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STEM Toys – Do your Kids Really Need Them?

Stem Toys - A Craze or Just Craze - Swings-n-Things Cincinnati


Today’s advertising for toys is getting pretty convincing. Every toy is geared towards appealing to a child’s educational needs. What parent doesn’t want to advance their child academically, even at the young age of 7 months? In today’s social media and technological driven world, the lines can easily be blurred as to what young children’s minds really need. Since toy manufacturers and companies are in the market to make money, designing a toy that will strengthen a child’s music skills, for example, seems to be a good advertising plan. Or how about those STEM toys?

What are STEM toys?

Stem Toys are Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math based toys geared towards learning, curiosity, and education. There are a variety of different Stem Toys focusing on core disciplines in coding, engineering, chemistry, mechanical toys and more. Stem educational toys teaches kids to focus in on the four subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEM Toys are a great way to reinforce the importance of learning in a fun way. At Scientifics Direct, we offer STEM education and STEM and STEM educational Toys. Our STEM toys and Kits focus on chemistry sets and science kits.

Why is everyone concerned with STEM?

STEM toys are designed to stimulate your child’s interest and skill in science, technology, engineering or math. And it’s obvious why parents are buying in. According to a Commerce Department study, STEM jobs are growing faster than non-STEM jobs. In 2015, people who worked in STEM fields earned 29% more than those who worked in other fields. Therefore, if a parent wants their child to be better off later in life, it may be beneficial to spark interest in STEM careers at an early age!

STEM toys: a craze or just crazy?

Type in “STEM toys” in google and you will come up with a long list of toys that are promised to promote these areas of your child’s brain. Architect sets, computer coding games and science kits find themselves in the homes of loving parents who just want to make sure their child has a fighting chance in the world.  Surely a toy that says “STEM” on the box is better than a doll or action figure that doesn’t require batteries.  Parents are convinced STEM toys will help their young children develop math minds, which will enable them to breeze through school, get a full ride to college and land a dream job making the big bucks straight out of college.



However, some are arguing that this may not necessarily be as true as desperate parents are led to believe. Recently , the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out with a clinical report, “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” It doesn’t advocate for STEM toys, or complex building sets, or even tablet math games.  It just speaks of simple play and its profound importance in the development of a child’s mind. Accordingly, pediatric behavioral health specialist Amy Lee, PhD,  says you may want to think twice before opening your wallet too wide. Your home (and the great outdoors) already contain everything you need to build up your child’s STEM love and skills. Who knew?

This comes in the form of exploration, whether it be exploring in the backyard, exploring a relationship playing with a friend or exploring through the eyes of an action figure.  When a child uses their imagination, without a specific set of directions from an adult, they are able to advance far quicker than any STEM toy can take them. In fact, the report mentions “when children were given blocks to play with at home with minimal adult direction, preschool children showed improvements in language acquisition at a 6-month follow-up, particularly low-income children.” Blocks. Not blocks with flashing lights, not blocks that come with a set of directions, just plain blocks. You know, the ones that have been around for decades, but have no bells and whistles attached to them.

An article What’s the Best STEM Toy for Little Kids? Playing Outside, suggests that given the information from the recent AAP report, the best form of STEM based learning may come in the form of building a fort outside or playing tag with a group of friends. Parents don’t need to further complicate their lives by researching the most educational toys or learning apps.  They merely need to kick the kids outside and say “play”.


The difficult part is as a child’s brain develops, and they are accustomed to toys that constantly provide stimulation with little work, or even worse, a tablet or a tv, that child isn’t learning how to play.  Their imagination isn’t put to use, their exploration skills aren’t triggered. When a parent pulls the devices from a child’s hands and tells them to “play”, there is often backlash and complaining, tears and frustration. But you have to stick it out, let their brains have a chance to catch up and retrain themselves on turning blocks into a learning experience on their own.

An article from Healthy Children has a great list of age appropriate activities if you are struggling with starting this new learning adventure. As you read through the options, you will notice a pattern:  no electronics, no expensive gadgets and a lot of interaction with peers.

