If you want your kid to grow up and work in the most highly-paid professions and make big bucks, this guide is for you.
Many parents get nervous seeing the term STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). To some, the sheer mention of math intimidates them. To be honest with you, I feel the same way even though I have been an engineer for 20 years. So yeah… it’s completely normal.
In this guide, I will explain the ins and outs of STEM toys but the main takeaway is: Don’t let fear get in the way. Don’t let your child miss out on these awesome developmental tools and resources.
At the end of the day, they are just toys. Toys are supposed to be fun, aren’t they?
Without further ado, let’s dive right in.
What is a STEM toy?
STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathmatics.
The Department of Education defines STEM skills as the ability to solve problems, make sense of information, and know-how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions in science, technology, engineering, and math—disciplines collectively.
STEM toys are learning toys that introduce the subject matter of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to kids. They help develop STEM skills and foster analytics ways of thinking.
Some typical STEM subjects include phyisics, chemistry, computer programming, electronics, automation, astronomy, etc.
If you haven’t heard of STEM before, it’s totally normal. As someone who has been working as an Engineer since 1998, I’ve never heard of it until a couple of years ago when I was researching college majors for my nephew.
STEM is mostly used when referring to a college major or a profession. Data Science, Machine Learning, and Mechanical Engineering are examples of STEM majors. As for STEM careers, some examples are doctors, software developers, scientists, engineers, etc.
What do these professions have in common? It’s pretty obvious: higher pays and perks, along with more stable employment.
That is why parents today have become more proactive and forward-looking. Most parents want their kids to work in these fields when they grow up. In the meantime, toy manufacturers have identified this market opportunity and started to develop STEM-focused toys.
All in all, STEM toys are nothing but toys that help develop your child’s interests and skills related to STEM subjects. They are not necessarily going to prepare your child for certain careers, but to cultivate analytical and logical ways of thinking.
What about STEAM toy? How is it different from STEM toys?
STEAM is a even more recent term. The “A” stands for “Art”.
Granted, science, technology, engineering, and math are important, but at a societal level, they are only one side of the equation. Creativity, imagination, innovation, and culture are also an integral part of the advancement of human beings.
An acumen in art is not necessarily there to make someone an artist. Instead, it allows them the ability to effectively express themselves through emotion. We are all social animals and you should underestimate how significant emotional intelligence is, whether it be at home or at the workplace.
Having said that, STEAM toys are nothing but STEM toys plus toys that focus on art. You will see me using these two terms interchangeably throughout the article.
Who are STEM toys for?
Many websites tell you that STEM toys should be introduced to kids as early as possible.
Well, this idea is true, but is it practical? Can you imagine reading scientific papers to a newborn baby? Well, if nothing else, it may help them sleep better.
If you force STEM subjects on your child too early, not only that they won’t develop an interest in STEM, it may also trigger their aversion.
So what is the best age to start playing with STEM toys? Toy experts agree that five and half is the most ideal age to get children started on their future career plans. So around 5 years is a good time to start.
It makes total sense because at 5 years old, a child is still little but is equipped with the necessary physical and cognitive skills to accept and play with STEM toys.
Does it mean that you have to wait until your child is 5-years-old? No, you don’t have to! There are STEM toys tailored for younger kids as well. Though less effective, they still help introduce the subject of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to your child.
Why should you care about STEM toys?
There are many ways to learn STEM disciplines: reading books, watching videos, going to classes… but when it comes to learning for kids, playing is the primary way, especially with toys.
Guess who is the gatekeeper of toys for kids? Us! Parents!
A recent study by the Toy Association showed that an impressive 91 percent of parents recognize the value of encouraging the development of science, technology, engineering, art, and math skills in their children. 82 percent of parents actively look for ways to encourage their child’s learning through play. After all, children are more receptive to play than reading or classroom training.
So among all toys, why are STEM or STEAM toys so special?
A survey by the Toy Association revealed that 79 percent of parents agree to the importance of STEM or STEAM toys in developing their child’s interests and skills in related fields. In addition, 85 percent of parents have specifically looked for STEM-focused toys when purchasing new toys for their children.
Among all the STEM subjects, coding and computer literacy are generating the most interest. 85 percent of parents have or plan to encourage their child to learn coding and 58 percent for computer literacy.
