7 easy STEM activities for students with developmental disabilities

Recognising, matching and manipulating patterns is a key early skill for STEM learners of all ability levels. Image: Shutterstock

Teaching STEM is now a standard component of early childhood education, but do we pay enough attention to students with special needs?

Educational institutions – from traditional schools to home school programs – are recognising the value of early childhood STEM programs in teaching critical thinking, encouraging curiosity and fostering a love of collaborative learning and problem-solving.

However, as educators continue to build out their STEM offerings for younger children, it’s important they pay attention to the needs of students with developmental disabilities. All too often, students with disabilities find that STEM activities aren’t designed with enough consideration for their needs. That lack of consideration is an especially big loss considering that STEM-focussed activities can be especially stimulating and enjoyable for many students with disabilities and that disability-inclusive STEM education can have substantial benefits for childhood cognitive development.

Fortunately, incorporating STEM education for kids with disabilities doesn’t have to be difficult. If you’re an educator interested in creating fun and interesting STEM activities for younger children with developmental disabilities, try these seven easy and fun activities in your classroom. They’re designed to be accessible, interesting and rewarding for students of many different ability levels, and they help lay the foundations of logical and creative thinking that lead to a world of discovery.

1. Sticky-note matching numbers

A Post-It Number Match Game is a great way to teach basic math skills using a method that also provides the kinetic stimulation that many learners with disabilities need in their lessons. All you need for this activity are some markers, sticky notes, painter’s tape and butcher paper.

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Create a wall display with dots for each number, as well as a numeral on a sticky note to match. Then, hide the numbers around your classroom and send your kids on a hunt. Kids will love the accomplishment of finding each number, counting out the dots and applying each note to its spot! Best of all, the activity can be easily modified for identifying shapes, colours or any other learning goal.

2. Microscope activities

Microscopes are a classic way to get kids interested in the world around them, and starting with a student microscope kit will help introduce these important tools in a way that’s accessible for young children with disabilities.

Learning to manipulate the different parts of a microscope can be an excellent sensorimotor experience for students with disabilities and can help improve their confidence in operating STEM equipment, with many student microscope kits also coming with learning aids such as books, experiment cards and prepared slides. Finally, microscopes with digital cameras are also available that are great for guided learning exercises, as they make it easy for educators to display specimens on larger screens for easy viewing.

3. Popsicle stick builders

Experimenting, creating and building are all key parts of the STEM process, and popsicle stick builders can be an excellent way to get kids going on these key concepts. All you’ll need are a few velcro dots and a big bag of multicoloured popsicle sticks (also called craft sticks). Each dot should come as a pair with a hook and a loop side. Place one of each on each end of the craft stick and you’ve got a fun and versatile building toy great for building letters, numbers, shapes and anything else a child’s mind can dream up!

4. Classroom caterpillars or tadpoles

Classroom caterpillar or tadpole kits can be a great choice for STEM classrooms with students with disabilities. Watching and caring for a living creature as it grows and develops is a priceless STEM experience that can foster a lifelong love of life sciences. Students of all different ability levels will learn about the life cycles of the animals around us, and they’ll love watching the amazing transformation of caterpillars into butterflies or tadpoles into frogs. On top of that, these kits help teach responsibility and care for living things, which can benefit children’s social and emotional learning.

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5. Easy stick blocks

With bristles that let them stick together on all four sides, these fun building blocks (also called bristle blocks) offer all kinds of building opportunities that other block toys don’t. They’re easy to stick together, but also require effort and concentration, so they can help students with disabilities learn to solve problems and work independently. Grab a big lot of them and let your learners’ imaginations run wild, or challenge them to build structures that support small objects in the classroom.

6. Solar UV Beads

A box of solar UV beads offers two activities in one — a creative exercise that children of different ability levels can do, plus an awesome demonstration of a key concept in STEM. Making jewellery with these clear white beads is a great fine motor skill activity that offers simple, creative fun, but the real enjoyment begins once you take them out in the sun. Kids will be amazed to watch the colours of the beads change when they’re exposed to sunlight, and it offers a great opportunity to show them the power of the sun and how natural forces can change the things around them.

7. Pattern Blocks

Recognising, matching and manipulating patterns is a key early skill for STEM learners of all ability levels, and pattern blocks are an accessible and fun pattern-teaching tool that has been used for decades. These brightly-coloured blocks are an early childhood classic that give children a dazzling array of shapes that they can rearrange to learn critical STEM concepts such as how parts come together to form a whole, shape symmetry and measurement. They’re also great for many different kinds of learning, from structured lessons in which learners work to imitate a design, to creative play exercises in which they make their own.

A disability-inclusive classroom is one in which all students are given opportunities to thrive, and inclusive STEM education is a key part of cognitive development for students with disabilities. With these easy and fun activities, educators can provide a range of appropriate STEM lessons that will ensure students with disabilities are included in the thrill of discovery.

Cheryl Stevens

Author: Cheryl Stevens

Cheryl Stevens is the Community Relations Specialist for AmScope. She oversees all company-wide outreach programs and initiatives. Her passion is helping others see the value in and implement STEM programs for children at an early age.

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