It’s that time of year again! Gift-giving holidays are here and parents are out on the trail of the latest and greatest toys as they check off items from their children’s wish lists. And in recent years, STEM toys have become increasingly popular with that segment of consumers.
STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. These subjects are not new, but the concept of grouping these subjects into a combined learning trend only recently began to gain popularity. And, according to an article by Andrew B. Raupp from Forbes, this movement has “gained momentum across the globe.”
But what makes these STEM toys so special?
There are many reasons why parents lean toward these types of toys. For some parents, it’s a way of balancing what is perceived to be lacking in today’s schools; for some, the toys provide opportunities for further enrichment. But regardless of the motivation behind this trend, one thing is for certain: there are many benefits to STEM toys, not the least of which is how they promote spatial skills and help to develop hand-eye coordination.
According to some online sources, such as blog.sensoryedge.com, the message from scientists and educators is that STEM activities and toys ought to be introduced before preschool because “the earlier, the better.” The reason behind this is that these STEM toys help get rid of the preconceived notion that STEM is “hard.” These toys touch upon the sciences, problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, and so much more, all while children play, and therefore help build confidence in children with regards to their abilities in tackling these subjects – confidence that could carry over as they age.
STEM toys have always made learning fun, but even more so now with the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in many STEM toys. According to an article at marketwatch.com, AI-powered STEM toys are becoming popular among working parents because these toys are like learning buddies for children and can be customized for a range of lessons in “core STEM disciplines and coding.” Some of these toys can even hold intelligent conversations with the children! So, it’s no wonder some parents prefer having their children self-entertain with STEM toys instead of some of the more traditional but less interactive alternatives.
Another benefit to the trend of STEM toys is how the industry is highly regulated on account of the end-user being children. According to prnewswire.com, given how some STEM toys include “complex mechanisms, electronic gadgets and circuitry,” STEM toys’ safety, quality and proper labeling are taken very seriously.
This season, according to a few of the many retail outlets that sell STEM toys, some of the more popular STEM toys for school-age children are the STEM Challenges Learning Cards by Carson Dellosa – essentially recipe cards with instructions for various STEM activities to try – and Magformers, which employ magnets and colourful shapes. But those are just two of the many popular types of STEM toys available on the market today.
Another popular option is the STEM subscription box. Subscription boxes are another way parents are treating their children to STEM playtime. An online search produces multiple and various options when it comes to subscribing to these boxes and prices vary, with some less than $20 per month. There seem to be subscription boxes for every age level, starting with those designed for preschoolers, and some of them also incorporate art into their focus with age-appropriate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) materials and activities.
STEM toys are designed to help children develop or improve their skills in key areas of science, technology, engineering and math; there is no question of that. But do they really deliver all that they promise? And are all STEM toys equally effective? Unfortunately, according to some sources, the answer is no. Some STEM toys, however promising in theory, fail to keep children’s interest, leaving children bored instead of inspired. So it’s important to do a little research and select STEM toys accordingly, based on age and interests of the children they are intended for.
Just the same, many parents believe that STEM skills play a big part in how successful their children will be, and that building these skills gives their children every advantage. And according to sources such as pcmag.com, many parents aim for their children to develop an interest in STEM in the hopes that they one day end up with a career in a related field. Most parents agree that toys are one of the biggest ways to develop STEM skill sets in children.
According to some kindergarten teachers, another reason for the rise in STEM toy popularity, especially in the school system, is that at one point it became apparent that many toys on the market left little to the imagination. “Teachers began to notice a decline in imagination, creativity, oral language, and other important skills, so they turned to STEM activities which promote children’s imagination, problem solving, creativity, language and collaboration when done with other children,” one teacher explained, wishing to remain anonymous.
Inspired by a need to stimulate imagination in children – and due to certain budget restraints – some of today’s schools and kindergarten teachers are turning to “loose part.”
The term “loose parts” refers to when activities and learning are done using loose parts such as twigs, rocks, shells, seeds, marker covers, buttons, nuts, bolts, nails, Popsicle sticks, clothes pins – and the list goes on. In some instances, parents are asked to donate simple small items to the classroom, most of which would otherwise simply be tossed, to build a collection of these “loose parts.”
Although parents can find STEM toys at multiple retail outlets and online, many teachers also encourage them to use what they have at home to promote discussion, creativity and problem solving. In other words, STEM play need not come with a hefty price tag, and can be accessible to everyone. According to the Neurochild Community on Facebook, “STEM education is not a complicated thing.” Children do it naturally, every time they are left alone to follow whatever interests them in a “lovely, varied, and stimulating environment.”
But the article goes on to say that this natural love that children have for STEM subjects can also be ruined when children are dictated what, how and when to learn. According to the article, “a good STEM education, at least in the early years, is a play-based one; one that takes advantage of a child’s natural curiosity; that gives free rein to their boundless capacity for inventiveness.”
In other words, it appears that parents on the lookout for STEM and STEAM toys to gift the children in their lives this holiday season are ultimately on the right track because this latest trend and these toys are a great way to introduce science, technology, engineering, art and math to young children in a fun, play-based manner. However, purchasing the latest and greatest STEM toys on the market is not the only way to introduce children to STEM and STEAM concepts. There’s still a lot to be said for old-fashioned imaginative play and a bucket of blocks.