As Joey Fortuna found out, it doesn’t matter how educational a toy is if kids don’t want to play with it.
“STEM toys” are meant to encourage children to develop their skills in the key disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and consumers see more of them every time they shop for their kids. As toys marketed with the STEM buzzword proliferate, parents wonder whether they really deliver on their promises. Can a toy that teaches coding really create a computer genius? Can a robotics toy inspire a future scientist who will change the world—or, at least, make a really good living? Or are STEM toys just marketing hype? In talking to experts, we didn’t uncover any stats about the long-term efficacy of these toys—the field is just too new—but we did learn about the standards, rigor, and testing that go into creating them.
Fortuna is a programmer and the CTO of j2 Global (PCMag’s parent company), and he’s given his two children, ages 8 and 10, multiple STEM toys over the years. He’s observed that some toys with educational ambitions have simply bored his kids. Take Modular Robotics Cubelets, which let you create robotics projects using magnetically connectable cubes. “The idea is that you … string together a bunch of cubes in a different configuration, and you have something that can move and detect obstacles or make sounds,” Fortuna says. “In reality, the range of things you can do with it is so limited, the conceptual hurdle to get to the point where you coax any sort of convincing or interesting behavior out of it is so large, that they quickly lost interest.”
The Fortuna kids had the same reaction to Wonder Workshop’s coding and robotics toys, Dash and Dot. The steps required to succeed were too numerous. Also, creating a project typically involves failing several times and thinking of solutions—which sounds fine but didn’t intrigue the Fortuna kids. The STEM toys that worked best for his kids, Fortuna found, were the ones that had clear directions and quick successes at the beginning to get them hooked.
But what Fortuna experienced as a problem—open-ended play and repeated failures—is an intentional part of many companies’ STEM play-product strategies. This highlights the challenge of creating educational toys: The STEM toy area is new, and there isn’t much expertise to fall back on. Which lessons need to be taught and the best ways to teach them are still unclear. And how much any of it pays off in future careers for the kids who play with these toys remains to be seen.
FROM IDEA TO REALITY
The term STEM became an academic concept decades ago. Initiatives since the middle of the last century have encouraged students to study science and math, and STEM developed during classroom curriculum planning in the 1990s. The urgency of getting kids interested in the sciences increased in the 2000s. And later, the modification STEAM appeared, adding an A for “arts” to the sciences.
Although it’s hard to say what the first STEM toy was, Deb Weber, Ph.D., a director of early childhood development at Fisher-Price (which is owned by Mattel), believes her company created the first ones in 1994 when it partnered with Compaq on computer peripherals designed for 3- to 5-year-olds, including a keyboard and a car dashboard. But Weber says that as far as today’s STEM products are concerned, the idea of science learning toys bubbled up from academia around 2010, and toymakers started releasing STEM toys soon after.
Fisher-Price’s big entry in the STEM-toy era was the Code-a-Pillar, released in 2016. This hit toy taught the basic concept of programming by having kids add links to the Code-a-Pillar’s body to create a sequence of movements. Putting steps in the correct sequence let the toy caterpillar accomplish a goal.
It wasn’t enough for Fisher-Price to put Code-a-Pillar on the market and hope kids learned from it. The company partnered with the Bay Area Science Museum in San Francisco to create lesson plans for teachers and a related curriculum to help bring the toy into classrooms, and offered play tips to parents.
A few years later, Fisher-Price had another hit with Rocktopus, a friendly octopus that teaches the sounds of different instruments and shows how to create a rhythm. It also includes a math mode that teaches addition and subtraction. Rocktopus is a fun toy (even for adults), but how can parents be sure this or any other STEM toy actually teaches STEM concepts?
“I think that the true test is if children can articulate back to the parents how to use the toy and what the toy is all about,” Weber says. Is your child getting something from the toy or simply having a good time with shapes and sounds? Parents just need to ask.
TEACH THE CHILDREN WELL
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