How I Teach My Five-Year-Old Daughter STEM

I was playing a series of games with my daughter this morning, when she said, “Dada, do you wanna play inventions?”

She’s said something like this to me before, and it usually turns into a drawing/coloring session where she intends to draw some invention-idea that she has, but where as often as not, she forgets why we sat down to draw and instead just makes some kind of weird pattern.

I wanted to sit on the couch and watch the Bills game anyway, and we usually draw and color in front of the TV (thought usually not with it on), so yeah, why not? We still had some time to kill before the game though, so instead of just saying yes, I asked her what she wanted to invent.

Then I stopped her before she could answer. We were sitting on the floor in her recently cleaned and rearranged play room, the sun was coming in the windows, and her mother was doing something quiet upstairs. The moment felt right for an actual conversation, so before she could spit out some weird invention, I told her that inventions usually solve some kind of problem, so before she thinks of her invention, she should think of what problem she wanted to solve.

That stopped her. Her eyes looked down at the rug and her forehead crinkled, her brain trying to locate the problem for whatever invention she was just about to tell me. We were playing Connect Four at the time, so I remained quiet and let her ruminate on it while we played back and forth, then she said, “I want to be inside the TV.”

Now, like a lot of kids, my daughter loves television. If given the chance, she would sit on the couch all day and watch television. She loves other things too, but she loves TV most of all. I mean, she is our daughter.

Over the next several minutes, I tried to figure out exactly what she meant and what exactly she wanted to achieve. If I was going to help her invent something, I had to make sure I understood its real purpose.

My daughter had recently been introduced to video games. Over Christmas, while at her cousins’ house, she played Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch. Prior to that, her experience with video games was limited to relatively poorly developed children’s games on my iPad. She had no real idea that the world of video games included experiences like playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on a giant television screen. She knew console games existed (she’s watched me play various games on my XBox), but she’d never taken control of one.

I’m proud to say that she took to it rather well, and by the end of the day, she was competitive enough to go against some of the adults in the house. She hadn’t played since we returned from Chicago, but two of our friends visit with their Switch this weekend, and they had Mario Kart, so we let her play. While she didn’t win a single race, she could hold her own against the computer.

When she said she wanted to invent a machine that lets her go into the television, I wanted to figure out whether she meant she wanted to be part of a video game or be a part of a movie or TV show.

I said, “Come check this out,” and we got up and went into the living room. I brought out my laptop and showed her a commercial for the Oculus Rift, which if you don’t know, is the world’s first consumer-level virtual reality machine. We talked a little more after she watched it, and it came out that, no, she didn’t mean being in a virtual reality. She wanted to go into the TV.

I paused a moment. She couldn’t really think…

“Hey,” I said. “Go look behind the TV.” She did as I asked. After she’d looked the equipment up and down, I asked, “Do you think you could fit inside there?”

She thought for a moment, and shook her head. “No, I’d have to shrink.”

At this point, the football game was coming on, so I pulled her onto the couch with me and we cuddled under a blanket to watch the game. After a little while, I took out my iPhone, turned on the selfie camera, and held it up to her face. “Are you on TV now?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Not like that.”

“But that’s how people get on the TV. The football game isn’t inside the television. All we’re seeing on the TV is moving light.” Something moved in her face.

Months ago, my daughter and I had a long, multi-location conversation about how animation works. That conversation not only led us to creating a bunch of flip-style animations, but it also included a long diatribe about how everything on TV is just an animation, a series of moving pictures created by ever-changing colored lights, each color on and off in a pattern that tricks our brains into seeing something that isn’t there. (This same conversation contained a diatribe that  explained how the movies she watches on Netflix are really just a series of information packets sent to our house through wires over our streets and reconfigured by the television).

As we sat on the couch and I said “moving light,” I saw her mind go back to this conversation, and I continued, “Where this football game is taking place, there’s someone pointing a camera onto the football field, and that picture of the game is sent over the wires to show up here. Just like you’re not in the iPhone when you see yourself in the screen, they’re not in the television.”

She got quiet, and we went back to watching the game.

A little while later, she said, “I want to meet the people on the TV.”

Okay, I thought, we’re getting a little closer.

One of the TV shows that my daughter is obsessed with is Disney’s Descendants. You might not know about it if you don’t have a young daughter (I only assume it’s a daughter thing because the only people I’ve seen get excited about this show are daughters, and that includes daughters ranging in age from five to thirteen years old).

When I heard about the concept for the show, I thought it sounded pretty cool. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Beast and the Fairy Godmother, all of the wicked villains of the Disney universe have been confined to an island that is protected by a magical shield; essentially, they’ve been sent to a combination of Alcatraz and the island from Lord of the Flies. They’re free to do whatever they want, as long as they stay on their island (and the Fairy Godmother and the Beast have banished them there forever).

But that’s just the prologue. The real story takes place a generation later, when all of the heroes and villains you know now have children. When the son of the Beast and Belle receives the crown to the Kingdom due to some unexplained law of royal succession where a middle-aged King willingly gives up his crown to his still-coming-of-age Prince, the new King decides that the sins of the mothers and fathers shouldn’t be held against their children, and in a very moderate but still progressive manner, he allows four (and yet only four) children from the island join the rarified prep school that he and his friends attend.

