What Are STEM Toys? And Do They Actually Help?

Written by Aziz Shaik
Last updated on December 31, 2021

While shopping for toys for our kids, we often come across the term 'STEM'. Some of us know what it is and see its benefits. Some of us brush it off as a fancy marketing term. Some (or most?) of us simply want to get something fun for the kids! But exactly what are STEM toys? How do they benefit our kids besides keeping them busy?

STEM toys are specially designed to teach children fundamental skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. They claim to promote curiosity and creative thinking and help kids grow in these important areas.

Bold claims! But do they all deliver on these promises?

Too often I've seen toys slap on the term as a marketing ploy. Unfortunate, but true. And sometimes, there actually is great benefit a child gets from playing with a given STEM toy.

So I've gone out and researched what differentiates a good STEM-based toy from all others. I also read up on some research articles and studies to verify if it's worth our time and money to seek out these specially designed toys.

In this post, I will dispel the world of STEM toys. How they help kids, and what you should look out for when making a buying decision.

What is STEM?

STEM  stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Though the acronym is fairly straightforward, the idea and the reasoning behind its inception is far from it. STEM is more than just a collection of subject areas deemed important for our children's education. It is also a learning methodology that encourages hands-on and open-ended learning.

With strong backing from the US government, STEM education has become quite prominent lately. The underlying reasons are a mix of skills shortages in the job market and the increasing demands for the ever-changing world that we live in.

What are STEM Toys?

STEM Toys are a great way to teach your kids essential and fundamental concepts at an early age.

These acquired skills, learned at an early age, stay with them throughout their lives. These could be ‘hard’ skills that help them understand science, technology, engineering, and math concepts in a concrete fashion. Or these could be ‘soft’ skills improving their thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills. 

Learning in a fun, engaging, and hands-on manner is why STEM toys have seen a surge in popularity in recent years. They fill that gaping hole between playtime and learning. They can be fairly simple and open-ended while some require focus and attention.

These educational toys can have your kids doing basic coding and programming robots. They can introduce children to the scientific method and the engineering process to solve problems. They can have them practice fundamental math skills. All before they enter elementary school or even pre-school.

Before kids are scared away or put off by the oft-dry learning environment in schools, STEM toys provide us an opportunity to instill fundamental concepts within our kids. Concepts that will excite them early on in their childhood and prepare them for the world.

Types of STEM Toys

STEM Educational Toys can come in many forms. It's a good idea to be aware of the options available to us. The type of STEM toys we get will be heavily based on what we want to teach our kids or what they find interesting. I’ve broken them down into six categories to better understand the landscape of educational toys.

Types of STEM Toys - Science

Science Toys

These are largely experiment-oriented. A child either goes through a specific set of instructions to get to an end result or uses certain equipment to explore the real world. If your child has even a hint of curiosity and loves cause-and-effect situations, these science-based toys will be right up their alley. Examples include science kits such as chemistry or biology sets. Scientific equipment like microscopes is also a great way to get them interested.

Types of STEM Toys - Technology

Technology Toys

We live in an increasingly digital world. Kids need not wait until school to learn basic coding or technical concepts. There are plenty of toys that teach basic programming principles [2] while mixing it with a bit (and sometimes a LOT) of fun. Examples include coding robots/toys/apps, robotics, and snap circuits.

Types of STEM Toys - Engineering

Engineering Toys

Engineering toys aim to introduce kids to the world of engineering and architecture. They improve motor skills and building ability. They also generally come with their own creations for which kids can follow instructions. There's the added benefit of doing this as a team of parent-child or siblings. Examples include building blocks like legos, wooden blocks, and magnetic blocks.

Types of STEM Toys - Mathematics

Mathematics Toys

The one topic everyone deems unimportant yet we use it almost on a daily basis. Examples include the classic abacus, mini calculators, and math card games.

Types of STEM Toys - Cognitive Thinking

Cognitive Thinking Toys

Besides the hard skills outlined above, STEM toys can also improve a child's general yet widely applicable skills. Kids level up in their logical, critical, and creative thinking. In fact, basic block-building was associated with improved mathematical performance in one study [1]. Examples include colorful blocks, Legos and Rubik's cube.

Types of STEM Toys - Motor Skill Building

Motor Skill-building Toys

These are a special subset of toys made for infants and toddlers. Back when I thought of STEM as nothing more than a collection of subjects, I questioned how those basic ‘STEM’ toys would help my little one gain knowledge in science, tech, engineering, or math! Absurd, right?

Knowing what I know now, with STEM being more than just the sum of its parts I get that it is also a way of learning.

These types of toys aim to improve basic yet critical skills such as hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

How STEM Toys Benefit Children

If I had a huge amount of money, I would donate it to getting a nice classic set of hardwood blocks for every child on Earth.

