When Tara Skibar became a mother, she knew she wanted to teach her three daughters to think outside the box and figure out how to make things work—skills she herself mastered as an engineer.
So she made a point to turn mundane tasks into science lessons, like the time she taught the girls about basic electricity while installing a new electrical outlet. She also stocked their toy box with age-appropriate science toys that encourage building, exploration and innovating—and made sure to play right alongside them.
Is the fact that her daughters now know how to harness electricity from a lemon or make bath bombs a guarantee they’ll follow in their mom’s professional footsteps? Hardly—and that’s perfectly fine with Skibar. Just exposing her kids to basic science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts, and sparking a natural curiosity about the world around them, is enough for now.
Child development experts couldn’t agree with her more. Playing with STEM toys from an early age, whether it’s science toys, engineering toys, math toys or technology toys, can have a lasting impact on a child’s thought process and approach to problem-solving and creative thinking, no matter what vocation they wind up in. Here’s a look at the benefits of STEM toys, what to look for when shopping and a few of our favorite STEM toys for toddlers.
The Rise Of STEM Toys
In a world where cars drive themselves and tiny supercomputers sit in our back pockets, a proficiency in STEM subjects isn’t just nice to have—it’s crucial. Practically speaking, it’s where the jobs are. According to the National Science Board, since 1960 jobs in science and engineering have increased over 500 percent and are continuing to increase at a rate faster than any other occupation (3 percent, compared with a 2 percent growth rate in total employment).
The race is on to ensure that today’s children are prepared for the demands of tomorrow. STEM education in schools is now as much a part of the curriculum as English or social studies. (Variations include STEAM —which includes an “A” for art because creativity is also important in these fields—and STREAM, which incorporates an “R” for reading and writing because it’s the foundation for all learning, including science.)
But the movement is also gaining momentum at home, as parents turn to STEM games and toys to teach these critical concepts during early childhood. “Parents want their kids to get ahead in science and math, and these types of toys can introduce certain concepts in a fun and engaging way,” says Adrienne Appell, a toy trend specialist for The Toy Association. Goldie Blox, for example, uses construction kits to introduce girls as young as age 4 to spatial skills, problem solving and basic engineering principles. Melissa and Doug’s Caterpillar Gears toy gives toddlers an opportunity to color-coordinate, rearrange and rotate gears so the caterpillar “moves.”
This marriage of learning and play makes sense. After all, play is how children explore and figure out the world around them. It’s also crucial for their physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Engineering toys, technology toys, science toys, math toys—they can all help support that.
But experts caution parents to manage their expectations: Just because your child enjoys Magna-Tiles or counting games doesn’t mean she’s absolutely going to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright or Albert Einstein. What these cool science toys can do is help your child cultivate skills that will carry well into adulthood, such as problem-solving, flexibility and the ability to focus on a project and work cooperatively and creatively to come up with new solutions. “We know over the long term, whatever the career track, that’s the future of innovation,” says Michael Yogman, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “Those are the skills innovative companies are looking for.”
Science and engineering toys for girls
For years, our culture has reinforced the stereotype that STEM subjects were for boys, not girls. As a result, in 2013, women constituted only 29 percent of workers in these occupations, although they accounted for half of the college-educated workforce overall.
You can help spark an interest in science for your daughter early on by introducing STEM toys, including those for girls. “STEM toys for girls are important. The more that girls are comfortable playing with them, and the more we have [girls] thinking science is something they can do, the better off we’ll be,” says Michael Cohen, PhD, a developmental psychologist and president of Michael Cohen Group, a research and consulting firm focusing on children, education and media.
There are several STEM toys designed and packaged to appeal to girls—though they’re essentially the same as their unisex counterparts. Noteworthy examples include engineering toys from Goldie Blox, Roominate and Build and Imagine, all of which encourage budding engineers to plan out and build structures.