With a Master’s Degree in Business Administration, I am making much less than my other highschool classmates who only have a college degree in Engineering or Computer Science. The biggest regret I had was not to pursue an IT-related major. That is why I want to make sure that my two sons develop interests in programming and hopefully, they choose to work in the high tech world when they grow up.
Melissa, Mother of Two
If you have no preference in regards to what major or career your child chooses, don’t reject STEM toys yet! The fundamental benefit of STEM toys is to foster a logical and analytical way of thinking. It’s about how to organize, process, and utilize information. These critical thinking skills are not only essential for any profession but indispensable in our day to day lives.
What are the benefits of STEM toys?
Comparing to traditional toys that focus on entertaining a baby and keeping them busy, STEM toys aim to cultivate an interest in STEM subjects and foster logical thinking and reasoning.
1. Provide exposure to Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.
Unlike adults, children don’t have as much access or awareness about the outside world. Their world mostly consists of the environment they grow up in and the people they interact with.
You may argue that, nowadays children have so much screen time, they know more than we do.
That is true. But surfing the internet doesn’t mean that they are absorbing the right information. That is why they need our guidance. Plus, with lots of junkie information online today, the web is a dangerous place to be without proper supervision.
STEM toys are specifically designed to incorporate themes, elements, and subject matters of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. Apart from that, the play experience they offer aims to promote thinking skills that are critical for STEM professions.
2. Promote critical thinking skills
Like I mentioned before, STEM toys are not there to guarantee a career in the STEM field, instead, their most fundamental functionality is to cultivate certain ways of thinking.
The first and foremost is critical thinking skills. It is the ability to gather and filter information, recognize the interconnections and patterns among information, and use logic and rationale to organize them, and eventually apply them to the situation at hand.
What are some examples of critical thinking skills? The most common examples are deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning, as well as probabilistic reasoning, statistical reasoning, logical reasoning, and so on.
3. Develop specific skills in STEM subjects
Other than ways of thinking, STEM toys also complements classroom training and teach curriculum-related skills.
For example, the ability to recognize spatial relations and construct a target object, the ability to design engineering solutions for a mechanical system, the ability to write programs to run on a computer or mobile device, and the ability to manipulate data for projections and predictions.
Some of the STEM subjects take years of training. And honestly, it is not everyone’s cup of tea. My younger brother failed miserably in his engineering classes, and he has little interest in engineering.
STEM toys start with the most basic concepts to spark interest and curiosity. As your child grows, age-appropriate STEM toys become more complex and may require advanced skills. At that stage, these toys provide an outlet for your child to apply and reinforce what they have learned in school, and exercise their creativity.
4. Nourish confidence and acceptance of failure
Comparing to entertaining toys that don’t require the use of brainpower, STEM toys ask for a higher level of mental energy. They require your child to actively use their brain to search for solutions.
During the process of play, your child may not always find the solution and figure things out the first time. Most likely, it will take trial and error until they land on the correct answer. When they do, they feel empowered and confident.
It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.
The trial and error process is when your child learns what failure means. But when they are intrigued and determined to find the solution, they learn to accept what is not working and understand that failure is not permanent, but an essential and inseparable part of success.
Persistence, patience, and determination are not only critical traits for academic and career success, but also good qualities to live our lives.
5. Encourage real life application of STEM skills
If you have gone to college, you know that most of the things you have learned are completely irrelevant to your career. Let’s be honest here…
But why? Why do we spend so much time and money, and work so hard on things that are totally useless for our future?
Well, this is not a simple question to answer. It is a known struggle for many teaching professionals and universities. It’s no secret that there is a gap between what is taught in school and what we do at work. We simply don’t get a chance to apply and reinforce classroom knowledge in real life.
That is also one of the many reasons why many people drop out from STEM majors at college. It’s really boring and hard.
However, STEM toys are toys, not books or lectures. They are fun, enjoyable, and educational. They provide a way for children to associate what they learn in school with real-life problems. For example, building a race track helps them understand gravity, programming a robot teaches them computer engineering, building different objects using blocks reinforces their understanding of geometry.
What makes a good STEM toy?
Enough about why STEM toys are necessary for your child’s development. How do you evaluate STEM toys? What makes a good STEM toy?
1. Related to STEM subjects and fun
There are two most fundamental and must-have traits of a good STEM toy: First, they must be related to STEM subjects. Second, they must be fun.
