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1.3: The Educator's Roles and Responsibilities in STEM

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    COURSE COMPETENCY 1. Explain the basic concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

    Criteria 1.3 Identify the teacher's role in high-quality, developmentally appropriate STEM experiences.


    The Multifaceted Role of the Early Childhood Educator in STEM Experiences

    Educators do not need to have answers to all the questions children will raise. Rather than providing children with answers, the educator can use children’s questions as a springboard for further investigations. They may say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out together.” It is essential that educators become learners together with children, model a questioning mind for children, and think aloud, expressing interest and enthusiasm. Educators’ thoughtful guidance and support through inquiry experiences build a foundation for children’s understanding of basic science, technology, engineering, and math concepts, foster a positive approach to learning, and develop learning skills and attitudes necessary for success later in life.

    The following principles guide educators in establishing a preschool STEM program that fosters children’s curiosity and develops their skills and habits to explore and learn about their world. These principles are consistent with a constructivist approach to learning, where children actively construct knowledge through physical and mental interactions with objects and people in their environment. The principles are drawn from current research-based models and approaches to early childhood education and are consistent with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) guidelines on developmentally appropriate practice.

    • The preschool environment supports children’s curiosity and encourages inquiry and experimentation.
    • The educator
      • acts as a researcher, joining children in exploring their world
      • asks open-ended questions to encourage children to think and talk
      • introduces children to new vocabulary, including scientific, technology, engineering, and math terms such as observe, explore, predict, and measure
      • demonstrates appropriate use of scientific, technology, and engineering tools
      • invites children to reason and draw conclusions
      • encourages children to share their observations and communicate their thoughts
      • models respect for nature
    • The content of inquiry is developmentally appropriate and builds on children’s prior experiences
    • Scientific inquiry experiences are interesting and engaging for children and educators
    • Children explore concepts directly through active, hands-on, minds-on playful experiences
    • Children explore concepts in depth through multiple, related learning experiences over time
    • Children construct knowledge through social interactions with peers and adults
    • Children use language and other forms of communication to express their thoughts, describe observations, and document their work
    • Science, technology, engineering, and math are embedded in children’s daily activities and play and provide a natural vehicle for integrating concepts that cross content areas
    • Individual differences are recognized, and all children are included and supported
    • To provide culturally appropriate and diverse objects, materials and toys.
    • The preschool environment, home, and community are connected through science
    Indigenous Perspective

    Reciprocal learning in early childhood education refers to a collaborative approach where both educators and children actively engage in the learning process, sharing knowledge, ideas, and experiences. Similarly, the Oneida Nation's traditional perspectives emphasize reciprocity and the sharing of knowledge within the community. Here's how reciprocal learning in early childhood education aligns with the values and perspectives of the Oneida Nation:

    1. Interconnectedness: Reciprocal learning acknowledges the interconnectedness of learners and educators, recognizing that everyone has valuable insights to share. Similarly, the Oneida Nation values interconnectedness among community members, fostering a sense of collective responsibility for the well-being and education of children

    2. Respect for Indigenous Knowledge: Reciprocal learning in early childhood education emphasizes the importance of incorporating diverse perspectives, including indigenous knowledge and cultural traditions. The Oneida Nation's perspectives prioritize the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge, ensuring that children are exposed to their cultural heritage from a young age.

    3. Community Involvement: Both reciprocal learning and Oneida perspectives emphasize the importance of community involvement in the educational process. In early childhood education, this may involve collaboration between educators, families, and community members to support children's learning and development. Similarly, the Oneida Nation values community support and collaboration in all aspects of life, including education.

    4. Cultural Relevance: Reciprocal learning promotes cultural relevance by incorporating children's cultural backgrounds and experiences into the curriculum. Similarly, the Oneida Nation emphasizes the importance of cultural relevance in education, ensuring that children learn in ways that are meaningful and respectful of their cultural identity.

    5. Empowerment: Reciprocal learning empowers children to take an active role in their own learning, fostering autonomy and self-confidence. Similarly, the Oneida Nation's perspectives prioritize the empowerment of children, teaching them to be active participants in their community and to contribute to the collective well-being.

    By incorporating reciprocal learning principles into early childhood education, educators can create inclusive and culturally responsive learning environments that align with the values and perspectives of the Oneida Nation. This approach honors indigenous knowledge and traditions while also promoting the holistic development of children.

    (OpenAI. (2024). ChatGPT (3.5) [Large language model].

    The Educator’s Role in Facilitating Play-Based Learning

    The NAEYC Professional Standards and Competencies for Early Childhood Educators help us understand the multifaceted role of educators in facilitating play-based experiences for children. Educators must:

    • create supportive environments,
    • observe and assess children while they play,
    • engage in responsive interactions,
    • collaborate with families, and
    • engage in continuous professional growth.

    Standard 4 and Standard 5 apply to the multifaceted role of early childhood educators during play-based experiences.

