When you imagine the future, do you picture flying cars? Commuter space travel? Computers in contact lenses?
Whatever is to come, we’re only going to get there if we begin preparing our children for the future. The truth is, many children will grow up and work in jobs that do not currently exist! Technology is changing at a rapid pace, and our role as parents and caregivers is to help our children keep up.
But how do you prepare a child for an uncertain future when all they want to do is play? Consider supplying them with STEM toys!
If you’re interested in learning more about the best STEM learning toys for curious kids, read this guide and you and your child will be ready for anything!
What Are STEM toys?
STEM is an acronym that stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” There is a focus on these areas because they are some of the most dynamic and rapidly changing fields out there.
New jobs in these fields emerge every day, which means there will be a demand for workers who are excited and ready for the challenge! The best part is that STEM jobs are some of the highest-paying positions out there. Teaching children to love science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be the thing that ensures they’re set for life!
It might be tempting to toss your baby a calculator and call it a day, but there is a far more engaging option. To help build interest in STEM and STEM fields, many toy manufacturers have created educational materials that can help children learn STEM skills and concepts through play.
Why would a child choose a STEM toy over the other toys in their toy box? These toys tend to provide fun and challenging opportunities to engage in creative problem solving, often with tangible, real-world results. They give children a sense of agency, and spark new interests!
As an added benefit, these toys can build non-STEM-related skills, too. Many of these toys provide fine-motor strengthening opportunities, which are necessary for building the muscles that children need to write and draw. The best toys even integrate reading and creative opportunities into the play, which suits every child!
What Are the best STEM toys?
The STEM toys that are available for purchase are numerous, with cool, new STEM toys being released regularly. How do you decide which toys to purchase for your child or classroom? By doing a little research about the kinds of STEM toys that are out there, you can build an awesome collection in no time.
Keeping It Simple
It may seem counterintuitive, but some of the best STEM toys for kids are the simplest. In fact, many of these toys may have already existed when you were young, and you may have played with them yourself!
Have you ever spent the afternoon creating with Tinkertoys? If so, you have already played with a STEM toy! How could something so simple help children in STEM fields?
Simple construction toys, such as Tinkertoys, help children to build basic engineering skills. As they play, they solve problems as they go. A child who regularly builds with construction toys will gain skills through experience, and their buildings will get taller and more complex over time.
This is why wooden unit blocks have been a staple in early childhood classrooms since the Kindergarten movement came to America in the 19th century. These blocks help children discover geometric and size relationships, which are essential early math skills. Children who work with blocks learn about truss structures, symmetry, constructing foundations, balancing weight, and more.
Active and open-ended play is the cornerstone of a good construction toy, and almost anything can qualify. You can even build your own construction kit using found or recycled materials that you may already have on hand. By building a home “maker space,” you can encourage young engineers to stretch their creative muscles and use familiar materials in novel ways.
If you are thinking about creating a maker space in your home for open-ended, budget-friendly STEM play, here are some materials you might include:
- Cardboard tubes in various sizes
- Wooden dowels
- Wooden spools
- Drinking straws
- String, yarn, or twine
- Hole punchers
- Tape and other adhesives
- A roll of Kraft or butcher paper
- Rulers and tape measures
- Pencils and paper
- Plastic clips or clothespins
- Fabric in various sizes
- Empty food packages
- Plastic people and/or animals
- Pipe cleaners and/or wire
Once you begin gathering materials, the possibilities and combinations are endless! The key to making self-directed STEM play educational is to talk to your child about what they are learning and creating. You might even provide some books that can help them take their creations to the next level!
Cracking the Code
If you are looking for something a little more high-tech, there’s something out there for you, too. The popularity of coding toys is on the rise, which can teach even the youngest children the foundations of coding and programming.
Believe it or not, not every coding toy comes in the form of an app or computer game. Many coding toys are hands-on materials with moving parts that encourage creative manipulation and problem-solving.
Very young children might enough play with a coding robot. Typically, the goal of these toys is to arrange their parts to execute a series of commands. Children will begin to make connections between the locations of their parts and the robots’ actions and will learn to choreograph their movements.
Play with a coding robot can encourage mathematical skills such as pattern recognition. Excitingly, pattern recognition is also a necessary skill that can help children learn to read!
For older children, less tactile apps might be the key to building coding skills. Many apps exist that can teach coding through reading and storytelling, which help build multiple skills at once.
Some coding apps even work with physical materials. Older children might have a blast using an app to program a car’s movements or help a small robot navigate a maze.
