STEM books for toddlers and preschoolers

stembooks

It’s never too early to start teaching children about science, technology, engineering, and math. These are some of my favorite STEM books for kids ages 2 to 4. I’m sure they would be enjoyed by older kids as well, and in many cases their recommended age range is much older than 4, but AJ is almost four and these are all books she has enjoyed over the past two years. They would all make great holiday gifts for any toddler or preschooler.

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos. A biography of Carl Sagan, focusing on his curiosity as a young boy, and ending with the Voyager missions. AJ got this book for her 3rd birthday and would beg every night, “Can we read Carl?” She really identified with the young Carl. This is just a great children’s book: informative, lyrical, wonderful illustrations, and great at inspiring curiosity and imagination. As I do with all books that I read to AJ, I change the wording at times to make it easier for her to understand, and I elaborate in some places to offer further explanations. This book makes it really easy to do that.

Making a Friend. This book contains very few words, yet it can teach so much. At first glance, it does not appear to be a science book at all. It’s about seasons, a child who builds a snowman that becomes his friend, and what happens when the snowman melts. The theme of the story is “What you love will always be with you.” But! I found this book to be an excellent way to introduce the water cycle, as well as phases of matter and conservation of mass.

Amazing Machines series. Includes five books: “Amazing Airplanes,” “Roaring Rockets,” “Terrific Trains,” “Flashing Fire Engines,” and “Tremendous Tractors.” These books offer a very educational and factual take on popular children’s subjects. They really explain in detail how each machine works, and in rhyming verse that’s fun to read and listen to. I actually learned some things from these books.

Introductory Calculus for Infants. AJ loves this book right now, and I love hearing her say “Mommy, can you read Introductory Calculus?” To her, it’s an alphabet book– it goes through the letters of the alphabet with a math concept for each letter. The overarching story features a character named ‘x’ who is an outcast among the other letters until ‘f’ shows him that together as f(x), they can do anything. I try to explain the math concepts to AJ, and of course it’s not like she is really learning anything about calculus here. But the story does teach a lesson about friendship as well as reinforcing the alphabet, and she is still getting something out of it. At the very least, when she takes a calculus course in about 13 years, it won’t seem so scary because she’ll have fond memories of reading about calculus with her family as a little girl.

Good Night, Galaxy. This is basically a vocabulary book of astronomy terms with very simple explanations thrown in. It uses no more than a sentence to explain each concept, but it does introduce some good terms like pulsars and black holes, which you could then explain further. I like it because it’s short and easy to read when we don’t have time to read a longer book, so it’s great for bedtime. And it’s a board book, so you can leave it in the hands of a baby or toddler without it getting destroyed.

My Body series. This is a set of four books: “My Brain,” “My Bones,” “My Digestive System,” and “My Heart and Lungs.” These are the best books that I could find about the human body that the youngest children could understand. I still had to do a lot of verbal text editing while reading it to AJ when she was 2, but the text is simple and provides examples that were easy for her to grasp. They include activities you can do with your child to teach them more about each body system. Two-year-old AJ used to love saying at mealtimes, “The food goes doooown the esophagus to the stomach, then the small intestine and large intestine!”

Over and Under the Snow. In this book, a girl goes cross-country skiing with her father and learns about the animals that live in the subnivean zone, the “secret kingdom under the snow.” The illustrations show what’s happening both over and under the snow, and make this such a cozy book to read in winter. AJ requests this one a lot. I think it really encourages children to think about the unseen and unknown in nature, and in general to look beyond the surface of things.

My Very First Space Book. This book is freaking adorable. The illustrations are detailed and factual (and include a cameo of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson), the language is easy for children to understand, and it’s at just the right level to introduce children to astronomy and space exploration. It should definitely be every child’s first space book.

When does the STEM gender gap really begin?

I recently read about a study showing that the STEM gender gap is perpetuated by teacher bias. Sixth graders were given a math test, which was scored by a group of teachers who didn’t know them. When the tests were anonymous, the girls performed better than the boys. But when the teachers knew the names of the students whose tests they scored, they scored the boys higher than the girls, suggesting that the teachers had subconscious prejudices that underestimated girls’ math abilities and overestimated boys’. When the same students reached middle and high school, the girls who had received lower scores from their teachers in sixth grade (but had actually outperformed the boys, objectively) had lower math performance than their male classmates, and were less likely to choose to take advanced science and math courses.

I happened to be at a playdate with my daughter when I read that article. (On the rare occasions that I go to neighborhood playdates with other stay-at-home moms anymore, I usually read science articles on my phone instead of trying to talk to them. It makes the time pass more tolerably.) Several moms in the playgroup are pregnant with their second or third child, so this time there was a lot of talk about baby names and the sexes of the babies. In the midst of this, I could not believe all the gender stereotypes I was hearing.

(AJ loves trains and has never even heard the word ‘princess’. Once at a playdate she found her friend’s toy trains and the boy’s mom said to me, “I didn’t put out the train set because I knew there weren’t going to be any boys here.”)

“It’s going to be so crazy having another boy. The two of them will be so active and boisterous all the time, I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. You’re so lucky that you’re having a girl so she’ll be calmer and quieter.”

“He’s always running around and banging his toy cars together. He’s such a boy.”

“I’m glad we’re having a boy this time, so my husband will have a little fishing buddy.”

“I’m so excited to have a little girl to shop for. I already started pinning hairbows for her.”

This blows my mind, but the sad fact is that almost every single conversation I hear among stay-at-home moms is full of similar stereotypes.

With as much talk about how different aspects of the school environment create a gender gap in STEM fields, I have to believe that the gender gap begins with parents. After all, we have much more influence over our kids than teachers do, and parental influence begins from birth. If a teacher’s subconscious gender bias can affect the academic performance and interests of students over the course of an academic year, parents who stereotype their kids from toddlerhood, infancy, and even before birth surely have a huge impact on what subjects their children will prefer in school, their academic performance, and their career choices later on.

If little girls aren’t encouraged to play with toy helicopters and robots and toolkits, how will they develop the desire to become pilots or engineers and the desire to learn about STEM? If parents dress their daughters in clothes that are meant to be pretty rather than functional, how will they be able to climb, dig, act like dinosaurs, or practice blasting off into outer space? (I cringe every time I see a toddler girl wearing shoes that don’t allow her to run safely; little boys are never physically restricted by their clothing.) And if the above are labeled as “boy” behaviors and interests from before age 2, is it any wonder that by the time they reach high school, girls have little interest and declining ability in math and science?

The thing is, I know most of these moms would call themselves feminists and say that they want their daughters to have all the same opportunities as their sons, and some may even wish for their daughters to go into STEM fields. But a few words of encouragement when a girl is already in school are not going to be enough to counteract years of subconscious messages from funneling her towards certain toys, books, and hobbies and away from others.

Of course, staying away from gender stereotypes has many other benefits for kids that have nothing to do with their interest in STEM. But I think it’s obvious that if you want boys and girls to have the same opportunities in STEM fields later in life, you have to give them the same opportunities from the very beginning of life.