This blog appeared in BOOKPAGE online on 8/11/15: http://bookpage.com/the-book-case/18646-back-to-school-jump-stream#.Vd9hYPlViko

Getting your kids back to school in the fall just isn’t as simple as it used to be. Gone are the days when buying a new backpack, shoes and notebook would be enough. Now, in addition to understanding macro-educational policies, standards and testing requirements, parents must also make sense of ever-changing acronyms, such as STEM, STEAM—and now STREAM. What’s behind these terms and what can a parent do to help support a child’s learning?

The acronym STEM has been around for awhile; it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM education refers to teaching and learning in these fields, from preschool to post-doctorate, in both classroom and informal settings. STEM education initiatives are designed to ensure that young people have opportunities in these fields, and to make the U.S. more competitive internationally.

Several years ago, STEM was expanded to STEAM, an effort to incorporate art into the mix. STREAM wasn’t far behind—a reminder that reading and writing are essential. As Rob Furman wrote in his 2014 Huffington Post article, “Without the ability to read and write, there is not a job to be found for which STEM or STEAM education is going to be enough preparation.”

What’s a parent to do? Fortunately, reading great books at home—and seeing reading as a jumping off point for the exploration of the world, is the best place to start. Sometimes just following your child’s lead is all it takes. Examples abound: Gardening books for preschoolers can lead to explorations of how plants get energy, and young children are naturally curious: a fictional story about a bear can lead to nonfiction books about mammals and hibernation.

Here are some tried-and-true tips:

  • Encourage experimentation. Some of the best scientists, artists and inventors in history began as garage tinkerers. (Speaking of the garage, put a tool in a kid’s hand and let her or him help—or at least watch. And that’s not all, of course: Cooking and sewing—and making things in general—require STREAM skills.)
  • Model reading science and nonfiction—and share what you’ve learned.
  • Explore. Visit local museums, arboretums and, of course, the library!
  • Watch PBS together. One of the best shows for middle schoolers is Steven Johnson’s “How We Got to Now,” which focuses on the history of ideas and innovation.
  • Read ALONG WITH your children. Whether fantasy or nonfiction, books can be a jumping off place for exploring the world together.