Choosing toys for children can be a tricky business. Frankly, there’s just so much choice. Whether you’re shopping online or in person (and after you’ve hopefully navigated your way past the gendered-biased toys, which we explored in another article on why we should just let toys be toys) and other unappealing options, there’s still a dizzying range to pick from.
And let’s not forget the most important factor of all here: children are hardly a passive audience. They’re inquisitive, smart and keen – and they’ll soon see through a shoddy toy.
Nowadays, more and more parents (and anyone buying a gift for a child), are focusing their toy-buying skills on STEM toys. Don’t really know what STEM toys are or what they do? Don’t worry, that’s what we’re here to talk about.
An introduction to STEM
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s often used in an academic, educational or employment context.
In previous Primo Toys blogs, we’ve looked at integrating STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), but for now we’re going back to basics and looking at why STEM is such an important area.
For all the academic associations of the term, when we talk about STEM toys we’re not necessarily referring to science kits or construction sets. Sure, those things fall under the umbrella, but STEM toys cover an incredibly wide cross-section, from robots that help kids learn to build-your-own-dinosaur kits to miniature worm farms (not as gross as they sound and actually very educational).
What skills do STEM toys help children to build?
The skill-set is wide-ranging and will depend on the specific toy, of course, but think along the lines of:
- Logical thinking
- Computing and technology skills
Here are just a few of many examples, based on research. You don’t have to have a Phd in computer science to deduce what an article titled ‘STEM toys help kids learn engineering concepts’ is going to be about, but it makes for interesting reading all the same. Published in The Exponent – a student-produced newspaper at Indiana’s Purdue University – the article, written by Subhiksha Raman, focuses on the efforts of two university staff members to take engineering out of the academic bubble and into the hands of kids.
In 2016, Monica Cardella and Elizabeth Gajdzik (director and assistant director of the university’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering) created an Engineering Gift Guide for children aged there to 18. Full of STEM toys for girls and boys (from logic puzzles to apps to rubber-band car-building kits), all items in the guide were reviewed by researchers, who looked for ‘toys that would promote engineering practices ranging from coding and spatial reasoning to problem solving and critical thinking.’
In the article, Gajdzik explains that one of the main aims of the guide is to show that these types of toys aren’t just for boys. STEM toys and the skills they promote are, of course, very much for girls as well, just as STEM education and STEM employment also are.
Raman’s article finishes with Gajdzik providing another welcome reminder: that STEM and educational toys don’t need to be stuffy or boring to help kids learn. Cripes, they can even be… FUN.
‘I’m interested in fun ways that also provide some sort of learning for my kids… There are a lot of toys out there that are fun, but you don’t get anything out of it. If there are toys out there that provide learning in a fun way, why not (be involved in this research)?’
The building blocks for improved spatial skills
Riffing on some similar themes is a Parenting Science article by biological anthropologist and writer Gwen Dewar PhD (who also founded the Parenting Science website). Dewar argues that construction toys and ‘structured block play’ (ie using toys like Lego) can boost children’s STEM skills. ‘An array of evidence indicates that … spatial skills can be improved through play,’ writes Dewar, citing studies by Jirout and Newcombe, and Levine, to prove the point: “In observational studies, kids who spend more free time playing with puzzles or building blocks score higher on tests of spatial ability.’
She then deconstructs a study by Sharlene Newman, in which two groups of eight-year-olds played with different items. One group indulged in the ‘block play’ we heard about earlier, the other was given Scrabble sets.
The spatial abilities of both groups was measured via a mental task (based around rotated and mirrored letters), before and after playing. After five 30-minute sessions over 12 days, researchers found that ‘kids in the structured block play group showed statistically significant improvements in speed and accuracy.’
The benefits of computing and coding toys
In a digitally driven world, many parents are now eager for their children to get to grips with technology and computing skills at an early age.
In an article entitled ‘Do Computer Coding Toys for Kids Really Work?’ on Live Science, Tia Ghose speaks to various computing professionals to explore the effectiveness of these types of toys.
As many of these professionals point out, no amount of play with any toy is going to magically transform a child into a coding prodigy or set them up to start their own billion-dollar software company.
Sheena Vaidyanathan, a computer science teacher and curriculum developer for a school in Silicon Valley, puts it this way: ‘It would be a mistake for parents to think: “If I throw every single toy at my kid, they’re going to be coding geniuses. I don’t think it works that way.”’
What’s important to remember is what coding toys and other learning toys can do. Alice Steinglass, vice president of product and marketing at non-profit Code.org, summarising her view on coding toys with the following: ‘Most [coding] toys are aimed at getting kids addicted to the feeling of creatively solving fun, open-ended problems.’
Ghose’s article finishes with Vaidyanathan pointing out that: ‘This way of learning or thinking helps with whatever you learn, whether you become coders or not.’ It’s an often-repeated view when discussing coding toys – the idea that whatever career path a child ends up following, getting acquainted with computing and coding skills through play at an early age can only help them by building up a whole range of transferable skills.
Kids and computational thinking: not as scary as it sounds
In an article for The Guardian, computer scientist Dan Crow – formerly of Apple, Google and Songkick – takes the above argument one step further. ‘Will every job in the future involve programming? No. But it is still crucial that every child learns to code.’
