Screenless STEM for Early Childhood Education

Laura Jakubowski
PD Specialist
News on January 27 2020


Integrating STEM

In this day and age, teachers are learning how to integrate STEM into every classroom and every curriculum. A number of teachers choose to implement curriculums that rely heavily on the technology piece, and specifically, computerized technology. Nearly every student in grades 1-5 has begun to learn to code on computers, whether using Scratch,, or any other coding resource out there. The curriculums are easy to use, relatively simple to implement, and go step-by-step for students.

Beyond the screen: screenless STEM

For early childhood education teachers, there is a battle between the idea that computerized technology (such as computers, tablets, and iPads) is the way to start with STEM – and a push for boundaries on student screen time. At that early age, many believe that students would be better suited to learn about collaboration, investigation, and build their innate curiosity. This is not to say that screens can’t be used to build those skills, but teaching students to look beyond the technology they’re familiar with is quickly becoming an important part of a teacher’s classroom routine. Here are a few ideas to get you started with some screenless STEM activities.

Mystery boxes

Ever seen The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon? I thought you might. He often plays a game with his guest where the guest has to open a box and describe the contents inside to Jimmy. Jimmy is not allowed to look inside the box and has to listen to the description from his guest. Then, Jimmy has to guess what is inside the box. (In the game on The Tonight Show the guests are encouraged to lie, but you should discourage that in your classroom for obvious reasons.) For your students, you can implement this activity in two possible ways:

  • The first way is to split your students into pairs and do pretty much what I described above: The student doing the describing cannot say what’s inside the box. For example, if there was a rotary phone in the box, the student might describe the color of the phone, that it can be used to reach your mom, or that the phone has lots of circles in its design. The bonus here is that students will build their communication skills while also completing a hypothesis activity. Just be sure to add a hypothesis drawing or written component for the student who is guessing what’s in the box.
  • The second way is to put your students in groups (three is a good number) and have them each reach into the box to feel what’s in there without looking. Then, they can take turns creating their hypotheses on paper for what is inside the box and spend some time at the end discussing what they think is inside. The bonus is that the activity will reinforce sharing, discussion, and self-assessment. Either way, you can’t go wrong!

Balancing act

Bring a scale (specifically, a double beam balance) to class and let students hypothesize aloud about the weight of different objects. For instance, how many LEGO blocks would it take to equal a bag of popsicle sticks? As students guess and ponder, teach them that this is what it means when scientists run an experiment. The scientists ask a question and then try to figure out the answer.

Explain to the students that today, they will be running their own experiment. Then, let them ponder their own question for the balance scale (within reason). Let the students hypothesize by writing it down formally or drawing out what they think will happen with the numbers for each set of objects around the drawing. Then, let them test their hypothesis in groups.

Why in groups? Because then each student can weigh in on if they think their group member’s hypothesis is accurate! If you plan ahead with worksheets, you could even have the students write down their alternate hypothesis for what will happen. Thus, you have created an opportunity for peer review!

Growing with KIBO

There are plenty of solo activities you can complete with the KIBO, but there is an entire curricula that you can also explore. Essentially, KIBO is a personalized robot that uses a scanner to read wooden blocks as code. On each wooden block are words and symbols for actions like “Begin,” “Shake,” “Light Red,” “Repeat,” and “Stop.” The students should put the blocks in specific order, then lift the robot to scan each block in that order. Once all the blocks have been scanned, the green play button on the robot can be pressed to initiate the code for the robot. If all goes correctly, the robot will act out the code that the student created with the wooden blocks. It is literal block-based coding. It’s a great alternative for coding on a computer or an iPad — it teaches students those same essential skills, just without a screen.

For more ideas around screenless STEM tools, and STEM education in general, be sure to check out our STEM section on OTIS for Educators! We have tons of great ideas for early childhood education and STEM. And if you have even more time to learn, be sure to check out the certification tracks in the OTIS for Educators course library. We love learning with you!