5 Ways Learning Through Play Improves Early Development in STEM Subjects

The U.S. arose as a global leader due to its innovation in science and technology, and to maintain its competitive position in the world, this country is depending on the future innovations of upcoming scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. These innovators study in STEM: an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math disciplines in academics.

But unfortunately, the number of students in STEM majors are decreasing. Compounding that issue, the number of teachers who are competent in these STEM subjects are also lacking. The good news is, for qualified job candidates, this shortage of viable candidates to makes STEM industries great opportunities to find jobs. It's bridging that gap between open positions and qualified candidates that can be an issue. So how to get kids on a track to a solid job that makes a difference?

The answer may be: start them early, and make it fun.

In a study from the National Center of Education Statistics conducted on 7,750 children from kindergarten to the end of eighth grade, researchers found that the amount of general worldly knowledge in kindergarteners were a strong indicator of their science achievements and knowledge in later grades. These achievement gaps begin at a very early age and stabilize from third to eighth grade. As such, there is no such thing as beginning to learn too early. The earlier a child engages him/herself in STEM, the more likely they are to continue to stay interested and excel in it.

One of the primary ways to acquaint a child with the underlying foundational concepts of STEM subjects is by playing. It exercises problem-solving and creativity, two characteristics that are crucial in STEM. Playing is very important for a child’s early learning in physical, sensory, social, and intellectual development. Playing allows children to learn by doing and directly experiencing the real world around them and sates their curiosities through investigation. For teachers and parents who wish to encourage and nurture these foundational skills, below are five ways to learn through play:

Hot Wheels Speedometry

In order to teach physics to fourth graders, Hot Wheels created a classroom kit featuring their signature Hot Wheels car toys, to recreate situations of real-world problem-based learning. In a two week-study involving 1,800 fourth graders in 59 classrooms, they found that girls had decreased negative emotions about science and math, higher performances in students who participated in Speedometry, and greater engagement and positive emotions during these play-based lesson plans.


In structured block play, a child must draw on skills that are crucial in many aspects of STEM subjects. Unsurprisingly, many current engineers fondly remember how construction toys, such as Legos, have inspired them to enter their field. Children observe and analyze the whole object and then how individual pieces join together to create the finished product. With this understanding, they should be able to recreate the object. Legos are a great way to practice structured block play, which offer bricks of different colors, sizes, and shape, further challenging children and adults alike.


Through the use of role playing and imagination, students immerse themselves in a scenario which exercises various skills heavily used in STEM subjects. An example of this is S.E.E.D. (Story Engineering and Enabling Device), an immersive role playing simulation created by Game Changer Chicago. In the scenario, students wore lab coats and pretended to be a group of scientists who were traveling to the future. Check out their blog for other projects and news.

Retro/Simple Toys

Despite the vast offerings of complex toys and educational tech tools that are being introduced into the learning sphere, the good old basics may still be the best choice. These open-ended toys, such as a rubber ball or wooden building blocks, allow for children to command the toy rather than the other way around. They’re cheap and can be used for multiple types of play, requiring more imagination to bring these simpler toys to life. Check out these eco-friendly sustainably-harvested wooden toys from Bella Luna Toys!


Though we don’t think about it, cooking and baking is just a series of chemical reactions. Actions such as measuring out a tablespoon, mixing ingredients together, and watching something brown in the oven are small, but powerful steps in conducting daily science experiments at home. Approaching cooking from a scientific standpoint is not only fun, it also allows children to think about other everyday objects and activities from a scientific standpoint as well. Check out these Kitchen Science Experiments from Buzzfeed!

--Sarah Liu, Teach.com