The Learning Tree plants preschool seeds for STEM education | News

At The Learning Tree in Maryville preschoolers explore, discover and learn through play, developing skills at the root of science, technology, engineering and math.

A tiny room in the preschool area at Fairview United Methodist Church on Old Niles Ferry Road is packed with activities just right for children ages 2-5.

Digging in a plastic bin of soil they discover plastic critters, which they can examine with magnifying glasses, count the legs and sort according to a chart on the wall of insects and non-insects. Another cubby nearby holds a balance scale and more objects to sort and weigh. On the other side of the table children move wooden building blocks to match designs in a picture, or peer through cubes with angled mirrors that shift their view.

No space is wasted in the STEM room, which opened late last year.

One wall features movable sections of PVC pipe through which the children can send small balls, and across from that a sensory wall features panels that can be changed, with options such as large buttons to press and light up, fidget spinners, fabric with sequins to run hands over and more.

At the end wall between them, cabinets surround the window with more activities and supplies, from geoboards that allow children to make shapes with rubber bands to puppets and other hands-on activities.

Director Christy Wheeler said it took about a year and a half to create the STEM room in a space that previously had been tried as an art room and library, neither of which was a good fit for the space.

“When had an empty room, and we just thought it would be nice to have almost a mini science museum for the kids,” Wheeler explained.

She drew inspiration for items such as the sensory wall from Kingdom Design Ministries and consulted KDM founder Missy Johnson for advice.

Wheeler said about 85% of the items came from parent donations, and Ron Retherford, owner of Willow Creek Woodshop, crafted the built-in bookshelves as well as the wooden squares with activities that fit on the sensory wall. “He basically made my vision come to life,” she said.

The room is set up for self-exploration. “They can figure things out on their own,” Wheeler said.

One cubby offers toothpicks for building shapes, with jelly beans replacing marshmallows as the connectors this month.

Colored circles show the children whether a station is designed for one or two at a time. “Some things are good to share,” said teacher Nancy Fry. “I like to see their minds working together.”

“They mature with their cooperation,” said Wheeler, who has been at the preschool for 17 years. “They are working together and helping each other. That’s a vital life skill.”

Preschoolers can even consult a set of problem-solving picture cards for direction if they are stuck, before asking their teacher.

Students attend the preschool two days a week, and they visit the STEM room for about 20 minutes once a week. In larger classes one group may stay in the classroom working on certain skills with the teacher while the other half visits the STEM room with a teacher.

The Learning Tree is a ministry of Fairview United Methodist Church, and themes in the STEM room follow monthly school-wide themes taught throughout the year, such as kindness in January and peace this month.

Books placed around the STEM room reflect topics students are learning too.