“At the end of the day, physics is physics—it doesn’t care what gender you are,” says Liesl Folks, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Buffalo and the driving force behind several initiatives to promote K-12 STEM education in western New York. “Only social constructs are keeping girls out of STEM.”
A great way to get girls engaged in playing with STEM toys is by asking them questions and encouraging them to explore and experiment on their own, Folks notes. “You’ve got to keep them curious, keep them asking, ‘Why is that?’ Control the urge to tell them the answer,” she says.
Seeing other women use STEM in real-life scenarios is also a powerful incentive. “I believe that when young girls see women doing engineering-type stuff, and it’s a female they can relate to, it makes them more apt to want to try it,” Skibar says. “I was heavily engaged with my daughters while they were using these STEM toys, so I think that helps. It wasn’t Dad doing it, but Mom.”
What to Look for in STEM Toys
STEM toys range from inexpensive blocks to pricey elecontrics, but they don’t have to be fancy for your child to learn from them. What they should be, according to child development experts, are:
• Interactive. This could be anything from assembling a face on a Mr. Potato Head or racing Matchbox cars over a track made out of pillows to hosting a tea party for stuffed animals. The process of making something, or building something, taking it apart and rebuilding it in a new way, can engender more learning development and enhanced maturation, Cohen says. Yogman agrees: “The fundamental principle is that kids are actively conducting their own science and understanding how things work. They’re not passive recipients, and there aren’t adults giving direction from above,” he says. “STEM toys can be used productively with kids to get them involved in making things.”
• Age appropriate. Resist the urge to buy STEM toys meant for an older child. Age recommendations exist for a reason, Appell says. “It determines what will be safe and developmentally appropriate for kids to play with, especially children under 3.”
• Of interest to your child. Even the greatest STEM toys in the world won’t be of much value if your child doesn’t want to play with them. See what types of toys and games your child gravitates toward and follow their lead, Cohen says. If she loves blocks, for instance, stock up on building or construction toys, which teach basic engineering concepts.
How to Play With STEM Toys
Giving kids great STEM toys to play with will only get you so far—it’s also important to engage with your child during play. “Parents need to find time to just play with their kids every day,” Yogman says. “If you really want to cultivate creativity and innovation in kids, that’s the way to accomplish it.”
“Asking questions, talking to your child and offering him opportunities for reflection—and really listening to their answer—is the greatest thing you can do,” Cohen adds.
Just as important: Knowing when to back off and let your child play by herself. Trust your instincts on when to intervene, like when your child seems stuck on a particular step. Try to hold off explaining how a toy works or what it can do—that can cause a kid to lose interest. Instead, sit back and watch your child explore the toy. You’ll be surprised by how much she’s able to do with it—much more than you probably thought. Look for nonverbal clues suggesting that your child is asking for help or getting frustrated before interfering. “It’s critical that children of all ages be active initiators of play, that they be allowed to actively explore and find new ways to play,” Yogman says. “That can involve something as simple as wooden spoons and leftover bowls. It’s amazing what kids can discover with the most mundane objects when left alone.”
STEM Toys for Every Age and Stage
Ten years ago, STEM toys were hardly a blip on manufacturers’ radar; today, they line the shelves of toy stores around the country. There are even subscription services, like StemBox and Amazon’s STEM Club, that will deliver hand-picked educational toys each month to children as young as 3. Here’s what to know before you start shopping:
Best STEM toys for babies
Toys aren’t just fun for baby—they’re also tools she can use to learn important concepts, such as object permanence, and to develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination. When shopping for STEM toys for babies, keep it simple. Look for products larger than your child’s mouth that encourage sorting, balancing, putting things in order, comparing and discovering cause and effect.
Some of the best STEM toys for babies:
Playgro Rock N Stack Toy , $9, Amazon.com
Parents raved about the bright colors and cool textures of this simple but sensory-rich toy. As baby mouths, flings and stacks the rings (a favorite pastime of the under-one set), you can introduce counting and colors.
