example, magnetic attraction may seem “like magic” but it does not act because an adult has magic power or says a magic word—it happens because it is the nature of the material and it happens no matter who holds the magnet. A teacher demonstration is not necessary before providing children with experiences with natural phenomena. Side-by-side work may be necessary to help children manage some materials. Promoting science inquiry is always a good goal!


Q.12. Do you have any suggestions for storing these large objects in the classroom?


As a first grade teacher, I considered my classroom valuable real estate and evaluated if I was getting the most out of that real estate. I got more room by placing desks together to make a larger workspace until I could replace them with tables. In this way, I could create a flexible learning environment that adapted to children’s interest in investigations. I made sure an art area was near natural light. Loud investigations were opposite from library or literacy small group reading. Children placed their personal belongings in plastic shoe boxes on a shelf. They pooled their scissors, markers, pencils, crayons and these were placed around the classroom and replenished when needed. The track for Ramps & Pathways were stored vertically in a tall metal wastebasket in the unit block center. I questioned everything I was asking my children to do. Was it a shallow task? Or was it an intellectual experience that would enable them to engage in investigations over time. My mentors told me to always play this question in my mind: “What is in this experience for children to figure out?” If I could only name a few things, I knew it was not worthy of their time nor of the real estate in the classroom. I was surprised at how much space opened up when I began doing this.


Q.13. Is there a certain step by step with the different parts of engineering; the system thinking, communication, creativity, etc. ..or are these all just parts and ways to realize it is engineering that is happening?


What an important question! Too often, well-meaning people try to simplify engineering and as a result, make it more complicated. The step-by-step idea complicates it and it is not really how engineers work. All of these things are used simultaneously in rich investigations or experiences. If you see examples of these behaviors, and you are supporting them, you are doing exactly what they need you to do!


Q.14. Do you know of any good resources addressing the link between schema play (trajectory, connecting, etc.) to engineering? More specifically, how to promote engineering-type activities to replace ‘unwanted’ behaviors (dropping or throwing objects, etc.) that are actually just exploratory schema play behaviors


Playful learning often involves engineering loose parts, such as the tracks and unit blocks for Ramps & Pathways. Work with the materials yourself before you set them out. As you work with them, explore what can be done with them. If you can involve motion, it has rich engineering possibilities. When you introduce the materials to the children, you can say something like, “I’ve been working with these materials because I think they are interesting. I’m curious about how you might use them and what your ideas are. How might we use them safely in the next few weeks?” Then let them take the lead in creating plans on how to handle the materials so everyone can work safely. Write the plans down in their own language. The book, “STEM Learning With Young Children” goes into this in much more depth (see Resources handout).


Q.15. Whats an example of the “start of the science experiment?” How do you start new projects-what is your lesson launch? How do I create some meaning behind their work?


I always watch what the children are interested in during recess, or what they are bringing from home. That gives me ideas of what projects would be meaningful to them. It’s more about the teacher respecting the meaning children are making in trying to make sense of what is in the world and how it works.


Materials needed

Q.16. The materials shown in the photographs are wonderful. What can we do to support low income home providers?


In addition to advocating for more funding for early childhood programs, we all can share materials with other programs. I used to trade boxes of cleaned toys with other educators on a monthly basis. Many cities, companies, or counties have upcycling and recycling “stores” where materials  live loose parts are provided free or at a very low cost. Ask families or local businesses to donate loose parts or other materials that can be used for creative play.


Q.17. Love the shadow idea. anyone know what material that board is made of? I’d love to do a lesson like this.


The board can be made of any stiff material—this one is Plexiglas, translucent because it is a frosted plastic.


Engineering in infant and toddler programs

Q.18. How Would you apply this to one year olds ? Other then blocks and puzzles How would you apply this to toddlers?


In the January/February 2017 Issue on Child Care ExchangeFrom Stumble to STEM: One School’s Journey to Explore STEM with its Youngest Students”, my colleague and I shared that engineering is a sensory experience for one year olds. By twenty four months, toddlers have understanding of cause and effect relationships and enjoy exploring simple machines like levers. Here are a few tips for both age groups.
·Infant teachers can set up clay for children to explore and gain sensory experience. Children will experience cold, sticky, and use their hands as tools to mold the clay in to shapes and teachers can spray water on the clay to have children experience wet, slippery and allow children to feel, rub, squish, smear clay with their hands. You can even put a large amount of clay on a piece of canvas on the floor and let them use their bodies to climb, walk, feel the clay with their feet. Feet are very important as they are beginning to stand, walk and wear shoes for the first time.

