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 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.

What is STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s often used in an academic, educational or employment context.(We have mentioned it before.)

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 can science do for kids?

This we have discussed before but now I want to tell you what skill will stem toy build for kids.The skill-set is wide-ranging and will depend on the specific toy, of course, but think along the lines of:

  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • 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.


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, 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.

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.’


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