The First Years Stacking Up Cups , $4, Amazon.com
This deceptively simple set of cups may end up being the hardest-working toy in your child’s toy chest. Pull them out during playtime and watch baby nestle them or flip them over and stack one on top the other. During bath time, they turn into mini boats (and—bonus—real-life examples of buoyancy). At meal time, try hiding a pea or banana slice under one and asking your child to find it.
Fisher-Price Baby’s First Blocks , $7, Target.com
This shape sorter is a classic for good reason. Babies love dumping out the bucket and filling it back up with the pieces, and then matching the shapes with the correct holes—all great for problem solving, sorting, and developing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.
Manhattan Toy Wimmer-Ferguson Sights and Sounds Travel Activity Toy , $11, Amazon.com
This graphic toy can be strapped to a stroller or on the back of a car seat for on-the-go entertainment and education. Not only does it stimulate your child’s sense of touch with its textures and nubby teethers, it also teaches cause and effect with a rattle ring and crinkly paper. Contrasting graphics, meanwhile, introduce the concept of pattern recognition.
Best STEM toys for toddlers
“Anything where young children have to assemble things in three dimension will have a positive impact on brain development,” Folks says. This is especially true for STEM toys for toddlers. “The more kids manipulate objects in 3D with their hands, the better they’re able to think in that way as adults,” she says.
Some of the best STEM toys for toddlers:
Melissa & Doug Deluxe Pounding Bench Wooden Toy with Mallet, $15, Amazon.com
Yes, this toy lets your child unleash his need to pound things, but it also has the potential to reinforce some basic lessons in counting and color identification.
Guidecraft Grippies Builders, $42, Amazon.com
With this set of magnetic shapes, kids get an early introduction to engineering concepts and the chance to come up with creative 3-D builds. Plus, the soft-grip material makes them perfect for kids’ small hands.
Skoolzy Nuts and Bolts Building Toy , $33, Amazon.com
Your toddler may be too young for shop class, but this child-friendly building kit can keep them busy in the meantime. The set contains an assortment of wheels, cubes, blocks, washers, bolts and various building pieces—basically, everything they need to construct whatever structure they can dream of.
Quercetti Saxoflute , $13, Amazon.com
This ingenious toy combines two of your toddler’s greatest loves—making noise and building things. The Saxoflute comes in 16 pieces, which can be assembled in a variety of ways to create all sorts of instruments (and sounds!). Parents liken it to “having your own wacky instrument from a Dr. Seuss book” and rave how their children love blowing into their creation and discovering what interesting sounds come out.
Best STEM toys for preschoolers
“As kids get over the age of 2, they may become interested in reading, talking about objects they read about and creating stories around it,” Yogman says. “It’s good to have objects in the home that they can explore and relate to what they’re reading, such as more sophisticated blocks for building bridges or skyscrapers.”
Some of the best STEM toys for preschoolers:
Magformers Magic Pop Construction Set , $60, ToysRUs.com
Unlike many construction toys, Magformers lets your child build their creation flat on the floor first and then raise up the pieces so they come together three dimensionally. And this set’s 25 magnet shapes—plus wheels!—can be configured to make anything from a house to a butterfly to a race car.
Learning Resources Jumbo Magnifiers , $28 for set of 6, Amazon.com
“Chemistry sets and microscopes for very young children are totally premature,” Cohen says. A better choice: a magnifying glass that’s easy to hold and shatterproof. It will encourage your budding scientist to get up close and personal with nature, even if it’s just watching an army of ants in the backyard.
Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar , $36, Amazon.com
This high-tech caterpillar introduces your preschooler to the basic idea of coding and programming. By rearranging the caterpillar’s body segments, your child can make it move in any direction.
LeapFrog Count Along Register , $20, BarnesandNoble.com
Dramatic play with a little STEM education on the side? This pint-size cash register delivers on both. Preschoolers can scan items as the talking keyboard counts and lights up. It’ll also announce how many items were scanned and how many coins the shopper must put into the slot. Encourage your preschooler to count as you insert each coin.