STEM is the latest buzzword in science education. Over the past three years, so much of science instruction and educational toy invention have been focused on the four parts of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.) And STEM definitely has its benefits when it comes to teaching and toy creation. It encompasses many different types of learning, appeals to all different types of students, and fosters a passion for science, tech, and math in children. But this is only when STEM is done the right way.
STEM’s Open-Ended Nature
As many benefits as there are to having children play with STEM based toys, there is a downside. STEM toys can be too open-ended. Contrary to common assumption, too much freedom and open-endedness may bewilder, instead of excite children.
While it is important to let children use their imagination during play, lack of challenge and structure can actually decrease the growth in certain areas. It is only through challenging, structured play that children build strong critical thinking skills.
Solutions to Improve STEM
One thing that can be done to improve STEM is adding structured activities into play. Open ended play is great for younger children, but older kids who benefit from STEM also benefit from structure.
Brain break, thinking-activities can be the solution when there’s an adult to guide the way. One fun game is called “Alphabetize ASAP”. To play this game, look around the room and find (or think of) a word with five to seven letters. For example, you might come up with the word “caution.” Next, you spell it (or write it) again in alphabetical order “a-c-i-n-o-t-u”. These mental jumping jacks with help kids get out of normal thinking and into higher-order reasoning.
Another game you can try is called Speed Stacking Cups. This learning challenge mixes science, math, engineering, and tech. You can get all of the instructions and rules by clicking on the link, but the gist includes splitting kids into teams (or letting them try individually) and having them build a pyramid using all of the tools they are given. This includes plastic cups, straws, string, a cotton ball, a rubber band, and a Lego figure. The children are able to get as creative as they want, but because they have to follow a few rules, they are challenged.
STEM Plus Interaction
Another great way to strengthen STEM is to use technology to carefully balance open-ended and rule-bound gameplay. One great example is the OSMO. This game system is amazing because it has the perfect mix of STEM power, creativity, open-ended play, and rule-bound gaming.
Coding Awbie is an excellent play option because it uses fun to grow logic and problem-solving skills in children 5-12. With this tech-friendly game, kids are introduced to coding through a strawberry eating monsterlike character. The game is so fun and interactive, kids don’t even realize they are learning while the play! The game is hands-on and can be played by multiple users, encouraging cooperation as they assemble sequences together.
Another great thing about OSMO is that you can use it with an existing iPhone or iPad, so it’s not only useful but also affordable. In the words of Steve Jobs, “Everybody should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.”
A second STEM-based toy that helps build kids’ thinking muscles is Snap Circuits. This discovery kit includes 101 different electronic-based projects for children to build. There are only 30 pieces (snaps, wires, switches etc.,) but they are interchangeable, allowing for lots of play with just one compact set. Things your children can create using Snap Circuits easy-to-follow directions include a sound-activated switch, a voice-controlled lamp, a ringing doorbell, and even a police siren with a light!
My startup, Play-A-Maze, is developing a technology to make STEM more interesting to children by bringing the best from traditional and digital gameplay. Our first toy – interactive puzzle maze – offers an innovative way to play with smartphone that takes traditional puzzle gameplay to the next level.
Kids will simply place a smartphone into the toy enclosure that consists of moving maze sections made from gears. Inserted smartphone runs an app that generates exciting, interactive puzzle challenges that require players to operate gears to collect points. The toy is a unique blend of traditional puzzle maze and mobile gaming that teaches basic mechanics while developing thinking, problem solving, and cognition skills.
Our puzzle toy maximizes developmental benefits while offering exciting gameplay because it is not completely open-ended. Since a lack of rules can make play too vague, Play-A-Maze offers the best of both worlds – the in-game challenges in our puzzle use developed rules to make the gameplay more interesting and help focus children’s attention on the skills that will enable them to succeed in school and the workplace.
Unlike vague open-ended STEM activities, carefully crafted interactive assignments/problems guide children and create meaningful ways to experience trial and error, learn how to take risks, and figure out how to really “think outside the box” for a clear and desired goal. The end goal for your child? Stronger critical thinking skills!
Craving to learn more about STEM, puzzles and toys? Check out my other articles on LinkedIn.