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What’s the Best STEM Toy for Little Kids? Playing Outside

The doctors, engineers, and architects of the future don't need to spend their early years fiddling with gadgets. They just need nature.

STEM education is a relatively new phenomenon for American kids. The term, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, has birthed a technical subgenre of children’s activities and products. There are after-school STEM programs, STEM summer camps, and a steadily growing market of STEM toys, all of which seem to share a common goal: promote the skills necessary for academic success and subsequent access to better-paid jobs. Unfortunately, though this goal is accepted as virtuous by parents anxious about their children’s economic future, there remains no real proof that STEM toys are effective and (perhaps ironically) there’s little data-backed support for the STEM premise. And that matters, because STEM toys have a tendency to be expensive and a parent’s reliance on them could crowd out play we know to beneficial for child development, namely open-ended, imaginative, and cooperative play in natural environments.

In other words, the doctors, engineers, and architects of the future may just need to go outside and screw around.

In May of this year, the central toy trade group the Toy Association issued a report that included a survey of 2,000 parents who were queried about their feelings on STEM fields and STEM toys. The results were eye-opening. The parents surveyed felt, on average, a child should be on a career path by around 5 years old. Moreover, 75 percent of parents wanted their child to end up in a career related to STEM. Another 85 percent of parents planned on encouraging their child to learn to code. 

When you put that information into an economic rather than educational or play context, a dark picture emerges. Since the late 1970s, economic inequality in the United States has increased. Manufacturing jobs offering solid middle-class wages have disappeared, cutting off an important pathway to economic stability for a majority of Americans. The only perceived road to success now runs through the competitive world of higher education. STEM toys promise to help kids do better in school, allowing them access to and preparing them for white-collar careers. 

It’s a great pitch. Lots of people buy it. Lots of people buy complicated STEM toys made for toddlers. Though those toys aren’t harmful, per se, the consumer logic underlying their popularity may be.

“It’s not necessary to have toys to prepare a toddler for their future jobs,” explains child development researcher Dr. Celeste Kidd of the University of Berkley Kidd Lab. “It is neither necessary or possible to divine a toy that will prepare a toddler for a job they will have as an adult.” 

Kidd notes that there are far too many foundational, conceptional building blocks children need to possess before they become anywhere near thinking of a specialty in life. She describes trying to place a 5-year-old on any kind of career path as, in a word, “silly.”

So expensive toys marketed as STEM-focused are more for parents than they are for kids (the Toy Association found that 55 percent of parents said that labeling the toy as STEM made it a more attractive prospect). Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t represent a distraction from more productive — and frankly cheaper — forms of play.

In a recent report from the American Association of Pediatrics, researchers noted that play incorporating physical activity, pretending, and traditional toys like block and shape sorters, helped improve children’s skills. They noted that preschool children (particularly low-income children) who were given blocks to play with at home under minimal adult supervision, showed improved language acquisition at a 6-month check-up. 

Pediatricians are stalwart in their recommendation that play should be active, open-ended, imaginative, and cooperative. They toys that foster those qualities are usually simple and not electronic.

But importantly, that does not place the most recommended toys for children’s play at odds with the STEM fields. Just consider the Toy Association’s “unifying characteristics” for a great STEM toy. The association suggests these toys should be open-ended, relate to the real world, allow for trial & error, be hands-on, child-led, and offer chances for problem-solving, while also being gender neutral, encouraging creativity, building confidence, and promoting social and emotional skills.

A close look at those characteristics reveals that the best STEM toy might be a game of tag or building a fort in the woods with friends, or playing blocks. In fact, there is a laundry list of activities that fit the bill. And none of those activities require electricity, apps, or a debit card. 

“All toys in some sense are STEM toys,” says Kidd. “Science is everywhere. There needs to be more widespread awareness among parents that STEM toys are not something special that needs to be designed in a particular way. The impression that there is some sort of certification process for something to be called a STEM toy is probably what needs correction.”

Kidd notes that a simple game of Red Rover or Mother May can teach kids the fundamentals of coding without them even knowing it. “Red Rover is arguably useful in teaching some fundamental coding concepts. It teaches contingency, for instance,” she explains. “Mother May I is an if/else statement.”

In the end, the STEM label on toys is more about marketing than it is about actual results. Parental anxiety and guilt are leveraged to inspire the pricey purchases of coding kits, science subscription boxes, and app-enabled building toys. Meanwhile, parents are forgetting what kids really need to succeed: active, imaginative play, preferably outdoors with friends. That kind of play, and not aggressively marketed high-tech STEM toys, is what has been consistently shown to produce successful adults. 

It’s okay to stop buying expensive toys. In fact, it might even be better. But for those parents who are already all in, Kidd has a suggestion for the perfect STEM toy.

“The leftover Amazon boxes from all of the STEM Toys you purchased that weren’t fun,” she says. “That’s a classic.”