I personally think the fun part is more important than its relation to STEM. Because the last thing your child needs is another boring and dull science lesson. Ugh!
Of course, there are other important criteria you should evaluate if a STEM toy is worth buying.
You never want to offer a programmable robot to a 2-year-old, or a bead maze to a 10-year-old. They are simply not interested in them.
Age-appropriate means that the toys are interesting, safe, and have the right level of complexity for the child based on her age. It should make your child comfortable and intrigued.
For example, toy water pipe assemblies are great for 1-year-old babies to learn mechanical connections and movements of water, construction blocks are appropriate for 5-year-old kids to learn physics and geometry, engineering kits for middle-schoolers can teach automation and electrical engineering.
3. Provides open-ended play
If you have read enough blogs like I used to, the word “Open-ended Play” must be familiar to you.
So what on earth is it? Why dose every manufacturing allege that their toy encourages open-ended play?
Open-ended play gives the opportunity for your child to use her imagination and creativity to play with the toy in different ways. Open-ended toys are not in one defined form or shape, instead, they provide tools for children to express themselves.
For example, a crawling ball is a close-ended toy because all it can do is to spin, move, and play music. Another example is an activity table. Your child can only use the provided activities and is not able to move the widgets around to build something new.
The most common open-ended toys are blocks. These pieces are tools for your child to build things based on her imagination. Another example is that playing with sands is also an open-ended play. Your child can create different objects or structures using her creativity.
A good STEM toy should have enough flexibility so that you child can play freely and can turn it into various shapes and forms.
4. Applicable to the Real World
Knowledge is useless if it cannot be applied to the real world.
A good STEM toy should teach skills that are transferrable to the real world. This is one of the biggest differences between STEM toys and classroom lessons. Good STEM toys utilize real-world objects to solve practical problems.
Let me show you an example:
A toy car claims to be a STEM toy because a car is a mechanical object and your child can push the car, open the doors, and maybe press buttons to play music. But these skills are not necessarily related to engineering. A better choice will be a programmable car engine system or a toy that comes with car parts and require your child to build it from scratch.
5. Encourages problem solving
A good STEM toy shouldn’t be entertaining to your child without her having to put in some effort. It should require her to use her mind to figure things out, as well as use her hands to make it happen.
In addition, it should have the right level of complexity. On the one hand, it should not be too obvious so that there is no learning curve. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be overly difficult and unachievable that it demotivates your child.
A sense of achievement is what motivates your child to stay interested in STEM toys and STEM-related subjects. That is also how they establish confidence and learn to trust their ability to solve problems.
But keep in mind that not all STEM toys are equally rewarding to everyone. It all depends on where your child’s interests are. That’s why selecting STEM toys should be personal and specific to your child based on what tickles them.
For example, DIY car kits will be an excellent choice for children who love cars. Lab toys are great options for children who are fascinated by chemical reactions. DIY smart home widgets are terrific for children who like programming and electronics.
One of the biggest frustrations for parents is that they feel intimidated by STEM toys. The hundreds of colorful parts, wires, and shapes on the box are scary enough to deter them.
Understandably, some parents have limited exposure to STEM subjects themselves and some others don’t have the time to keep up with trendy things.
If your child is young and needs your guidance playing with STEM toys, a good toy should be inclusive for parents. They should come with parent-friendly instructions to ease parents’ anxiety.
What are the Most Popular Types of STEM toys?
1. Building toys
Building toys usually come as a set or a kit of many pieces. The material can be wood, plastic, or foam. The building pieces usually come in different colors, patterns, and shapes (sticks, blocks, cylinders, arches, gears, tracks, etc…).
Kids can start with building toys as early as one-year-old. Though they are beneficial for kids of all ages. Even adults may get a kick out of it.
Building construction models with my daughter is one of the main ways for me to take a break from work.
Some popular building toys include:
- Building blocks such as LEGOS
- Mechanical engineering gear kits
- Construction kits such as bridges, buildings, roller coasters, race tracks, castles, etc.
2. Assembly toys
Assembly toys have a restricted blueprint that you must stick to it. Which is different from building toys, where you have the flexibility to modify or extend the final product. With assembly toys, if you end up missing or having an extra part, it’s very likely that you did something wrong.
