Stem books for kids (and some games too): Parenting science recommendations

© 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

If you care about the progress of STEM -- science, technology, mathematics, and engineering -- you already know the bad news. Around the world, rationality is under attack. Politicians deny the facts. Adults reject the scientific evidence.

But the good news is it has never been easier to find excellent books and games for teaching children about STEM concepts. Here is are a few such resources, some of which I've mentioned in my articles for Parenting Science. I'll be adding more in the future.

I include links to items that can be purchased through Amazon.com. Parenting Science is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, which means it receives a portion of the proceeds whenever you make a purchase through one of these links.

Astronomy and physics

The night sky used be a good recruiting tool for careers in STEM. Nowadays, light pollution makes it difficult for many children to see an awesome, starry sky. But there are excellent resources for budding astronomers and physicists.

The NASA website features many free online games and activities related to outer space exploration and astronomy. 

In addition, I recommend the Professor Astro Cat books by physicist Dominic Walliman and illustrator Ben Newman. In Professor Astro Cat's Frontiers of Space , Walliman provides kids with an overview of space exploration. Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure teaches kids about physics. These books are smart, engaging, and humorous. They illustrations are bold and eye-catching, with an early space age, retro feel.

Kids will also be inspired by the books of David Aguilar. His Space Encyclopedia: A Tour of Our Solar System and Beyond (National Geographic Kids) is beautifully illustrated with photographs and awesome, naturalistic paintings.

Computer programming

In recent years, there has been an explosion of toys and games intended to teach coding or programming concepts to young children. Are they effective?

There is evidence that programming a robot with simple commands (forward, backward, right, left, repeat) can boost interest and confidence in young  girls. In a controlled experiment, Allison Master and her colleagues assigned 6-year-olds to  spend 20 minutes either programming a robot or playing a card game.

Afterwards, the researchers interviewed kids in both groups. How fun is programming? How good are you with robots?

Boys tended to give similarly positive answers whether or not they had engaged in the programming activity. But for girls, programming made a difference. Girls who had played only the card game expressed less interest in programming, and less confidence in their ability to use robots. Girls who had programmed expressed attitudes as positive as those of the boys.

As the researchers note, this is a potentially important finding, because many children this age have already internalized the cultural stereotype that males are better at programming and robotics (Master et al 2017). Simple coding toys might boost motivation in kids who would otherwise assume "programming isn't for me."

What about learning programming concepts? Most programmable toys for young children keep things very simple. This may be developmentally appropriate, especially for preschoolers. But by the time children reach school age, they are ready to learn more than the simple commands associated with preschool robot toys.

We can provide such kids with more sophisticated, expensive robots. But why not move them to a computer first?

Researchers at MIT have developed a free, online programming environment called Scratch. With Scratch, kids select visual programming elements and learn to combine them into sequences of code. There are other programming platforms for kids, but Scratch has special features that I really like:

  • Creativity and versatility rule. Kids can create animations, arcade games, interactive stories, chat programs, random response generators, advanced platform games, calculators, and homework drills.
  • Kids join a community. They can post and share their creations with others.
  • The community is moderated by people at MIT.

You don't need a book to begin, but it's highly recommended. 

DK publishes a number of Scratch workbooks for young children, including DK Workbooks: Coding in Scratch: Games Workbook . Motivated children as young as 5 might use these successfully -- if they work alongside and adult to help them.

For older kids, How to Code in 10 Easy Lessons: Learn how to design and code your very own computer game (Super Skills) is an excellent beginner's book for anyone who is clueless about programming. It presupposes no prior knowledge or experience, and functions as a kind of general orientation that can be completely quickly. In addition to introducing kids to Scratch, the book also includes some exercises in HTML. The book is recommended for kids age 8 and up.

Another good starting point for older kids (age 8+) is Jon Woodcock's excellent Coding Games in Scratch . Unlike How to Code in 10 Easy Lessons, this book focuses exclusively on Scratch, and it's a much longer work. It takes kids, step by step, through the creation of eight games.

For older kids who've already learned the basics -- or who can catch on quickly -- I also like Al Sweigart's Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games . Sweigart walks the reader, step by step, through the programming of each project, illustrated with screenshots. The culminating project is an advanced platform game. The book does an excellent job of teaching readers how to solve certain types of problems in Scratch (like how to clone objects, or make them split in two, or bounce off walls). It also invites kids to come up with their own modifications. What it doesn't attempt to do is teach kids the sorts of programming fundamentals you'd find in a secondary school computer science textbook.

If that's what you're looking for, you should take a look at Majed Marji's Learn to Program with Scratch: A Visual Introduction to Programming with Games, Art, Science, and Math . Both books are aimed at kids age 10 and up.

Evolution and ecology

My own background is in behavioral ecology and evolutionary anthropology, and I'm a lifelong paleontology geek. So I'm biased. But I nevertheless think there are objective reasons to believe that dinosaurs are an outstanding way for children to learn important concepts in biology. Research suggests that states of curiosity enhance learning (Gruber et al 2014), and few topics whet a child's curiosity more than dinosaurs.

In this article, I offer tips for turning your child's interest in dinosaurs into a passion for science, and I suggest several excellent books for teaching biological concepts. 

Among these is the storybook, How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses (Evolving Minds) , created by researchers and tested on children between the ages of 5 and 8. In experiments, researchers found that simply reading this story aloud to children enhanced their grasp of evolution and natural selection.

Another good book -- untested by researchers but beautiful and well-conceived -- is Jason Chin's Island: A Story of the Galápagos . This book presents the development of a volcanic island, showing -- in a series of sequential panels -- how life first takes hold, and then adapts to changes over time.

To get preschoolers thinking about animal behavior, I like some of the "stage 1" books in the "Let's-read-and-find-out" series by Harper Collins. How Animal Babies Stay Safe (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science) explores concepts like camouflage and parental care. Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science, Stage 1) gets kids thinking about the traces that behavior leaves behind, and offers a jumping off point for tracking activities.

For information about tracking, see this article about the cognitive challenges it presents, and these suggested activities for young children.

For older kids ready to learn about the history of life on earth, I recommend Helen Bonner's highly entertaining When Fish Got Feet, When Bugs Were Big, and When Dinos Dawned: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life on Earth (National Geographic Kids) . As the title indicates, it presents information in a comic book format.

Mathematics

There is evidence that certain types of board games can help young children learn about the number line. Research also suggests we can boost early mathematical skills by engaging children in fun number activities. And even a few minutes each day with the right educational app could make a big difference for some children.

In an experimental study of 587 first graders, Talia Berkowitz and her colleagues gave every participating family an iPad, and then assigned some kids to use a free, story-based mathematics app called Bedtime Math. Children in a control group were assigned to use an app that also featured storytelling, but lacked mathematical content.

Over the course of the school year, kids who frequently used the math app with their parents made substantial gains compared with kids in the control group. And the effect most dramatic among children with math-anxious parents (Berkowitz et al 2016). You can get the app for free from the Bedtime Math website. 

It shouldn't really surprise us that well-crafted educational materials can spur achievement, especially if they help parents find ways to explain and teach. Personally, I'm impressed with books by Loreen Leedy, which mostly target children in the early-to-mid primary school grades.

Her book, Measuring Penny (Rise and Shine) follows a child as she takes a series of measurements of her dog. Leedy explores both standard and nonstandard units of measurement, and inspires readers (grades 2-4) to take up measurement projects of their own. For other excellent Leedy math books, see Mission: Addition , The Great Graph Contest , Subtraction Action , and It's Probably Penny .

What about older children -- kids who've learned multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals?

I've noticed that many kids get turned off by mathematics because it seems to be about memorizing addition facts, times tables, and simple algorithms. They don't realize that mathematics can be beautiful, and reveal fascinating patterns. These kids need to be introduced to math as an intellectual subject -- not just an occasion for rote memorization. And for this, I recommend two lively, intensely-illustrated books by Johnny Ball.

In Go Figure!: Big Questions About Numbers , Ball traces the origins of different number systems around the world, and introduces the "magic" numbers (pi, magic squares, the golden ratio, primes, etc) as well as geometry, topology, logic, and chaos theory. Throughout, Ball peppers the text with questions, puzzles, and activities.

In his second book, Why Pi? (Big Questions) , Ball explores the many applications of mathematics -- how humans throughout history have used math to understand the world. Topics include the measure of time, electricity, music, light, navigation, and mapping.

Spatial skills and construction

Speaking of navigation and mapping, there is evidence that young children can learn and use simple maps. Gail Hartman's As the Crow Flies (Rise and Shine) helps introduce preschoolers to the concept of mapping by getting them to imagine a bird's eye view of the ground. For elementary school children, Loreen Leedy's Mapping Penny's World is useful.

For more information about mapping activities, see this article about building spatial skills.

There I also discuss the evidence that construction toys can boost spatial skills.

How does it work? Research suggests that playing with blocks helps children learn to model shapes in their minds, so they can anticipate what objects look like from different angles.  It also appears that a particular form of play -- structured block play -- is especially helpful.

If you consider that construction play has other educational benefits, it seems that construction toys -- like traditional building blocks, Legos, Mega Blox, and wooden planks -- are among the most versatile, enduring, and cost effective toys you can buy.

Can video games boost spatial skills? I think the evidence is pretty persuasive. In experiments, people assigned to play action video games (first person "shooter" games) acquired better mental rotation abilities (Green and Bavelier 2007; Feng et al 2007; Boot et al 2008). To date, at least one study has also found benefits from playing the classic game of Tetris (Terlecki et al 2008).



References: STEM books for kids

Berkowitz T, Schaeffer MW, Maloney EA, Peterson L, Gregor C, Levine SC, Beilock SL. 2015. Math at home adds up to achievement in school. Science 350 (6257): 196-198.

Boot WR, Kramer AF, Simons DJ, Fabiani M, and Gratton G. 2008. The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychol (Amst). 129(3):387-98.

Feng J, Spence I, and Pratt J. 2007. Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychol Sci. 18(10):850-5.

Green CS and Bavelier D. 2007. Action-video-game experience alters the spatial resolution of vision. Psychol Sci. 18(1):88-94.

Gruber MJ, Gelman BD, Ranganath C. 2014. States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron. 84(2):486-96.

Master et al. 2017. Programming experience promotes higher STEM motivation among first-grade girls. J Exp Child Psychol. 160:92-106.

Content of "STEM books for kids" last modified 11/27/17

Image credit for STEM books for kids

photo of boy reading by Tim Pierce / wikimedia commons



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