By Sherri Peterson, Rosemary Geiken, Jill Uhlenberg, and Sonia Yoshizawa, contributors with co-editor Beth Dykstra Van Meeteren, Investigating STEM With Infants and Toddlers (Birth–3)

Sherri Peterson is program coordinator for the Iowa Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education. Rosemary Geiken, EdD, is an associate professor of early childhood at East Tennessee State University. Jill Uhlenberg is associate professor emerita at the University of Northern Iowa and affiliate faculty of the Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education. Sonia Yoshizawa, MAE, is a doctoral fellow in the early childhood education program at East Tennessee State University.

Our teaching experience includes years spent with the very youngest learners, children from birth to 3 years old. Along with our experiences with these children, we have spent much time with the educators of those infants and toddlers. This widely diverse group of educators includes high school students and family members, including grandparents, secondary school drop-outs through teachers with master’s degrees. Members of this group may have chosen to work with this age group, or more often, they have been assigned there, often with little training or education. Their importance to the children and the world is little known or appreciated, and they often lack resources to support them in their day-to-day work.

Our choice to find ways to support infant-toddler educators is based on the following goals:

  • Elevate the profession;
  • Bring insight into how infants and toddlers engage, explore, and think about materials, people, and events;
  • Explore the value of observation and possible interpretation of children’s actions as learners;
  • Demonstrate that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are already present in most places that serve infants and toddlers—adults just need to recognize and develop their presence.

Elevate the Profession

Childcare is a profession that is centuries old. Women are most often relegated to this work as the person who is perceived to be best able to meet infants’ and toddlers’ needs. Childcare today is clearly considered women’s work, with little effort toward fair compensation or respect, even from fellow educators. My fellow authors and I have been or are currently engaged with these youngest learners and their educators in our efforts to provide support through training and professional development. Infant-toddler educators are the first adults, after family, who are engaged in developing relationships with these young children. Relationships are central to social and emotional development, but they also support cognitive and physical development.

We attempt to bring ideas to support curriculum, understanding young children’s engagement with materials, and how to observe their actions and attempt to interpret their thinking, even when the children are not yet verbal. We encourage educators to engage with all children in ways that support their individual needs as learners. And we support means of assessing learning to further relationship-building with the children, their families, and each other as colleagues.

Bring Insight

Some years ago, colleagues at the Iowa Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education developed a model for education through inquiry, The Inquiry Teaching Model (Counsell et al., 2017). This model provides guidelines for educators as they interact with children in the process of learning through exploration and engagement rather than direct instruction (Gopnik, 2010; Gopnik, Meltzoff & Kuhl, 1999; Hamlin & Wisneski, 2012; Lally, 2005; Lewin-Benham, 2010). We continue to use this model for teaching, including in our professional development sessions.

More recently we have examined how this teaching model works with infants and toddlers, children under 3 years old. This led us to thinking about the flip side—how infants and toddlers learn. We developed the Infant-Toddler Inquiry Learning Model. Our work is based on hours of interaction as well as examination of photos and video of infants and toddlers exploring materials introduced into their environments. Discussing this information with the children’s educators enhanced their understanding, and ours too, of what the children were doing and why so that the educators could document the learning taking place.

Document Learning

Assessment in licensed Childcare centers is sometimes a state requirement, but assessment is not carried out universally. We encourage assessment as a means to inform educators’ choices in the setting to meet all children’s needs, communicate with parents and others, and to identify children who need support for a variety of reasons (Bell, 2017; Curtis, 2017; Foreman & Hall, 2005).

Documentation is the first step in the assessment process, but many infant-toddler educators are unfamiliar with how to carry it out. Educators need ideas for a range of documentation methods to support infant and toddler learning in ways that meet the children’s needs. Then that documentation’s analysis is a basis for understanding the children and supports planning future experiences.

STEM is Already There

Many resources indicate that infants and toddlers are thinking about their surroundings at birth. They naturally explore as they grow and develop. While these young children do not think in terms of STEM fields, nor do adults, their explorations are indeed based on STEM interactions (Boston Children’s Museum, 2013; McClure, 2017; McClure et al., 2017; Stacey, 2019). When we recognize this to be the case, we are more able to observe, understand, and analyze what the children are doing and what they may be thinking. Typical infant and toddler activities are full of STEM thinking—banging objects is science (sound); mouthing toys is mathematics (what fits in my mouth—spatial relationships) and science (taste, smell); reaching for something out of reach is engineering problem-solving and technology (using another object to move the goal object). These are just a few of the opportunities to examine STEM relationships for the youngest learners.

Our work with educators often indicates that they are aware of the children’s actions but have not considered them from the perspective that they are related to STEM thinking. If we can help these educators to be alert to how infants and toddlers think and learn, both groups will be elevated as learners.


Bell, R. (2017). Watching the babies: The why, what, and how of observation as assessment in infant and toddler care. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 45(1), 4-10.

Boston Children’s Museum. (2013). Brain building for STEM. STEM sprouts: Science, technology, engineering & math teaching guide. Author. Retrieved from STEMGuide.pdf (

Counsell, S., et al. (2016). STEM learning with young children: Inquiry teaching with ramps and pathways. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Curtis, D. (2017). Really seeing children. Exchange Press. Lincoln, NE.

Foreman, G., & Hall, E. (2005). Wondering with children: The importance of observations in early education. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 7(2). Retrieved from

Gopnik, A. (2010). How babies think. Scientific American, 303(1), 76–81.

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. A. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Learning tells us about the mind. HarperCollins.

Hamlin, M., & Wisneski, D. (2012). Supporting the scientific thinking and inquiry of toddlers and preschoolers through play. Young Children, 67(3), 82-88.

Lally, J. R. (2005). Infants have their own curriculum: A responsive approach to curriculum planning for infants and toddlers. Program for Infant/Toddler Care. WestEd. Retrieved from retrieved 5-4-21

Lewin-Benham, A. (2010). Infants and toddlers at work: Using Reggio-inspired materials to support brain development. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

McClure, E. (2017). More than a foundation: Young children are capable STEM learners. Young Children, 72(5), 83-89.

McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Levine, M. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York, NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Stacey, S. (2019). Inquiry-based early learning environments: Creating, supporting, and collaborating. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels