Category Archives: STEM Exploration Station

Exploration Station: Sound

Exploration Station pictureFor this month’s Exploration Station we are listening. This particular station is extremely simple in concept: there are ten tubes with objects inside that will make a noise. Half of the tubes are covered in paper, the other half are left clear. Young children are encouraged to shake the containers and listen carefully to the noise that is produced. What words would they use to describe the sound? Is it a soft sound? A hard sound? Additionally, can they match the mystery tube that is covered in paper with the clear tube that makes the same sound?

This activity is not about learning the science of sound, but rather about refining observation skills. We generally think about observation in terms of sight, but learning to listen carefully is also an important component of taking note of the world around us. Young children can also practice the mathematical skill of matching, as they try to determine which two canisters make the same sound.

Exploration Station on listeningFor the record, these are quarter size coin tubes with their lids glued shut. They separately contain sugar, water, a marble, sunflower seeds, and those magnetic colored circles some people use for Bingo. I wanted to represent several different types of sounds, some that were very farm from one another (water and the marble, for example) and some that were similar but still distinct (such as the Bingo markers and the sunflower seeds.) I had some of my coworkers test the similar sounds to ensure that they really were distinct enough to be differentiated.

You will note the strings leading away from the tubes. This is to keep the containers from wandering away from the Exploration Station table, which is a problem we have had before with some of our materials. Because the strings needed to be long enough for children to pick them up and shake them, they do get tangled easily, but I haven’t come up with a better solution so far.

STEM Exploration Station: Ramps

Exploration Station rampThis exploration station is set up to explore ramps and friction. I took a wide divider that goes to our big book display case and hotglued a piece of cardboard to it. Then I added different textures to the cardboard. The first row I left blank as a control. The next row I glued cardboard stars that I had laying around to create a bumpy, oddly textured path. Next to that was felt for a relatively smooth, but still rougher than plain cardboard, row. On the last row I used the glue gun to create a series of ridges for an extremely bumpy, uneven ride. Lastly I tied a string to a Little People car, reinforced with the hot glue, and attached it to the back of the ramp. When I originally conceived of the ramp station I had intended to provide four different cars, one for each path. But when I ran a Science Storytime about ramps I found that the children were quick to attribute different speeds not to the ramp conditions but rather to the specific type of car was being used. I didn’t want to confuse the issue, especially since many children explore these stations on their own and wouldn’t have an adult to help facilitate a more accurate understanding, so I only used one car.

Because preschool science is more about observation than making predictions, my signage suggested touching each path and noticing what was different about each one, then testing to see which path was the fastest. Parents may want to help children draw further conclusions from those two pieces of information.

I purposefully did not permanently attach the ramp, instead I left various materials so that children could adjust the height of the ramp. A small sign encouraged them to do so and see what effect that would have on the speed of the car. I tied a simple stopwatch to the leg of the table for children to use to time the car. I haven’t seen anyone actually using the stopwatch for this purpose, but I have seen them generally playing with the stopwatch and figuring out how to use it, which is still learning about technology.

A lot of parents seem to be interested in this particular exploration station alongside the children.

STEM Exploration Station: Sorting

An exploration station about sorting

Sorting is an important skill that preschoolers need to work on. This exploration station was set up to encourage parent/child interaction and to work on sorting skills. I printed out a number of different objects, carefully ensuring that I had a certain number of each color and each category, and that each picture fit at least two categories. For instance, the butterfly that can be seen at the bottom of the picture is blue, alive, and an animal.

I taped all of the pictures to the table, which made its effectiveness as a pure sorting game slightly compromised, but meant that all of the pictures would stay on the table and not wander around the room to be lost forever. Searching through a grid of image to determine which pictures meet the current criteria is still a skill that must be developed, even if the children could not then make a pile out of the pictures.

This exploration station met with mixed success. On the one hand, when a parent was willing to sit down with a child and read out the different criteria, the children appeared to be engaged for a surprisingly long amount of time. (I know my own two and a half year old would have loved this activity.) There were some great parent/child interactions that I observed. On the other hand, however, this station, unlike all of the previous ones, was fairly inaccessible without help from a partner who knew how to read. That lack of independent exploration hurt the overall performance of this station, and I don’t think I will repeat it in the future. I am still struggling to come up with an activity that would allow children to sort in an independent fashion while also accounting for the fact that they cannot be choking hazards and will be left outside of direct adult supervision for long periods of time, which the last several months has taught me means that unless it is physically attached to the table in some manner it will be used in some sort of imaginative manner on the side of the room, never to be found again.