  • Toddler teachers engage children in exploratory play to develop understanding of levers and balance. Provide simple wooden lever or provide a variety of levers*, fulcrums and pom-pom balls to create ways to launch the pom pom balls.
  • Paper towel tubes, rulers or cardboard strips, pompoms or small toys Give a child a paper tube and a ruler. Ask the children to use the tube (a fulcrum) and balance the ruler (a lever). Encourage experimentation with a simple balance scale or using a simple lever to lift an object.
  • Toddler teachers provide unit blocks and encourage students to explore balance and how high they can build a tower. Provide step stools so children can reach new heights (with supervision while students are on stools). Try having students building on large wooden trucks and how towers ‘sway’ when the trucks move. Explore gravity and its effect on stability.
  • Another great resource: Clarendon Early Education Services, Inc. Simple Machines


Q.19. I never thought about engineering when 2 and 3 yrs olds were making fences and towers for dinosaurs


Yes, building with blocks and other materials is appropriate for those ages. As with any activity involving any materials, we make changes according to the developmental age and needs of the children. Some educators have been exploring what toddlers will do with “containers and contents.” They provide various tubs or containers with lids that may be opened by young children if they work at it. When objects made of interesting materials are put into the containers, the children problem solve to get the objects out. Then they rearrange the objects and see which objects can fit into which containers.


Difficulties in implementing engineering design opportunities

Q.20. I work at a school site and it hard for me to have an environment that supports engineering in away that will benefit all my students
We were also taught to switch activities often


Meeting the needs of all students is key for quality teaching—effective and emphatic. Providing opportunities for children to develop engineering habits of mind over time—throughout the entire school year—will make sure every child has time. Communication and collaboration between children will also develop over time.

Switching activities may cut short children’s creativity and may discourage their persistence in improving their designs. Returning to the activity every day (or several days a week) as long as children are interested is another way to increase the amount of time children have in engineering design problem-solving activities.


Comments and suggestions—thank you for sharing your experiences and expertise!

  • The young girl in the picture is also exploring acoustics 🙂
  •  We build lean-to’s using limbs
  • We made a stove using rocks and an old grill rack and these were the children’s ideas 4 & 5 yr olds
  • Making cars out of Legos or robots out of snap blocks constitutes engineering in early childhood. Tinker toys are a great way to encourage engineering in the classroom too.
  • The concept of stickiness and the properties of glue and tape are in and of themselves worthy engineering projects. Think on that next time you want to expand a project.
  • Appropriate and accessible materials helps the children to be optimistic and fearless explorers of life.
  • I have to make sure that I carry away the process of what the speaker to teaching us not just the project pictured. We can then apply the process to reach the desired goal no matter what the materials are that we use.
  • This year I had a student who used tape to try to get his marble runs to stay together. Then another child realized that when he put the sticky side up, it slowed down the ball
  •  I highly recommend looking into the Project Approach. Here is a book to check out: Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years, 2nd Edition 2nd Edition by Judy Harris Helm (Author), Lillian G. Katz (Author)
  • Sometimes it’s important to follow the directions for safety or if trying to get to a specific result/research consistency… but true science allows for dynamic explorations.
  • Sometimes I think that eliminating some classroom materials allows for more creative thinking. We removed the play money from our dramatic play restaurant and the children just made their own with paper and a step up created their own wallets and purses! I was amazed to see the outcome of removing the play money.
  • Sonotubes are also very inexpensive and last a long time (giant cardboard tubes)
  • You may also be interested in the webinar, How to Create Experiences WITH Young Children Rather Than Planning Activities FOR Them, by Jacky Howell M.A.
  • The thing about saving work is that it gives the opportunity to rework. Photographing it lacks that opportunity.
  • When a child is working hard on something, and needs more time that we just don’t have. I take a picture but also we put the “work” into the “Under construction” area so that child can finish it later without it being messed up.
  • In our class, if the child is really into building blocks and it’s time for lunch we ask them to stop but not necessarily tidying it up. They put their name and they go back working when they want it.
  • Important to talk to parents about STEM at home in play and how to help parents name the engineering for the children rather than solve for the children.
  •  After a project done by a learner it’s important for a teacher to discuss about it with the learner
  • Children need more uninterrupted free play time to be able to get deeper into project work/engineering!
  • I really hate to hear someone say times up lets move on when talking to small children
  • For my younger students, trying out a “prefab” toy introduces them to ramps, curves, tunnels etc. Then providing the materials rather than the toy gives them a chance to go with the idea and create their own.
  • Using picture books is a great way to start a new project. You would be surprised what ideas the kids would have to design something they read in the book or a way to help the character in the book.
  • When writing skills are limited for these young students, you can have them work on their verbal skills by video recording students explaining their thinking/creating. It’s my favorite way to really know how students are processing
  •  We ran out of tape one day and my 3yr old ask for gum because it had taped his hair to his hat one time so he thought it would work with the paper and leaves!
  • I like using a drawing to use as an assessment of what they learned.