Through my PhD, I dealt with higher education, with late teenagers and undergraduate education in STEM-related courses. So when I was pregnant and discovered that Amazon and Flipkart had a separate category of toys called “STEM toys”, I was astonished! Why would my little baby want to play with toys that taught her engineering at a year old, I wondered.
Since then, I’ve been experimenting and playing with a lot of toys, courtesy A. She goes through phases of toys. As a 6 month old, when she first started playing with toys, it was all about the color and sound and not much else. Rattles were a favorite, as were anything grab-able and hold-able. As she approached a year, she moved on to stacking rings, her eyes focused as she maneuvered the rings over the rod and formed a stack. After her birthday, she started working on puzzles and shape sorters. I was amazed at her sponge-like mind, learning to use new toys everyday!
So this brings me back to my original question – what are STEM toys? STEM toys are toys that promote learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. They claim to help children work towards careers in these areas (a claim which I question for the time being). They promote cognitive and psychomotor development in children, which I definitely do see.
So what are some of the popular STEM toys? A browse through Amazon and others brings up robots, building blocks, physics and electromagnetic kits and the like. There are also numerous articles detailing that “STEM toys so far have been geared to boys” and “it’s time to make them for girls too”, which is certainly baffling to me. I recently attended a mind-blowing talk by Leah Buechley, a keynote speech at FABLearn 2016, where she speaks of this issue. She is the mind behind Lilypad Arduino, and a champion of feminine making traditions. During her keynote speech, she broadened the audience’s view on STEM toys and activities, leading me to believe that STEM is everywhere, and that it is the world’s view of STEM toys which is pigeonholed into a subset of toys. Here are some of my favorite toys which I believe promote learning
- Shape sorters: These seemingly elementary toys teach shapes, and then matching a shape to its appropriate slot. Its not just about matching the shape, but also turning the shape to fit into the slot appropriately. Some shape sorters double up to teach colors as well. Of course, shape sorters can double up as stackers, blocks, even grab-ables for the little ones.
- Puzzles: And of course, I mean much simpler puzzles to start with, such as this one. Apart from the obvious skill of matching the right piece to the right location (like the shape sorter), playing with these also provides numerous teachable moments about the objects in the puzzle like animals or food. Pulling the pieces out of the puzzle individually also helps develop fine motor skills.
- Stackers: In addition to the fine motor skills of grabbing, holding and placing, these also teach sizing and order. For example, largest on the bottom and smallest on the top? Stackers include the old favorite – stacking rings, but also stacking cups, stacking blocks that even have books embedded in them, and more. You could stack these one on top of the other and it’d be a fun game to make a tower than doesn’t collapse, teaching balance in the process.
- Boxes and lids: not a toy! But this is my kiddos personal favorite. She started off trying to close her snack box. She then moved on trying to close any box with the lid I gave her. One day, she found a sippy cup top and a random cup, and just trying to match the two just because they were the same size! Which they didn’t belong to the same set, I was amazed at how her young mind worked! These days, she is easily kept occupied with a bunch of random boxes and lids, working her way through matching them, and then closing them until they seal!
These are just some of our current favorites. I’m sure there are many more out there! The thing is, STEM is way more than what we know, it’s everywhere! What are some of your favorite toys (for your kids or yourself!)