STEM Exploration Station: Birds

Winter is the perfect season for focusing on birds, as the local avian population flocks to birdfeeders.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA birdfeeder was a large part of my exploration station on birds. My STEM table is right next to a large window, which provided the perfect opportunity to put up a birdfeeder directly outside the window. I ended up getting two birdfeeders, a traditional seed feeder and a suet feeder to attract a different type of bird. It’s difficult to see in the picture, but I centered the birdfeeder so that you could see it from any part of the trapezoidal table.  On the table I placed printed out pictures ofNew England birds labeled with their common names, including cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, robins, crows, sparrows (although one of my homeschoolers and a future ornithologist pointed out that I had printed out a species of sparrow that is less common in this part of the country), and a bonus picture of a squirrel. For some reason the children kept untapeing these pictures and moving them around. Perhaps they thought it was another sorting activity? Maybe they just enjoyed the sensation of the tape sticking and unsticking. It didn’t hurt the display, but it was odd.

I was a little disappointed at how long it took before birds started using the feeder. As you can see in the picture, it is right next to a road, and I suspect that that influenced it. My young birder friend suggested hanging it on the other side of the library where there is a protected area and lots of bushes, but that would have defeated the point of putting it where people can see it. It took a good long while, but the birds eventually started eating the seeds, though it was still relatively uncommon for them to do so when the room was filled with people.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALuckily spying on birds through the window was not the only aspect to this exploration station. I had also ordered stuffed birds that play birdsong recordings. Again, I specifically chose New England species that children may already be familiar with: a chickadee, a cardinal, a crow, and a blue jay. I tied the birds to the legs of the table to keep them from wandering, as they were a very popular attraction. I could hear birdsong coming from that area all day long. Luckily I have a very tolerant library community, and the general feeling was that children learning more about birds and birdsong was a positive development.

To broaden the educational opportunities of the singing birds, I put a sign on the table encouraging parents to talk to the children about the patterns of the birdsong. Which bird sang long, short, short? Which bird sang short, short, short?

STEM Exploration Station: Patterns

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis month’s exploration station was extremely simple, but worked with a variety of important math concepts.

We have a megablox building station in the play area of our picture book room, so I had a huge tub full of megablox to draw from. I sorted through and took out several dozen of the single blocks. I used the computer to make strips with various patterns of block color on them. I measured the blocks ahead of time to make sure that my strips were the same size as the blocks themselves, to help my very literal preschool audience move from the abstract pattern strip to the physical blocks.

Along with the obvious fine motor skills required to create the block towers, this activity also touched on several math concepts: one to one correspondence, matching, patterns, counting, and color recognition.

As expected, this was a very popular activity. Unfortunately, it was also an activity that relied heavily on object manipulation using objects that could not easily be attached to the table. It didn’t help that on the other side of the room was a huge tub full of megablox. At least once a week I would check on the exploration table only to discovery that some well-meaning child had “cleaned up” by putting all of the blocks back into the main megablox tub. The pattern strips did not grow legs nearly as often, but even they were occasionally appropriated to be lettuce in a salad at the kitchen area (a creative use I observed myself) or otherwise scattered about the room by an ambitious toddler. There’s no real solution for this problem with this activity, other than to move the entire table into an area where there is a more constant adult presence, but doing so would have moved it out of the area where preschoolers would be most likely to spontaneously encounter the materials, so we decided to just grin and dig through the tub for the blocks we needed. Again. :-}

STEM Exploration Station: Colors

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the month of August, the STEM Exploration Station theme was Color.

Our main activity was a hue matching game that I found online.  This simple activity had a lot of STEM concepts wrapped up in it. Talking about hue versus color introduced new vocabulary terms. Matching the hues increased visual discrimination and helped with sorting skills, since children had to figure out that this particular hue was going to be found on one of the green paint strips and thus they could ignore the red or blue strips. It also helped build one-to-one correspondence, which is an important math skill.

To make the activity, I got a dozen or so paint chips from the hardware store and laminated them before cutting them in half. One half I cut into smaller individual shades and had a volunteer hot glue the smaller pieces to a clothespin. Children could then pin the color to the proper hue stripe. The colors in my picture are not very good. In real life it was easier to differentiate the hues from one another. This was an extremely popular activity, but it had some downsides. First, the pieces couldn’t easily be tied to the table, and I would occasionally find all the color clothespins being used as food in the kitchen area or otherwise where they weren’t supposed to be. The second big downfall was a manufacturing problem, which I think can be overcome. The hotglue simply wasn’t up to the task. I’m not sure if it was because it didn’t want to stick to the lamination, or if it was simply not the right adhesive for the job, but by the end of the month the little pieces of paint strip had started to fall off the clothespins (or possibly were torn off by toddlers, but the end result is the same). I think using superglue would have solved that particular problem. I’m glad that I laminated them, because even with that protection they were starting to look a little worn by the end of the month, but I guess that is a sign that they were well-used and enjoyed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause it was August, I knew that there would be more older children and parents interacting with the materials than I would expect during the school year, when the picture book room is largely used by younger children. To try to engage this older audience I printed out the classic Stroop Test. I thought this could also be used by younger children and their parents to simply identify the colors, or to start identifying color words for the emerging readers.

I had a little magnetic color sorter, so I put that out on the table too. You use a magnetic wand to move colored balls around a maze and drop each ball into a reservoir of the matching color. While generally enjoyed, the novelty of the clothespins meant that the hue matching activity was more popular.