    STANDARD 4: Developmentally, Culturally, and Linguistically Appropriate Teaching Practices

    Early childhood educators understand that teaching and learning with young children is a complex enterprise, and its details vary depending on children’s ages and characteristics and on the settings in which teaching and learning occur.

    STANDARD 5: Knowledge, Application, and Integration of Academic Content in the Early Childhood Curriculum

    Early childhood educators have knowledge of the content of the academic disciplines (e.g., language and literacy, the arts, mathematics, social studies, science, technology and engineering, physical education) and of the pedagogical methods for teaching each discipline.

    (See: NAEYC’s Early Childhood Higher Education Accreditation Standards for more information.)

    Types of Play-Based Learning

    According to Danniels and Pyle (2018), there are two types of play-based learning: free play, which is child-directed and internally motivated, and guided play, in which some adult involvement extends the learning opportunities within the play. (CECE Practice Note: Play-Based Learning, p.2).

    Educators can support play-based learning with the following:

    • Interact with children in their play to extend their thinking and learning opportunities.
    • Create schedules that allow for uninterrupted and extended periods of play.
    • Co-plan future experiences based on observations of children’s play.
    • Document children’s learning play to make learning visible.

    NAEYC’s guidelines and recommendations for developmentally appropriate practice are based on nine principles and their implications for early childhood education professional practice. Principle 3 states: Play promotes joyful learning that fosters self-regulation, language, cognitive, and social competencies as well as content knowledge across disciplines. Play is essential for all children, birth through age 8. The recommendation goes on to further state the importance of both free play and guided play. For more information see Principles of Child Development and Learning and Implications That Inform Practice

    The Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards (WMELS) also have Guiding Principles and recognize the importance of play in a child’s learning and development. The following principles reflect the importance of teachers and families providing play-based experiences for young children. Children learn through play and the active exploration of their environment.

    The Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards reflect the belief that children should be provided with opportunities to explore and apply new skills through child-initiated and teacher-initiated activities and through interactions with peers, adults, and materials. Teachers and families can best guide learning by providing these opportunities in natural, authentic contexts. Positive relationships help children gain the benefits of instructional experiences and resources. (See Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards, pg. 10)

    The Educator's Role in Supporting the Active Construction of Knowledge

    Educators play a pivotal role in children’s active construction of knowledge. They intentionally provide the environments and experiences that support children in actively building concepts and skills. The role of the educator who works with young children birth to age five is to support children’s active construction of knowledge. In a sense, early childhood educators serve as research supports as the children sense, discover, and construct meaning about the world around them. Young children’s natural impulse to learn by investigating (1) what things are like and what they can make them do, and (2) how people create and share meaning shapes the role of the early childhood educator. The early childhood educator is responsible for: offering children well-stocked play spaces where they can construct concepts and ideas, preferably in the company of friendly peers; designing daily routines that invite children to be active participants and to use emerging skills and concepts; supporting children’s learning through interactions and conversations that prompt using language and ideas in new ways and that promote sharing meaning with others.

    In carrying out those responsibilities, educators create contexts in which young children can:

    • Wonder about what things are like and what they do.
    • Investigate a variety of ways of relating one thing to another.
    • Invent problems and solutions with others; construct, transform, and represent with the materials at hand.
    • Create and share meaning and collaborate in learning.
    • Try new challenges and practice emerging skills.
    • Express their emotions, feel secure to explore, and regulate their emotions and behavior.
    • Manage conflicts in ways that support the development of social skills by:
      • Advocating for one’s own needs, safety, and feelings.
      • Learning how to connect with their peers in mutually beneficial ways.
      • Learning how to walk away or disengage from their peers when they feel the need to.
      • Learning how to cope with feelings of rejection or exclusion. And in turn, learning how to seek out positive relationships, rather than dwelling on unsatisfying ones.
    Indigenous Perspective

    multigeneraltional family posing for a picture in the front yard

    Figure 1 Generations of Indigenous people (Image provided by author)

    The Oneida Nation, like many Indigenous communities, places a significant emphasis on passing on knowledge to the next generation. Central to their cultural values is the idea of intergenerational learning and the transmission of traditional knowledge, language, and customs. Here are some key aspects of how the Oneida Nation views this responsibility:

    1. Oral Tradition: The Oneida Nation values oral storytelling as a means of passing down history, cultural practices, and spiritual beliefs from one generation to the next. Elders play a crucial role in this process by sharing their wisdom and experiences with younger community members.
    2. Cultural Education: The Oneida Nation emphasizes the importance of teaching their language, traditional crafts, dances, songs, and ceremonies to younger members. These cultural elements are seen as essential for maintaining their identity and connection to their heritage.
    3. Community Involvement: The community as a whole is involved in the education and upbringing of children. Extended family members, tribal leaders, and community elders all contribute to the learning process, ensuring that children receive a holistic education that encompasses both traditional knowledge and modern skills.
    4. Respect for Nature: The Oneida Nation often teaches environmental stewardship as part of passing on knowledge. This includes teachings about the land, plants, animals, and how to live in harmony with nature, reflecting their deep connection to the environment.
    5. Adaptation to Modern Times: While preserving traditional knowledge is crucial, the Oneida Nation also recognizes the importance of adapting to modern times. This includes incorporating relevant skills such as technology, healthcare, and education that can empower younger generations to thrive in contemporary society while maintaining their cultural identity.