Crow argues that teaching coding skills at an early age isn’t about creating a generation of software developers, it’s about learning ‘computational thinking.’ Put simply, this is a method of breaking down a problem into smaller parts that can be solved more easily, to the degree where a computer or other machine could help solve the problem.
Though it sounds like the sort of thing that only people like Alan Turing, Ada Lovelace or various other brilliant computer scientists could do, it’s basically just a very useful life skill that can be developed. And as Crow explains, ‘the applications of this approach stretch beyond writing software.’
Crow argues that this approach is useful in countless types of careers, in areas as diverse as archaeology, mechanical engineering, biology, music and even business. His mission statement sums it up:
‘Computational thinking is a skill that everyone should learn. Even if you never become a professional software engineer, you will benefit from knowing how to think this way. It will help you understand and master technology of all sorts and solve problems in almost any discipline.’
The industry view on STEM toys? It loves them
Considering all of the above, then, it’s not really surprising that STEM educational toys (and remember that starts with STEM toys for toddlers), have become a major focus for toy manufacturers and retailers in the past few years. As parents grow ever keener to provide good quality educational toys for their children, the industry responds with ever more creative and inventive ideas.
Such is the buzz around STEM toys that earlier this year, Amazon launched a STEM Club Toy Subscription in the United States. Parents sign up to receive age-appropriate learning toys delivered to their door. As Wired highlights in a news piece on Amazon’s move, various other websites have dedicated STEM toy sections on their websites, including The Entertainer and BrightMinds, to name but two. To be honest, it’s really not hard to find learning toys online. They’re kind of everywhere.
STEM toy trends and the Next Big Thing
Parts of the toy industry have even started looking at how children’s educational toys are evolving, and working to predict new trends in STEM play. And if anyone’s going to be able to predict what those trends are, it’s probably The Toy Association – a not-for-profit organisation that’s been operating for over 100 years, championing the positive effects of children’s play.
The Toy Association even focuses some of its regular monthly trend reports on STEM toys. In fact, the Association’s latest report – issued in May 2017 – was about just that. As a press release on the report puts it: ‘From STEM and coding toys to cultural and creative activities, products that prepare kids for school subjects and future careers are on the rise.’
A quote from the Toy Association’s senior director of market research and data strategy, Anne McConnell, takes a ‘deep dive’ into the latest trends in educational toys. She’s not kidding on the report’s depth Want to know what these latest trends are, according to a highlight summary of the report? Strap yourself in:
- Hyper-specific STEM – industry-specific products and experiences that fast-track kids’ education.
- Cultural vacation – appealing to the culturally diverse and accepting demographic of millennial parents, these activities immerse children in the new languages, practices, and histories of the places they visit.
- Creative class time – school products with an artful flair transform basic supplies into items that kids actually want to use.
- TEM playground toys – putting an educational twist on playground equipment, with a focus on problem-solving and creativity.
- Language-teaching robots – educational social robots that teach kids a new language.
- Underwater exploration toys – part of a growing movement to immerse kids in the wonders of the natural world.
A friendly robot who knows a thing or two about STEM – and helping kids to code
Okay, so that’s a pretty granular way of looking at things. But STEM toys don’t have to be that complicated. Take Cubetto, for example. A wooden robot that equips kids with computer science skills by teaching them the grounding principles of programming, through imaginative play. Kids place different coloured blocks on a board to tell Cubetto which direction to move in across a specially designed landscape – thus executing a basic programming command.
And that’s pretty much it. Yep, computing and coding really can be that simple. It’s a simple, subtle, fun and creative way to learn introductory STEM skills – no immersive underwater exploration involved here.
But don’t just take our word for it. You’ll see Cubetto popping up in all sorts of gift guides and ‘Best STEM toys’ lists. No, really – try this lot from Wired, Forbes, Working Mother, National Geographic, PC Advisor, Uncubed, POPSUGAR… You get the idea.
Oh, and to really show off Cubetto’s STEM creds, we’ll just casually mention that our trusty robot was given a ‘Special Mention’ at the Science Toy Award, a certificate that supports values that are close to our hearts. The expert jury panel said of Cubetto: ‘It is creative and open ended, and children develop important programming skills.’
As the judges explain: ‘The motivation for this award is our concern about the lack of diversity in science technology and mathematics (STEM). We believe that not all children are exposed to science at an early age and this limits their opportunities and has an impact on diversity in STEM related professions. The Science Toy Award is championed by the scientific and engineering community to praise toy manufacturers that excel at triggering the curiosity in STEM in children.’
So there you have it, an introduction to the many STEM toys out there and the many benefits that these toys can have. To sum up, think of it this way: A STEM toy is only limited by the imagination of the person or team designing it – just like the endless possibilities for play of the children who end up with the toy.
Tristan Parker is a freelance writer and editor, covering culture, lifestyle, arts and technology. He’s written for Time Out London (where he also spent several years as staff writer on the Music and Nightlife desk), easyJet Traveller, The Times Magazine, Clash Magazine, DJ Mag, Music Week and Collectively, among others. He’s also the editor of e-Access Bulletin, a website and newsletter focusing on digital accessibility.