What’s the ‘big ideas’?

How quality STEM education can be integrated into family day care through children’s everyday activities.

Research shows that young children— including infants—are capable of learning mathematics and science concepts (Baroody, 2003). It shows that learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) concepts in the early years is associated with children’s later school readiness and academic achievement (Duncan et al., 2007). There is also consensus among researchers that going beyond surface-level STEM experiences is vital for nurturing lifelong learning dispositions including creativity, curiosity, problem-solving skills, risk taking, resilience and the ability to recognise interconnections and relationships between ideas and concepts.

But what should quality STEM experiences look like in prior-to-school settings? This was less clear until the US-based Early Childhood STEM Working Group (2017) deliberated over the concerns around ensuring high-quality STEM experiences in future early childhood education and care, and published a report providing multiple recommendations on how this could be achieved. This group of scholars, policy-makers, curriculum developers and educators collaborated for two years before coming up with principles and recommendations, which are gaining traction in the field. One of their main recommendations focuses on discipline specific concepts and skills, known as the big ideas (see Table 1 for examples). Engagement with these big ideas at an early stage is projected to support ‘longterm disciplinary understandings and challenge misconceptions’ (Early Childhood STEM Working Group, 2017, p. 29).

Big ideas in practice

As part of a larger research project (Whiteford, in review) that aims to bring about change in the implementation of STEM education in the early childhood sector, I recently investigated the big ideas of STEM in a metropolitan family day care (FDC) setting. I selected the FDC setting because this context is generally under-researched, and because it provides a rich learning environment with strong foundations for positive learning experiences (Freeman & Karlsson, 2012). I hypothesised that STEM experiences were occurring within FDC environments daily, and by providing case studies linked to big ideas I hoped that educators would increase their confidence with STEM experiences in FDC contexts.

In one observation, a three-year-old boy was investigating the rolling of a toy aeroplane down a ramp. First the boy rolled the toy down the rough side of the ramp. He then flipped the ramp over to reveal a smoother side, and rolled the toy down this side. He exclaimed to the educator that the smooth side made the aeroplane go faster. This experience explored the changing coefficient of friction. In terms of the big ideas, the boy was exploring the properties of materials from the discipline of engineering, and the notion of ‘cause and effect’ while changing a variable, which is in the discipline of science (Early Childhood STEM Working Group, 2017).

‘So, understanding these ideas can inform educators’ identification, design and extension of STEM learning experiences for children.’

In another observation, two children of different ages were interested in measuring the weight of sand, to explore the concept of things being heavier or lighter. The educator provided the children with open-ended materials so they could design and construct a tool that would help them reach their aim of measuring weight. They created a balance-scale with a piece of wood. During this experience, the children connected with some big ideas of engineering, such as materials having properties that can be explored and described, and learnt that engineers use a multi-step process to solve problems. They also experienced a mathematical big idea, that of measurement involving a fair comparison (Early Childhood STEM Working Group, 2017).

These case studies can provide educators with real-world examples of big ideas in action in the FDC environment. Engagement with real-world scenarios can increase educators’ confidence in identifying and extending STEM experiences within their settings. Experiences within the settings can be natural and spontaneous (such as what happened in observation one) or can be a planned extension of children’s interests (observation two). With an understanding of the big ideas, educators can more readily identify and engage with STEM learning experiences in their settings. As the FDC setting is unique and often has a sole educator, it is vital that we continue to explore STEM education in this environment.


  • Baroody, A. (2003). The development of adaptive expertise and flexibility: The integration of conceptual and procedural knowledge. In A. J. Baroody & A. Dowker (Eds.), The development of arithmetic concepts and skills: Constructing adaptive expertise (pp. 1–34). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Duncan, G. J., Claessens, A., Huston, A. C., Pagani, L. S., Engel, M., Sexton, H., … Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446.
  • Early Childhood STEM Working Group. (2017). Early STEM matters: Providing high-quality experiences for all young learners. Chicago, IL: UChicago STEM Education and Erikson Institute. Retrieved from http:// d3lwefg3pyezlb.cloudfront.net/docs/Early_STEM_ Matters_FINAL.pdf.
  • Freeman, R., & Karlsson, M. (2012). Strategies for learning experiences in family child care: American and Swedish perspectives. Childhood Education, 88(2), 81–90.
  • Whiteford, C. (in review). STEM education in the early childhood years. Women in Research Grant.

This article was originally published in Every Child Magazine, 2019 vol 02. Read it here.

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Chrystal Whiteford

Chrystal Whiteford is a registered teacher with a passion for early childhood education and care. Areas of particular interest for Chrystal include children with special health care needs and infant and toddler child care. Within the industry, Chrystal has worked in long day care, outside school hours care and primary school settings. Chrystal is proud of her early childhood background and wishes to continue to explore areas within the field.

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