Don’t get discouraged by the labels as you are walking through the toy aisle or see ads online. Your children will thrive without these toys and you will open the door to many years of imaginative play and learning.

Step away from the screen

As tablets and other tech continue to be marketed to and for children, warnings from the pediatric health community are getting louder. “Early access and exposure to screens and screen time is detrimental for child development,” states Dr. Lee.

She says there’s even some research showing an increase in children being referred for occupational therapy for sensory integration problems. Symptoms of sensory problems include oversensitivity to the environment, being uncoordinated and having difficulty engaging in play. There’s some evidence that these problems are related to having less free and outdoor play.

The Importance of Outside Play

There are many ways in which this generation’s childhood is different from that of the last generation, but one of the most abrupt contrasts is the degree to which it is being spent indoors. There are lots of reasons, including the marked increase in time spent interacting with electronic devices, the emphasis on scheduled activities and achievements, concerns about sun exposure — and, for many families, the lack of safe outdoor places to play. It’s not just children; adults are spending less time outdoors as well.

Here are six crucial ways playing outside helps children:

  1. Sunshine. Yes, sun exposure — especially sunburns — can increase the risk of skin cancer. But it turns out that our bodies need sun. We need sun exposure to make vitamin D, a vitamin that plays a crucial role in many body processes, from bone development to our immune system. Sun exposure also plays a role our immune system in other ways, as well as in healthy sleep — and in our mood. Our bodies work best when they get some sunshine every day.
  2. Exercise. Children should be active for an hour every day, and getting outside to play is one way to be sure that happens. They can certainly exercise indoors, but sending them outdoors — especially with something like a ball or a bike — encourages active play, which is really the best exercise for children.
  3. Executive function. These are the skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate, and multitask; they are crucial for our success. Creativity falls in here, too, and using our imagination to problem-solve and entertain ourselves. These are skills that must be learned and practiced — and to do this, children need unstructured time. They need time alone and with other children, and to be allowed (perhaps forced) to make up their own games, figure things out, and amuse themselves. Being outside gives them opportunities to practice these important life skills.
  4. Taking risks. Children need to take some risks. As parents, this makes us anxious; we want our children to be safe. But if we keep them in bubbles and never let them take any risks, they won’t know what they can do — and they may not have the confidence and bravery to face life’s inevitable risks. Yes, you can break an arm from climbing a tree — and yes, you can be humiliated when you try to make a friend and get rejected. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; the lessons we learn from failure are just as important as those we learn from success.
  5. Socialization. Children need to learn how to work together. They need to learn to make friends, how to share and cooperate, how to treat other people. If they only interact in very structured settings, such as school or sports teams, they won’t — they can’t — learn everything they need to know.
  6. Appreciation of nature. So much of our world is changing, and not for the better. If a child grows up never walking in the woods, digging in soil, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, or staring at the endless horizon of an ocean, they may never really understand what there is to be lost. The future of our planet depends on our children; they need to learn to appreciate it.

So try it. Do what our parents did: send your children outside. Even better, go with them. And do everything you can to be sure that every child can do the same.

How to develop STEM skills in your child

Think about the skills involved in science. You need to ask open-ended questions, manipulate the environment and problem-solve. Problem-solving is also critical in math, along with sustained effort and attention, repetition and practice.

To cultivate these talents, you need exposure to people and the natural world — not the latest gadgets. Give your children ample opportunity to interact freely with their environment. That will help them develop the STEM skills needed to harness the power of techie tools.

“The idea of STEM toys capitalizes on parental anxiety about their kid falling behind. But no child, unless they’re living in a bubble, is going to be technologically illiterate in this era,” assures Dr. Lee.

We can teach things that look flashy, exciting and advanced, but we’re missing essential skills if we go there too soon. STEM toys should be add-ons to enhance play, not the main event.

The bottom line: Send your kids outside to play, and stay strong in the face of “I’m bored!” complaints. Not only will they have a chance to hone their STEM skills naturally, but they may even thank you later.




Bureau of Labor Statistics

Harvard Health Publishing

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