Walk into a toy or book store in UAE, Saudi, Bahrain, or Qatar – and you’ll notice an influx of STEM toys. This acronym stands for toys promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning. But STEM toys encompass everything from building blocks, toy car ramps, dinosaur hatching sets, and more.
Recognizing play-based learning can be highly effective in promoting cognitive, social, and emotional growth in children of all ages, their usage in education has steadily gained popularity, and it’s not difficult to see why.
“The uptick in demand for STEM toys is a direct result of parents looking for open-ended, screen-free STEM toys that can keep their children entertained but also still support their development,” says Michael Valenta, President of Magna Tiles, an enterprise that engineers magnetic tile sets that offer children open-ended playtime.
In tandem with the spike in STEM toys is the proliferation of those lacking authenticity. As more toys are marketed as providing STEM advantages, toy manufacturers and consumers are beginning to question the boundary. Are products like racing cars or construction blocks genuinely educational, or is there a “STEM-washing” where these claims might mislead parents and children?
“Several toys are on the market, many claiming to be STEM-approved. To help identify those toys that are authentic STEM toys, look for ones that are child-led, foster creativity, support curiosity, promote cognitive skills, social skills, and more,” says Valenta.
But if you’re a parent or educator, there is a lot of confusion around what a good STEM toy is, whether the price tags justify their impact, and the right age to invest in these toys.
A GOOD TOY IN A HAYSTACK SITUATION
“While we’re still learning the exact impact of the pandemic on children, it’s undeniable that it has taken a toll on their development. This has pushed parents to seek out toys that offer entertainment and educational value to help support their children’s learning while away from school,” says Valenta.
According to Valenta, one way for parents and caregivers to feel confident in their toy selection is to search to see if they have been STEAM accredited. The Toy Association created a toy assessment framework outlining the characteristics of good STEAM toys.
“A good STEM toy is gender-neutral and teaches, develops, and supports fundamental skills and concepts in science, technology, engineering (art), and mathematics. Toys are a great medium for children to learn STEM concepts since they can physically experience them through hands-on play,” says Valenta.
When looking for a robust STEM toy, El Sakhawy says the key question is: “Does it teach the method? This method could be the engineering method, scientific method, or design-thinking method, which all boil down to the same core process. It’s about making a guess (hypothesis), creating a solution for a problem, seeing what happens, and improving it until you reach the final result.”
Children may not be able to articulate the concepts per se, but they can understand ideas such as spatial reasoning, symmetry, and balance through trial and error – and a toy that can hone those skills is worth the money and time.
“As a parent to four children aged four and under, I have seen my children learn these concepts. For example, my son understands that clicking two right triangles together forms a quadrilateral; however, he doesn’t yet understand that this is because the interior angles add up to 360 degrees,” adds Valenta.
El Sakhawy says good STEM/STEAM toys have two essential qualities. First, they should promote a STEM area. They can encourage kids to explore these subjects or use the scientific method (experimenting and observing) to learn and solve problems. Second, the toy should be enjoyable. It should engage kids, spark their curiosity, and entertain them. This part is more subjective and depends on whether kids enjoy playing with it.
NEVER TOO YOUNG
Experts agree that exposing children to STEM toys is never too early. “Providing open-ended STEM toys allows children to find their style of play that supports their unique abilities and interests and, most importantly, is fun.”
Introducing children to STEM toys should begin as early as infancy and progressively continue through their early years, says El Sakhawy. Research has shown that early math skills strongly predict later school achievement.
“Children resemble miniature scientists, which we focus on when we design our play tools at MonkiBox to embody STEM principles by incorporating science and sensory exploration, promoting problem-solving skills, and introducing early math concepts, in addition to providing parents with resources and guidance on engaging with their children and offering suggestions for age-appropriate play activities that support STEAM learning and child development,” she adds.
Children develop remarkably; the earlier they are exposed to STEM toys, the better. “As a parent, I am continually amazed at the speed at which my children can master new skills and the enjoyment they receive from it. The more they learn, the more they want to continue learning to repeatedly feel that sense of success and accomplishment,” Valenta adds.
Citing an example of how Magna-Tiles’ play will change as a kid’s understanding and experience deepen regardless of age. Children will go through various stages, beginning with a basic exploration of colors, shapes, and sizes, then progressing into stacking and laying the tiles flat.
Eventually, they will graduate to building upwards and creating larger structures as they develop their fine motor skills and understanding of symmetry and balance.
An essential element of telling a good STEM toy from that guilt of mere STEM-washing is if you can see your child gravitate toward it naturally. And how can you tell that? Among other characteristics, the toy should “encourage the child to find his or her way to play, relate to the real world, be hands-on, and allow for trial and error,” says El Sakhawy.
But most importantly, despite the logic and emotional development that a toy may promote, as per Valenta, if it’s not fun, it’s perhaps the worst STEM toy ever.
Fast Company Middle East contacted a leading building-block toy brand, which did not wish to comment.
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