Researchers, educators, and parents all agree—children need to learn about STEM (or STEAM): science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Search Amazon, and you’ll find hundreds of textbooks and workbooks on those topics. Workbooks, though, rarely inspire kids to dream about reaching the moon.
So, how do you get kids excited about math, science, and the rest?
That’s where picture books come in.
You probably already read to your children. You’ve probably also read picture books with stories about making friends or learning how to share. Maybe you even grew up reading about Ms. Frizzle’s crazy science adventures in the Magic School Bus series.
So, let’s go exploring! Here’s how you can use picture books to introduce toddlers, preschoolers, and grade-school students to STEAM concepts:
1. Read Books about Ingenuity
Ingenuity is the ability to think outside the box. Curiosity and a willingness to try something new are valuable skills for anyone, and artists and scientists alike love to explore and try out new ideas.
Books about real-life ingenuity show kids that it’s possible to change the world and create something new. In one heart-warming picture book, Saving Fiona, Thane Maynard explains how the zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo worked to save Fiona, the baby hippo born two months too early. No one had every raised a premature baby hippo before, so the zookeepers and scientists on Fiona’s team had to invent a solution to each new challenge they faced.
Similarly, fictional stories like Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beatty can inspire kids to look at the world in a new way. Stories can inspire dreams and show kids that these dreams can become real.
2. Read Books about Perseverance
Doing science isn’t always easy. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to find a solution. Sometimes other people block the way, either intentionally or just by not understanding what the scientist is trying to accomplish. That’s why kids need to know that it’s important to keep trying.
Bestselling Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly does just that. It started as a nonfiction book for adults, but now has a young readers edition for 8–12 year-olds, as well as a picture book version for younger readers. This book shows how four black women pushed against discrimination and segregation to become an integral part of the NASA space program.
And don’t forget the fiction picture books, too! The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires shows how a child tries over and over to create her idea, until finally her invention is just right.
3. Read Books about Specific Topics
Do you have a preschooler or kindergartener who is interested in bugs, or inventions, or rockets? Encourage that and find as many picture books as you can on that topic!
Do you have a grade schooler who wants to explore a new topic? Look for book lists, check the Amazon children’s books categories to get inspiration, or ask your librarian to suggest some books! Many have a nonfiction section dedicated to specific topics, and a library catalogue search (or conversation with one of the librarians) can help you come up with more ideas.
Here’s some suggestions for each of the STEAM categories:
Dianna Hutts Aston, Catherine Barr, Yuval Zommer, Steve Jenkins, and Kate Messner all create fabulous nonfiction picture books, ranging from tiny invertebrates to the geological layers of the earth to planets and stars. These books have bright, colorful pictures that fascinate young kids, while packing in engaging information for older kids.
Kiki Prottsman’s My First Coding Book is an interactive board book that demonstrates the sort of problem-solving programmers use to create an app. Otis and Will Discover the Deep by Barb Rosenstock shows how an unlikely team built one of the earliest submarines to explore the ocean.
Anna Dewdney’s Little Excavator is a fun story about a small excavator trying to find a way to help the bigger trucks, but it’s also a great introduction to engineering for toddlers. Beauty and the Beak is a longer book that tells the story of a bald eagle who lost part of her beak, but survived thanks to a prosthetic beak created on a 3D printer. David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work is a classic way to learn about levers, pulleys, hydraulic systems, and other engineering techniques.
Herve Tulle’s bestselling books Press Here and Mix it Up, using “interactive” illustrations to engage children in mixing colors. Diane Alber’s books, including I’m Not Just a Scribble and Splatter, use messy art illustrations to encourage kids to create their own artwork.
Many children start with counting books like Kate Narita’s 100 Bugs, but picture books can introduce bigger concepts as well. Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford tells the story of a young girl looking for ways to understand infinity. Cindy Neuschwander’s Sir Cumference series uses math and geometry concepts to solve riddles and save the day.
What picture books have you used to introduce your children to STEAM/STEM ideas?