- Jeffrey Trawick-Smith

A child’s brain is changing and developing at a rapid pace. So it only makes sense to let them learn, explore and engage with different types of toys.

What we DON’T want to do is have them learn in a passive manner. We don’t want to always feed them instructions or solutions.

We want them to think independently. That’s where STEM toys come in. These toys when designed right, encourage children to use their hands, think creatively, think logically, get active, apply and practice specific skills.

Here are just some of the benefits STEM toys come with.

  • Toys can help kids find motivation for STEM subjects. This is important in fostering their love & understanding of these disciplines. With a looming skills gap in the workforce, it is becoming increasingly important to prepare our children for the demands of the future. 
  • Toys like Legos encourage hands-on work and help the brain develop cognition. Studies show they can lay a solid foundation for all four subjects, especially math.
  • Toys and play help kids build persistence and resiliency. Kids learn how to take risks, including those that involve making mistakes. This way they learn how to handle them well, brush them off and continue playing with the same consistency.
  • Toys have the ability to teach collaboration and social/emotional skills. Something greatly needed in the workplace. It's never too early to start.
  • STEM toys encourage kids to take healthy risks in a low-stakes environment. This increases their confidence to make decisions in other areas of their lives.
  • Toys can be a great way for kids to explore their interests and identify potential STEM careers. They offer endless opportunities that allow them to exhibit things they like and dislike.
  • Toys are great for teaching problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and how to take your time. All in a fun and engaging environment. Children learn to observe, analyze, ask questions, and come to solutions on their own.
  • Toys that encourage fine motor skills stimulate the parietal cortex. This is the area of the brain that deals with spatial relationships and converging. Spatial reasoning skills have proven to better prepare children for school. [1]
  • STEM Toys are a great option to try if you're looking for some good quality family time. Further, studies have shown when parents engage in their children's education, kids do better in academic settings.
Benefits of STEM Toys

Buying Guide for STEM Educational Toys

Hopefully, you now (or already) see STEM as more than just a buzzword. More so, the value in the idea of STEM education. That’s great! It is vital to understand something before deciding to implement it, especially when it comes to our children.

So now you may be wanting to get those little hands busy. But, where to even begin? Is it as simple as searching for 'STEM Toys' on amazon and buying the first thing that shows up?

Unfortunately, there is no governing body verifying the viability of a self-proclaimed STEM toy. It's why almost every other toy you see out there comes with the term slapped on there, merely as a marketing ploy. It is up to us to distinguish high-quality educational STEM toys from the sea of noise.

Here are some questions to ask when looking at a potential STEM toy for your child. Keep in mind, it doesn't have to check all the boxes. I'd say if it satisfies at least half of these requirements then go for it!

  • Does it encourage hands-on activity? A key characteristic and the heart of STEM as a whole is its hands-on learning approach.
  • Is it age-appropriate? Getting an advanced chemistry set with small parts for a 3-year old is probably not a good idea.
  • Is it open-ended? Encouraging free play without any constraints builds their creativity.
  • Does it incorporate one of the STEM topics? This is less of a requirement for toddlers and infants.
  • Does it promote trial and error? Letting kids make mistakes and coming to their own solutions builds their problem-solving skills.
  • Is it fun and engaging? This is a big one, as these terms are quite subjective. You know your child better than anyone, so get something that will pique their interest and keep them engaged for longer periods of time.
STEM Toy Buying Guide and Tips

The Toy Association put together a simple yet comprehensive list in a nice graphical format. You can refer to it here - 14 Unifying Characteristics of STEM Toys.

Wrapping it up

Do you need STEM toys to instill and develop STEM skills in your child? Do you need them to develop core disciplines and cognitive skills? Nope.

Do they help in accelerating your child’s growth? Are they a good supplementary learning tool? You bet!

These toys help make the learning process easier for kids, and the teaching process easier for parents and educators.

STEM is a learning method aimed to prepare children for the world of tomorrow - toys are just a gateway to that ultimate goal.

Whether kids play with regular toys or STEM toys, we need to remember to let them just play.

Let them create.

Let them explore.

Let them make mistakes.

Let them fail.

Let them solve puzzles.

Let them learn and think on their own.

Most importantly, let them have fun and enjoy their childhood.

References

[1] Finding the missing piece. Blocks, puzzles, and shapes fuel school readiness.
[2]Tufts - What they learn when they learn coding - investigating cognitive domains and computer programming knowledge in young. (PDF)

Article written by Aziz Shaik
Aziz grew up taking anything and everything that he could get his hands on apart. This curiosity eventually led him down a career path in Software Engineering. Before that, he delved into other majors during his time in college ranging from Chemistry, Microbiology, and Advanced Calculus. Eventually, he found his true passion in Computer Science, though continues his love for other STEM topics by finding creative ways in teaching his kids.

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