STEM For Kids Structure Challenge

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Winter is a great time for some new STEM activities! Kid’s love STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) challenges. As a teacher and parent, I love the hands-on learning that occurs with them. This STEM for kids activity is both fun and simple for young children.

One of the great things about STEM activities is that kids of all ages can work through the same STEM challenge. The solutions that older children come up with may be more advanced, but there is value in the activity for everyone.

Also, from doing STEM challenges for years, I am always impressed with children’s solutions and creative answers. They often come up with ideas that I never considered.

I came up with this STEM challenge when the snow started falling and my students began asking a lot of questions about arctic animals and winter. We have been reading some books about how cold it is where polar bears live.

Although polar bears are specially adapted to their environment, I thought that it would be a fun, and easy, idea for a STEM challenge. So this is our polar bear habitat STEM challenge for kids!

Materials

One thing I love about STEM for kids is that the materials are typically really simple and inexpensive. Plus, beyond collecting the materials, there is not much else to prepare.

  • Mini Marshmallows
  • Toothpicks
  • Polar Bear Plastic Figure (or cut outs)

(Keep in mind any allergies the children doing the STEM challenge may have. Trust me, at least a few marshmallows will be eaten as children build.)

Stem for kids

Since I was doing the activity with large groups of children, I separated the marshmallows and toothpicks into separate containers for each group.

The Challenge

Create a home or shelter for a polar bear. That’s it! It’s that simple. These are the only instructions I gave to children. Keeping your STEM challenge open-ended with simple direction will allow children to use their imagination and build what makes sense to them.

stem for kids

Show children the polar bear figure so that everyone knows roughly how big their structure needed to be. Next, bring out the building materials. Kids are always excited to get to play and create with food so they will likely be excited to see the marshmallows!

I typically remind children that the marshmallows have been touched by many hands and not okay to eat. I’m sure a few kids still snacked, but they were pretty good about only using the materials to build. The marshmallows and some toothpicks were the only materials that they were given.

Using the materials, they had to create some kind of structure that the polar bear could fit into. Kids were keen and excited to start building. I did not tell children that they had to use the toothpicks and the marshmallows, the materials were simply set out for them to choose from.

Some children began by stacking the marshmallows like a snow fort. These home looked great and did solve the STEM challenge. However, most children began using the toothpicks to build a 3 dimensional home for the bear.

The structures that everyone came up with were beyond what I had imagined! This is why I love my job – I am impressed on a daily basis what children are capable of creating and imagining. There were so many different structures that they made!

Some children even filled the toothpicks with marshmallows and then stacked them. It was very rewarding to hear students talking as they built and noticing the geometric shapes that they were creating (cube, triangle etc.)

I was also surprised by how careful and on-task children were during this challenge. They would have easily worked for an hour to create their structure. The more time you give children to complete a STEM challenge the more detail they will typically add.

Most of the polar bear houses were different from each other. It is interesting to see how each child interprets the challenge differently.

It is also interesting to listen to children explain and talk about their creations to each other. They are so proud and can tell every detail of their structure that they have thought out.

One of my favourite things that I have noticed over years of doing STEM for kids, and perhaps the most important lesson for students to take from the challenges, is that my students rarely get discouraged when their first attempt doesn’t work out.

The marshmallow homes will fall down. They will twist and fall. It can be challenging for children to properly attach the toothpicks as they build up. This is part of the challenge.

Even when a structure kept falling down, they will tell me “that’s okay, I’ll just build it again.” They are learning through this trial and error and know that their only failure is if they quit or don’t learn from their mistakes. It is very rewarding to see.

Extension Activity

To incorporate some extra learning into this STEM for kids, you can bring in some extra math language. As children build, they were typically creating 3D shapes to build their structure. You could encourage children to talk about the shapes they are creating as they build.

You could also add another challenge to the STEM activity by asking children to use a few specific shapes within their home. For example, create a home for the polar bear that includes at least 4 squares, 4 triangles and at least 1 cube.

Another fun element that can be added to the activity is to give children some construction paper to cut and attach to the sides of the home to create walls. Kids will have fun creating what will look more like an actual house.

stem for kids

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