The focus on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — STEAM — has become a staple in classrooms across the Commonwealth and the country. As educators work to prepare kids with the foundation of skills they will need for future success in today’s high-tech world, they are also turning their attention to the much-younger set.
While focusing on STEAM may seem ambitious for preschoolers, many are already learning age-appropriate skills with their daily classroom activities. Building with Legos, for example, exposes them to engineering. Finger painting is not only a child’s first foray into the arts, but also an act of sensory exploration, according to the National Center on Early Childhood Development. Several preschools in our area, however, are enthusiastically using specific STEAM lesson plans.
The Goddard School of York and the new SMART Preschool in Harrisburg, opening this fall, are two local preschools that are embracing newer technology and learning approaches in order to enhance their STEAM curricula.
A paperless classroom
An acronym for Science, Math, Art, Reading and Technology, the SMART Preschool is centered entirely around STEAM teachings, says Eric Waters, Ed.D., owner and creator of the preschool.
Waters states that introducing technology to preschool-aged students will prepare them for their futures — which will inevitably involve computers and iPads. Upon creation of the school, Waters took an online course offered to educators by Apple to become an “Apple Certified Teacher.” Not surprisingly, he has outfitted his preschool primarily with Apple technology — iPads and Beats by Dre headphones.
In the classroom, students will have access to a rotating iPad station at different times throughout the day. This station will include iPads as well as Beats headphones that they will be able to use to listen to the iBooks app to read or listen to books. They’ll also be encouraged to experiment with instruments on Garageband, among other activities available on pre-downloaded apps on the iPads.
“We are teaching children to be independent with technology as the foundation,” says Waters.
The new preschool will be a paperless environment, with students exploring art through whiteboard tables and whiteboard markers. This allows for essentially “unlimited pieces of paper” and allows students to collaborate with one another when sharing a table, explains Waters. “Collaboration not separation” is the idea behind the whiteboard tables.
Students will also have access to an Amazon Alexa to help them with questions. Aside from the focus on technology in this preschool, there will still be opportunities for the hands-on elements of preschool, including a play kitchen, a putting green and a Lego table.
At the Goddard School of York, preschoolers have had access to iPads and computers since the school’s opening six years ago. Students can use this technology during their rotating learning stations throughout the day, says owner Leena Patel. Her school is a strong proponent of teaching lessons with STEAM involved. This past January, the preschool hosted a STEAM open house and an aviation-themed STEAM week for the students to explore how STEAM relates to aviation.
Coding in preschool
Steve Jobs once said that, “Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” No matter what one’s future plans, computers will most likely play a role. And coding — being able to program a computer to have it do what you want or need it to — is an essential 21st century tool. The earlier children can be exposed to coding principles, the more comfortable and confident they’ll be learning it.
Patel explains that at the Goddard School of York, preschool students begin learning basic coding in junior kindergarten classes with the KIBO Robotics program. Students learn how to make a sequence of instructions through a provided set of wooden blocks, which then control a robot and change it to their code specifications. But it doesn’t feel high-tech for the kids — all the work is accomplished without students having to be on a screen, which is something the school especially values in the program, says Patel.
Students use their iPads for educational programs, such as Osmo, which challenges them to conquer skills like tracing pictures and basic math while letting them compete with their friends at school. Teachers can then see their progress through these competitions, Patel says.
STEAM with screen time limits
While apps like this are helpful for teaching STEAM lessons, the staff at the Goddard School is conscientious of just how much time their students spend on their screens in the classroom. Those under age 3 are given any screen time, while the preschool aged students are strictly limited.
“Many parents like that we don’t do screen time,” says Patel. “Kids are already doing it at home so parents don’t want it done here”.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends “limiting screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs for children ages 2-5. In addition, it recommends that parents monitor the media the child is seeing in order to help them to understand how it applies to the world around them. In a study conducted since the AAP’s original recommendation in 2016, almost 70 percent of the children surveyed were exceeding the one-hour per day screen time guideline.
Regardless of the unknown answer to the long discussed and convoluted “how much screen time is too much?” debate between scientists, it comes down to parental opinion and entrusting children to preschools that will value and share those views.
“Digital technologies provide one more outlet for them [students] to demonstrate their creativity and learning,” The National Association of the Education of Young Children writes on its website.
Many educators around the country are using new activities involving the use of technology in order to more thoroughly teach STEAM concepts to students. And while the idea of state of the art technology in centers at preschool, areas typically known for Lincoln Logs and picture books, can be daunting to some and exciting to others, a high-tech preschool is a trend which seems to be on the verge of ‘going viral.’
Lindsay Garbacik of camp Hill is a student in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park and a staff writer for two of the university’s publications. She interned with Central Penn Parent in 2017-2018.