    Overall, the Oneida Nation's approach to passing on knowledge is rooted in a deep respect for their cultural heritage, a commitment to community involvement, and an understanding of the need to adapt to changing times while preserving their identity.

    (OpenAI. (2024). ChatGPT (3.5) [Large language model].

    Early childhood educators see and support children as scientists and thus design the play environment to serve the children’s inquisitive minds. Educators also provide the materials children need to construct concepts and ideas and achieve skills in the natural context of play.

    Children learn from opportunities to discover materials that they may be seeing for the first time and need time to explore and get to know the properties of these materials. It means offering children materials that they can organize into relationships of size, shape, number, function, and time. Children can investigate what happens when they put these materials together or arrange them in new ways, experiencing the delight of discovering possibilities for building with them, transforming them, or using them to represent an experience.

    Early childhood educators also design daily routines as rich opportunities for children to participate actively and to use their emerging skills and ideas in meaningful situations. Equally important are the ways in which educators use interactions and conversations with children to support learning. Many interactions occur spontaneously, with the educator being responsive to an interest or need that a child expresses. Many other interactions focus on co-creating or co-constructing meaning as the educator and a child or small group of children focus on a specific topic or activity.

    Some interactions may include providing guidance to help children learn to regulate their emotions and behavior or may involve an intervention in which the educator helps children explore how to negotiate a solution to a conflict.

    Other interactions and conversations teachers have with children are more predictable. Educators anticipate and organize some interactions and conversations as group discussions, to prompt children’s thinking and understanding. Sometimes these groups are small, and sometimes, at preschool age, they are somewhat larger. Educators also guide some activities in a context that allows children to encounter new information and build skills. All interactions are embedded in contexts in which the children are actively engaged in exploring their own developing skills, learning from each other, and acquiring knowledge.

    While play occurs naturally, educators must consider the following responsibilities when facilitating appropriate and purposeful play:


    • Are safe places to explore
    • Reflect the mission and core values of the program
    • Include culturally sensitive materials to explore
    • Include open-ended materials for multi-use


    • Are consistent and predictable
    • Provide ample time for unstructured play to occur (Recommendation is 45 minutes minimum). If children aren’t provided enough time to become immersed in play, they will be less likely to engage enough to receive the benefit of the activity.


    • Stimulate creativity by asking open-ended questions or reflective observations
    • Respect individual differences in play and interactions
    • Encourage cooperation

    Educators who are deliberate and purposeful in what they do:

    • Promote children’s learning through worthwhile and challenging experiences and interactions which foster high-level thinking
    • Seize opportunities during experiences and conversations to extend children’s thinking and learning
    • Model and demonstrate active listening skills
    • Utilize varied communication strategies, such as open questions, explanations, speculation and problem-solving
    • Move flexibly in and out of various roles and draw on different strategies as the context changes
    • Draw on contemporary theories and research for their knowledge and practices
    • Monitor children’s well-being, life skills, and citizenship, and use the information to guide program planning
    • Monitor children’s needs and interests and incorporate them into program planning
    • Identify ‘teachable moments’ as they arise and use them to scaffold children’s learning and development.

    teaching and children at the art table

    Figure 2: Extending children’s learning through conversation (Photo by Yan Krukau on Pexels)

    Pause to Reflect

    As educators, it is always good to reflect on your own childhood.

    • What were your favorite play spaces as a child?
    • What did you enjoy doing?
    • How might you incorporate some of your childhood play ideas into your setting?
    • What role did the adults play when you were a child?
    • What are your beliefs about play?
    • How do you think play might have changed over the past forty years?
    • What impact do you think this might have on children and the adults of the future?
    Important Things to Remember
    • Free play is child-directed and internally motivated.
    • Guided play includes adult involvement to extend the learning opportunities within the play.
    • Early Childhood Educators emphasize that early childhood pedagogy should be child-centered, inquiry-based, and play-based.
    • Young children’s natural impulse is to learn by investigating what things are like and what they can make them do.
    • The early childhood educator is responsible for offering children well-stocked play spaces where they can construct concepts and ideas, preferably in the company of friendly peers; designing daily routines that invite children to be active participants and to use emerging skills and concepts; supporting children’s learning through interactions and conversations that prompt using language and ideas in new ways and that promote sharing meaning with others.
    • Many learning opportunities occur spontaneously when the educator responds to an interest or need that a child expresses.

    Danniels E & Pyle A. Defining Play-based Learning. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Pyle A, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Published February 2018.

    Practice Note: Play-Based Learning, College of Early Childhood Educators, 2018

    Practice Guideline: Pedagogical Practice, College of Early Childhood Educators, 2020

    1.3: The Educator's Roles and Responsibilities in STEM is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vicki Tanck (Northeast Wisconsin Technical College).