Early Education Inclusion in STEM Can Lay Groundwork for Future

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month


When people think about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) they tend to think of subjects that are academic or require adult-directed formal instruction. However, STEM can and should be integrated in intentional ways throughout a young child’s typical routines and daily activities.

At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMIE) Center, we are excited to take part in the discussion on this year’s Better Hearing and Speech Month theme, “Communication Across the Lifespan.”

The connection between STEM and social communication is critical, especially in early ages. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, known as ASHA, recommends “increasing active engagement and building independence in natural communication environments” as a key strategy for children with social communication concerns.

We know that most young children possess a sophisticated informal knowledge of STEM concepts, and they frequently ask scientific questions such as “Why is that leaf green?” In addition, preschoolers’ free play involves substantial amounts of foundational STEM skills as they explore patterns, shapes and spatial relations; compare magnitudes; engineer with various materials; and explore scientific phenomena and concepts.1, 2, 3

We also know that engaging in early STEM learning activities can lead to positive language and literacy outcomes in later years.4

So, we should consider that in their free play,children naturally engage in mathematics and science.5

Research shows that typically developing preschoolers engage in mathematical thinking at least once in almost half of each minute of play 6 and that children in classrooms with stronger emphasis on math or literacy are more likely to engage in a higher quality of social-dramatic play. 7 It would seem that incorporating STEM into natural communication environments can support improvement in social communication by:

  • Building on how children learn and explore the world; and
  • Supporting exploration of STEM concepts by promoting questioning and problem-solving.

The Let’s Talk, Read and Sing about STEM! Tips for Preschool Teachers & Providers developed by Too Small to Fail and the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services provides great tips for teachers and practitioners to embed STEM within play opportunities for young children, including:

  • Being co-discoverers within children;
  • Asking open-ended questions;
  • Following the child’s lead; and
  • Learning along with children.

Despite evidence indicating the many benefits of STEM learning for young children, there is still a STEM opportunity gap for vulnerable children. Children who live in poverty, children who are members of linguistic and ethnic minority groups,8, 9, 10 and children with disabilities 11 have fewer opportunities to engage in STEM learning activities than their peers.

This opportunity gap continues to widen as children move through elementary, middle and high school.12

While we do not have data on young children with disabilities, we do know there is a disparity for older school-age children with disabilities.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) 2015-2019 Civil Rights Data Collection on STEM Course Taking, high school students with disabilities represent only a very small percent of students enrolled in biology, Algebra 2, chemistry, and physics courses.

At STEMIE, we have also witnessed that children with developmental delays and disabilities are especially denied opportunities to learn STEM.

We’ve heard from voices from the field, and it’s clear that many early childhood teachers need more supports to build the foundations of STEM learning, especially for young children with developmental delays and disabilities. Many early childhood teachers are not prepared to engage children in rich STEM experiences that lay the groundwork for later success in school and in the workplace.13, 14, 15, 16

To address these challenges, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education funded STEMIE. STEMIE aims to:

  • Develop and enhance the knowledge base on engagement in STEM learning opportunities for young children with disabilities (ages 0–5); and
  • Implement high-quality technical assistance and professional development to increase engagement for young children with disabilities in STEM opportunities.

As we celebrate, “Better Hearing & Speech Month” and focus on “Communication Across the Lifespan,” we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the following:

  • How can we use STEM opportunities to facilitate social communication?
  • How can we incorporate STEM within free play activities intentionally?
  • What supports might you need to do this successfully?

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1 Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2016). Math, science, and technology in the early grades. The Future of Children, 75–94.

2 Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2018). Promoting a good start: Technology in early childhood mathematics. Promising models to improve primary mathematics learning in Latin America and the Caribbean using technology. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank.

3 Seo, K. H., & Ginsburg, H. P. (2004). What is developmentally appropriate in early childhood mathematics education? In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama & A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 91–104). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

4 Paprzycki, P., Tuttle, N., Czerniak, C. M., Molitor, S., Kadervaek, J. and Mendenhall, R. (2017), The impact of a Framework-aligned science professional development program on literacy and mathematics achievement of K-3 students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(9), 1174–1196.

5 Van Oers, B. (1996). Are you sure? Stimulating mathematical thinking during young children’s play. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 4(1), 71–87.

6 Seo, K. H., & Ginsburg, H. P. (pp. 91–104)

7 Aydogan, C. et al. (2005). An Investigation of Prekindergarten Curricula: Influences on Classroom Characteristics and Child Engagement. Paper presented at the National Association for the Education of Young Children annual conference, Washington, DC.

8 Denton, K., & West, J. (2002). Children’s reading and mathematics achievement in kindergarten and first grade. National Center for Education Statistics (ED), Washington, DC. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED461438.pdf

9 Natriello, G. (1990). Intended and unintended consequences: Purposes and effects of teacher evaluation. In J. Millman & L. Darling-Hammond (Eds). The New Handbook of Teacher Evaluation: Assessing Elementary and Secondary School Teachers (pp.35–45). Sage: Newbury, CA.

10 National Research Council. (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers (B. T. Bowman, M. S. Donovan, & M. S. Burns, Eds.). Washington, DC.

11 Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2014). Learning and teaching early math: The learning trajectories approach. Routledge.

12 National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2011. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

13 Brenneman, K., Stevenson-Boyd, J., & Frede, E. C. (2009). Math and science in preschool: Policies and practice. Preschool Policy Brief, 19, 1–12.

14 National Research Council. (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers (B. T. Bowman, M. S. Donovan, & M. S. Burns, Eds.). Washington, DC: Author.

15 National Research Council. (2009). Mathematics learning in early childhood: Paths toward excellence and equity. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. doi:10.17226/12519.

16 Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Early childhood mathematics education research: Learning trajectories for young children. New York, NY: Routledge.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Megan Vinh and Chih-Ing Lim
Posted by
STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMIE) Center


  1. We know that technology is a great equalizer in the world and that is so paramount in creating equality of educational opportunity for children with disabilities. Often kids with disabilities don’t attend or aren’t meaningfully engaged in their technology classes in elementary school and often the hurdle is not understanding adaptions or how to integrate STEM in ways that can become intuitive. We see how much technology is changing the worlds and it is embedded in the classrooms. It might be a much needed bridge to inclusion like music is. The majority of students will have technology and have to interact with it regularly throughout their educational careers. Let’s use this opportunity to include our minority students in with the majority. What an exciting opportunity for inclusion.

    • Mary Beth: I wholeheartedly agree that we need to integrate STEM in more intuitive ways. That will serve all children better, not just those who have difficulty learning via “traditional” methods.

      I recently began as a grant writer for a new STEM nonprofit (STEMEdFund.org). The founder is a techie businesswoman who as a child often spent weekends with her family exploring museums.

      She is convinced that providing this experience to minority/disadvantaged/ even homeless young people will open their eyes to a world they’ve not known existed, and engage their minds so they understand STEM intuitively. I think her model is very exciting because it acknowledges a need for intuitive learning.

  2. Thank you STEMIE Project for everything you are doing to assist early childhood educators and the children they serve!! Having worked with children for many years, we know how much they love experiences in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math! Teachers and parents need more ideas and support to provide these to all children including those with developmental delays. We often discover that it is through these basic STEM experiences that bridge the gap in children’s abilities. They are not only interesting, fun and beneficial to children’s growth and development; but they are yet another positive way to strengthen communication and collaboration. I am excited and encouraged to share this STEMIE site with my colleagues!

  3. I am so inspired by the information you are sharing and the way you are describing STEM and using STEM in early childhood settings. Thank you!

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