Popuplar assembly toys are:
- DIY car model kits
- DIY plane model kits
- 3D architecture models
- Wood model kits
3. Combustion engine kits
These are kits to build combustion engines that can be powered by batteries. They are a simulation of real engines, except that they are not powered by gasoline. Many of them also come with a sound system that makes realistic engine sounds.
This is my favorite type of STEM toys. But I have to admit I prefer to play with my real car engine.
4. Smart device toys
Very similar to real life smart devices we use at home, such as an Alexa smart speaker, these electronic toys are programmable. They are usually connected through Bluetooth, Wifi, or Zigbee and can be controlled by a smartphone or a remote.
These toys are suitable for teens (age 13+) and adults.
Popular smart device toys are:
- Smart vehicles: cars, trucks, drones
- Programmable robot kits
- Modular robotics (also called cubelets)
5. Science lab toys
Toys that resemble scientific research equipment. They are mostly focused on disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and astronomy.
Popular science lab toys are:
- Newton’s cradles
- Magnet kits
- Plasma balls
- Astronomy toys such as star locator, solar system toys
Puzzles are toys that your child needs to put together in a logical way in order to reach a solution. These toys require intense logical thinking.
Puzzles can also come in different shapes, sizes, and themes.
Popular puzzles for children are:
- Jigsaw puzzles that are made up of oddly shaped interlocking pieces
- Puzzle boxes
- Sliding puzzles
- Word games
- Rubik’s cube
7. Arts and Crafts
As the name suggests, these are toys that promote your child’s creativity, imagination, and the ability to express themselves emotionally.
Popular arts and crafts toys are:
- Instrument toys: toy guitar, drum sets, piano keys
- 3D drawing pads
- Hidden images
- Paper toys that can be folded into certain characters. They can come pre-designed or you can design your own.
Where can you find useful STEM toys?
As it’s a fairly new thing, STEM toy markets are not quite as mature as general-purpose toys. The good news is that manufacturers have acknowledged the consumer’s enormous appetite and are working to bridge the gap.
If you google “STEM toys”, you will see the popular online sellers such as Amazon, Fatbraintoys, Targets, etc. But when you click on any of them, you will probably be bombarded with a product page full of colorful boxes that are not tailored to your needs.
That was certainly my frustration when I was trying to look for something for my daughter. The main pain points are: first, many of these so-claimed STEM toys are not STEM-related at all. Second, there are some fantastic STEM-focused toys out there, but I just didn’t know where to find them.
When I buy a STEM-toy for my son after hours and hours of research, I always feel a little nervous when I receive the package. Will he like it? Is this complex enough to make him interested but not too much to overwhelm him? My 14-year-old is so much more tech-savvy than me and knows much more than I do. Looking for a toy for him is like a test for me and makes me nervous.
Peter Obara, Father of One
I was intending on making an exhaustive list of all stores that sell STEM toys, but halfway through I realized that it may not be useful because most of these stores sell tons of STEM-irrelevant stuff as well.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to check out what online stores have to offer. So I listed below the most popular stores that sell STEM toys. I’ve incorporated the web addresses that will take you directly to their STEM toys sections.
Here are the online retailers that sell STEM/STEAM focused educational toys.
- Scientific Direct
- Fat Brain Toys
- The STEM Store
- My Science Shop
- Learning Resources
The Final Word
I know that many parents want to provide their children with a head start. That’s why as a parent, I spent lots of time searching for resources and tools that can benefit my daughter’s development.
Experimenting with STEM toys is not only a great way for my daughter to spend her time, but it has also become one of the main ways for our family bond together. I especially enjoy how she challenges us from time to time.
All kids are talented and have great potentials. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same access to information and resources. The equality of information has a significant impact on parents’ and children’s choices in life. It doesn’t matter what a child dreams to become when she grows up, but whether she has the necessary resources to evaluate her options and make an informed decision.
That is why we are here. After having researched, tested, and used so many STEM toys myself, I am here to share my thoughts with you and hope it can help make your life a little bit easier.
- “Employment in STEM occupations” Employment Projections, U.S Department of Labor Statistics
- “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, including Computer Science” U.S. Department of Education
Allen Yeung is a technology enthusiast and has over 10 years of experience in advanced engineering, IoT, and supply chain management. He is an expert in the field of robotics and automation. He is an expert in the field of STEM education for children.