STEM Exploration Station: Observation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAObservation is a key skill used in science. Magnifying glasses are a novel item for most preschoolers. The two seemed destined to become a STEM Exploration Station at the library.

I bought a dozen semi-cheap magnifying glasses online. I wanted one that were inexpensive enough that if they were scratched or lost I would not mind, but also well made so that they were both sturdy enough to survive hard use and of sufficient magnification to get that “wow” factor. I was hoping they’d also have holes in the handles for easy tying to the table, but that was a little too much to ask. Simply tying the yarn tightly to the hand was enough to keep the majority of the magnifying glasses in the right place for the month.

Obviously magnifying glasses are useless without something to observe. I brought out the petri dishes filled with small items that I had used during the Magnet exploration station. These easily doubled as items ready for observation. Our I-Spy books get a beating, and I feel like I’m constantly replacing them. I took one of the books that was falling apart and pulled the pages out on purpose, laminated them, and added those to the table.

Magnifying glasses and how they work seemed like a great learning opportunity, so also displayed simple books about magnification and sight. I knew the preschoolers that usually engage with these materials would not be able to read the books, but parents often interact with their children at the exploration station, and I thought the adults might like to have more information at their fingertips, and could read some of the simpler concept books to interested children. I never saw anyone reading the books, but they moved around over the course of the month, so they may have been used when I wasn’t looking.

STEM Exploration Station: Plants

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJune seemed like an ideal time to do a STEM Exploration Station on plants. I don’t have as many pictures of this station because I lost all of the digital pictures before I could write it up for this blog.

This center had a lot of separate parts. I made several cd cases of bean plants using an idea I had found online. I started them a few weeks before I knew I was going to put out the plant exploration station, so that they would already be growing when they were first put out to explore. I made a new one each week for several weeks running, so that children could follow the progress of the bean’s growth. I was a little worried that they would be shaken enough to disturb the plants or spill the dirt, but this was surprisingly not much of a problem. My general black thumb and total inability to remember to water them were a much bigger detriment to their health, but luckily beans are fairly hardy and they managed to limp through the month. Alongside the cd cases I placed magnifying glasses for children to use in their examinations.

In another observation activity, I picked and then laminated several plants, both flowering and nonflowering. The laminated plants stayed green for a surprisingly long time, and even after they had begun to wither a little they still retained their shape and most of their color. Magnifying glasses and signs encouraged the children to carefully observe each part of the plant’s shapes and designs.


Because I wanted an activity that would involve more than “just” observing, I also printed out and laminated pictures of familiar backyard plants that children may have encountered. Signs encouraged the children to sort the pictures in a number of ways: flowering and nonflowering plants, plants with specific colors, plants they had seen versus plants they’d never seen before, etc. I did not see this activity used as much as the general observation section of the table. I wish that I had thought to label the pictures on the computer before printing them out.

I also had a flower puzzle. I printed out the flower sequencing picture on page 7 of this homeschool site, laminated it and then cut it up so that preschoolers could put together the flower section and older children could use the word cards to label the parts of the flower.

STEM Exploration Station: Magnets

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter reading a lot about preschool science, and attending a conference on the subject, I have become more and more convinced that STEM activities  can and should be integrated into the normal library experience. Science literacy, after all, is an important component to building a strong platform for life-long learning. To that end, I wanted to create a STEM Exploration Station, a dedicated area for preschoolers to explore various STEM concepts. Like most libraries, I don’t have a lot of extra space just hanging around waiting to be converted into something useful, but I was able to clear an area to dedicate. It’s just a small trapezoid table located in our picture book room, but it’s a start.

Magnets are an object of fascination to pretty much everyone, so I thought that beginning my first STEM Exploration Station with a magnetic theme would guarantee a strong start. I bought a number of the standard stick magnets that most preschools seem to have these days. I anticipated that they would wander around the library if I didn’t take precautions, so I used yarn to tie them to the leg of the table. This meant that most days I’d have to send a volunteer in to untangle the strings at the end of the day, but it was worth it to keep all of my magnets in one place.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wanted the children to explore not just the magnets themselves, but also how the magnets interact with other materials. But at the same time, I also knew that the materials were going to be left in an area that is not directly in my line of sight. I needed to make sure that the materials were not going to end up as chocking hazards, and that they wouldn’t get lost. The solution to both problems turned out to be petri dishes. I bought a number of small petri dishes with lids, put the materials inside, then superglued the lids shut. This kept the objects from ending up in mouths, and it gave me a large surface to hotglue string to the sides, so I could tie the dishes to the table leg. Because the dishes were sturdy and see-through, the children could use the magnets to interact with the materials through the plastic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo round out my magnet exploration, I also made a little laminated race course with some small cars. I superglued a magnet to the back of each car, then taped over the magnet for extra protection. A sign explained that children could put a stick magnet under the track and by moving the stick magnet, the car would move too.  I had a magnet based color sorter shaped like a turtle, so I put that on the table as well.

The station was well used for the entire month that it was out.