I’m not going to get into the plot machinations of the story (there are two movies and several shorts, not to mention a warehouse full of merchandise and at least two full-length soundtracks), but the long and short of it is that my daughter loves it.

When she said she wanted to meet the people on the TV, I knew that the characters on Descendants were at least some of the people she wanted to meet.

At which point I told her that just like someone was holding a camera up to the football field, someone was holding a camera up while the people on Descendants did their thing. I told her that while she watched Descendants on television, the people she watched were probably on their own couches watching something else. “It’s just a video,” I said. “It’s not really happening when you watch it.”

I asked her who she wanted to meet the most, and she said, “Evie.” Evie is the daughter of the Evil Queen, the woman who wanted to poison Snow White for being too beautiful. Now in high school, Evie is a gifted fashion designer who benefits from the magic in her mother’s mirror (in this generation, the magic mirror fits comfortably in a pocket and Evie sometimes uses it to cheat on her tests).

“Okay,” I said, “But Evie isn’t Evie.” I opened up the IMDB app and showed her the page for Descendants. I clicked on the actress who plays Evie, and I said, “Look, her name is Sophia Carson. She’s been in other movies too. Look at all these pictures of her pretending to be other people when she isn’t pretending to be Evie.”

My daughter scrolled through the pictures a little bit. I know this sounds like I was destroying the wonderful illusion of Disney for my little girl, but she didn’t seem disappointed in the least. She seemed fascinated.

I showed her how to use the IMDB app, and then let her look through all the pictures of the various actors while I cuddled behind her and watched the football game.

At some point, she turned to me and asked, “So which Evie got my money?”

I didn’t expect that question.

The night before, when we had friends over and she was playing Mario Kart and being social and just having a wonderful time, we had to trick her into getting into her pajamas (doing it directly wouldn’t have been worth the hassle). We told her that we were going to have a contest, where she would go upstairs and put on her own pajamas, and we would stay downstairs and guess which pajamas she would put on. She loved the idea and went running up the stairs.

While she was up there, my wife made very rushed descriptions of the various pajamas my daughter had available to her, and then our guests and us each made a pick. To our surprise, when Nora snuck back downstairs and into the dining room, she yelled out that one of our guests had actually won (the little ninja had been downstairs long enough to hear us make our picks!).

She then ran into the next room, ransacked her own wallet, and came back with a dollar bill, which she gave to our guest. He tried to demure, but she insisted. He won, and in doing so, he earned himself a dollar. She screamed, “Wait! I need jammy pants under my nightgown!,” and she ran back upstairs for round two.

My wife again quickly described all the various pajama pants for our guests — but I didn’t need a description. I knew just which ones she would choose, and when she came downstairs, I was right. So, again, she ran into the other room, opened her wallet, and came back with another dollar (where she got two dollar bills, I have no idea).

At this point, the dollar bills became ridiculous, and we refused to accept them, but she wouldn’t hear of it. After some back and forth, we came up with a compromise. As the now rightful owners of the two dollar bills, my guest and I would donate them to one of the things she is saving up for: a trip to Disney World (months ago, her and I created a special savings account for this trip, and I told her we wouldn’t be able to go until it contained $2,000; she currently has $1.67).

She wouldn’t accept the dollar bills, but she loved the idea of us donating our money, and she quickly accepted the offer.

I took out my iPhone, opened up the special account so she could see it, and transferred $2 from my checking account into her Disney World savings account, then I put the two dollar bills in my wallet.

After confirming the transaction, she looked up at me and said, “Who do you think got it?”

“Got what?” I asked.

“The money. You sent it to Disney World. Who got it?”

(Man, I love this little girl).

“Who do you want to get it?”

She thought for a moment, and said, “Evie.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll send a text down to Disney World and make sure Evie got it.”

But now, 24 hours later, I’ve told her that the person she thinks is Evie is actually a woman named Sophia Carson. If she just sent $2 down to Disney World care of: Evie, and Evie isn’t really Evie, then which Evie got her money?

I had no answer to that question. And like a coward, I chose to pivot.

“So if Evie is just an actress,” I said, “and all the people on TV are just actors and actresses who people point a camera at while they pretend to be someone else, you don’t really need an invention to go into the TV. You just need to become an actress.”

She liked that idea. During the game’s next commercial break, I challenged her to mimic the people we watched on the screen. The commercial was that GEICO one where people  enjoy horrible things, such as having your seat chair repeatedly kicked from behind on an airline. Because of the content, her acting was actually pretty funny.

The game came back on, and we resumed cuddling on the couch.

After a few minutes, I said, “You don’t have to be an actress to be part of a story, you know. Every day of your life is a story. It can be as exciting as the things you watch on television, or it can be as boring as sitting on the couch. The choice is yours.”

If it were mine, she’d become a drum-playing astronaut.

Compliments, Criticisms, Questions?