4 Tips for How to Get Educational Value out of STEM Toys
STEM toys are very popular with parents who want to help their children learn while they’re playing. However, utilizing these toys to their fullest extent can be tricky. Here are four ways to get educational value out of STEM toys.
1. Choose the Right STEM Toy
(and Beware of Pretend-STEM Ones)
Ever since STEM became a buzzword, it’s everywhere. Big-name retailers like Amazon, Target, and Walmart have entire sections focused solely on STEM toys. With the market saturated the way it is, the good news is that the options are plentiful.
However, the bad news is, that makes it easier for any company to label their product as a “STEM toy,” just to hop on the bandwagon.
Each parent’s definition of what makes a toy STEM-related will be different, but according to stemtoyexpert.com, STEM toys are educational toys that encourage learning new STEM skills. Generally, these toys:
- Spark an interest or increase engagement with STEM subjects
- Promote “soft skills” like critical thinking, spatial awareness, and problem-solving
- Inspire tinkering, collaboration, and fun
- Result in children designing, making, or inventing something useful (or not useful)
- Encourage open-ended play
Keep these goals in mind when investigating what STEM toys to purchase for your child.
2. Focus on Your Child’s Interests
If your little one is a budding coder, a biology set might not interest them much. If they’re a blooming engineer, the latest programming app might not be the best choice. If they don’t care about the toy to start with, it’s much more difficult to get them excited about it and to ensure they’re getting the maximum educational value.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t experiment with new subjects; STEM has four areas of study in it, and it can be beneficial to expose your child to all of them, especially if they haven’t encountered a chemistry set yet, for example. They may not even know they like chemistry until they try. After all, early exposure to STEM subjects lays a vital foundation for later learning.
Though if you already know what your youngster detests and adores, try to focus the STEM toys you buy on the areas they do like. They’ll play with the toys longer and learn more if they’re invested.
3. Engage with Your Child During Play
It’s not enough to purchase the latest and greatest STEM toy and then let your child run away with it. Sure, they’ll probably learn something, but to get true educational value out of the toy, engage with them while they’re playing.
If they’re programming a robot, for example, talk about the logic behind if/then statements. Ask them questions like, “If you put ABC code piece here, what do you think will happen?” Then let them try it. Dig into the meaning behind the code and get them to try to predict what the next lines should be and how it’ll change the robot’s behavior.
Or perhaps they’re playing with a circuit board. Use open-ended questions to get them thinking critically about why electricity behaves the way it does. What happens when you break a closed-loop? What other materials conduct electricity? How do we use electricity in our daily lives?
The deeper you can push and the more you get them thinking, the greater value they’ll get out of their STEM toy. Don’t hesitate to do some research prior to playtime if you need a refresher, and don’t be surprised if your little one knows more than you do!
4. Repeat the Pattern
Don’t let your child play with the toy once and then leave it in the closet to collect dust. A lot of STEM toys have high replay value or optional expansion packs so the investment stays worthwhile. If possible, encourage your youngster to get the toy out over and over and challenge them to use it in new ways.
You can also repeat this process with new toys. Again, keeping in mind your child’s interests, every so often take them shopping for a new addition to their learning. Giving them agency in choosing an educational toy is another way to keep them excited and more likely to use it.
Once you’re home, repeat the cycle! Let them play, explore, and learn, and ask those probing questions. Bonus points if you can connect STEM toys they already had together with the new ones. Challenge your child to see if they can make the toys work in tandem or how they’d use real-life versions together.
Whatever STEM subject is your child’s favorite, ensure they get the most educational value out of their toys by purchasing quality ones, and encouraging them to more deeply examine the concepts they’re learning. Before you know it, you’ll have a little one who can’t wait to learn more!