Teaching Tech Using Tech
Some STEM toys allow children to engage with the best of both worlds. They utilize apps and technology, along with physical toys and materials, to keep children learning through play.
Consider buying a tablet accessory that can attach to your child’s iPad or another tablet. You can download an associated app, pre-loaded with games, and use the tablet’s camera to play the games using physical objects. These games utilize tiles featuring shapes, letters, and numbers, and teach math and engineering skills.
If you are looking to incorporate tech into outdoor play, you can bring learning outside by providing remote control toys. Playing with remote control toys on real terrain can teach about physics and force. It’s definitely possible to learn while getting fresh air!
Making Mad Science
If you’re more into explosions than computer viruses, you’re not alone! There are quite a few STEM toys and kits that allow children to experiment with chemistry and kitchen science. These hands-on kits are ideal for kids who are “crafty” and only feel satisfied when they’re making something.
Kits exist that can help you create crystal snowflakes, observe volcanic eruptions, explore color mixing, and design your own soap sculptures. Many of them are not unlike creating arts and crafts, but they allow your child to observe chemical reactions in action. These kits can help spark questions and inspire curiosity about the world.
If you don’t want to purchase a kit, a quick search will yield hundreds of at-home, kid-friendly science experiments that can be completed in your kitchen or backyard. Young animal lovers might love to build and monitor a backyard bird feeder or examine an earthworm with a magnifying glass. A great gift for your mad kitchen scientist might be a child-sized lab coat and goggles!
One of the most popular STEM toys, which has gained prominence in recent years, is a set of magnetic tile blocks. These are translucent tiles that come in basic geometric shapes. They have small magnets set into the edges so that you can create three-dimensional structures using magnetic forces.
While tiny magnets mean that these construction tools aren’t ideal for the youngest mathematicians, they are a fantastic tool for a slightly older math whiz. They provide satisfying opportunities for hands-on engineering and incorporate geometric relationships. Children begin to understand the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes through their play.
Because these blocks are translucent, they can be combined with light play. Children have a blast building with magnetic tile blocks on top of light tables. They can also accessorize their structures with plastic tea lights or LEDs.
Geology in Motion
We can’t forget the kids who collect rocks everywhere they go. For the budding geologist, a rock tumbler is an excellent STEM toy that can help uncover gems on the playground.
Yes, good rock tumblers tend to be loud, but so are children! When you open the rock tumbler and reveal the polished results, you will only hear awed silence as your child discovers what happens after rocks are buffed and polished!
If you’re looking for another toy-that’s-not-a-toy for rock lovers, pick up and smash a few geodes. Many geologists have been born the first time they picked up a geode and saw the beautiful, colorful crystals inside. This does require parent supervision, but it’s worth it!
There are also options out there for dinosaur fans in the form of fossil and discovery kits. These kits come with paleontology tools that allow children to dig for fossils or dinos. Other kits allow children to cast dinosaur footprints or skeletons in plaster of paris and keep the resulting “fossils.”
While your child won’t be able to dig up any actual dinosaurs, a kit might keep them from digging up your garden!
Baking Up Brilliance
Don’t get nervous, but one of the best places to teach math and science is in your oven! Children who follow recipes are using reading, math, and science skills. All baking is just chemistry, and watching bread rise can teach young chemists a lot about reactions!
You can definitely start with an Easy-Bake Oven, but there are many kits out there, including subscription kits, that will deliver kid-friendly recipes and ingredients right to your home. What kid wouldn’t love to bake a pizza from scratch and then eat it, or construct their own ‘worms and dirt’ pudding cup?
For younger cooks, no-bake and icebox recipes are available that require just as much math and focus to complete. Seeing and enjoying a finished product is a good experience for a young scientist, and might encourage further curiosity moving forward!
Since cooking with kids can get a little gross at the best of times, why not try making slime? There are so many slime-making kits on the market due to the success of slime tutorials touted by young social media moguls. Slime can be created in many different ways, each with a different chemical process at the center!
In fact, ‘gross science kits,’ are cool STEM toys that allow children to explore forbidden science topics such as mold and decay. If your child needs something a little bit subversive to keep their attention, gross science might be the key to getting them involved in STEM!
STEM Toys Are FUN toys!
If you are nurturing a scientist, there are so many new STEM toys out there that will keep them busy and excited about learning. Whether you are providing a maker space with recycled objects or watching your child learn to code with robots, you will be doing your part to inspire a future scientist, engineer, or mathematician!
If you want to read more inspiring articles about science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, check out the rest of the blog!