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STEM Done the Right Way: How to Add Structure and Skill to Gameplay

STEM Done the Right Way: How to Add Structure and Skill to Gameplay 400 300 Leon Shafir

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.

Leonid Shafir

Picking up STEAM: Boosting creativity through art-based play

Picking up STEAM: Boosting creativity through art-based play 400 300 Leon Shafir

Perhaps Pablo Picasso said it best when he said, “Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” Creativity is one of the most important qualities we possess, yet many never allow themselves to fully express it.

Types of Creativity

Psychology Today writer Mark Batey (PHD) called it the essential skillset for the future. IBM named it as the number one leadership trait for the years ahead. So, what is creativity exactly? Webster calls it the ability to make new things or think of new ideas. Oxford adds in the word imagination. The truth is creativity is a matrix.

The first type, Thomas Edison, is developed when you are working on tasks that require deliberate focus and attention. These activities have to be connected to past learning and require the type of thinking that allowed Thomas Edison to create a functioning lightbulb after failing hundreds of times.

The second type of creativity, the Therapeutic A-ha moment is also a deliberately focused type of creativity. Activities that encourage this type of creativity, like journaling, help both children and adults have personal breakthroughs when it comes to their feelings.

Which brings us to the third type of creativity, Newton and the Apple. Like the falling apple, creativity here is gained when knowledge meets luck.

The final type of creativity is the type that we are most comfortable with. Like an epiphany, musicians and artists traditionally display this type of originality.

Getting Creative Juices Flowing

If creativity is so important, why does it seem like today’s generation is lacking it? In short, creativity is no longer encouraged.

Forgotten by many parents and no longer a focus in schools, children have very few creative outlets in today’s society. Art and music are rarely offered in elementary schools, reading and math outshine science, and test taking skills are taught in place of creative problem solving. Furthermore, few of the purchases made by millennial parents for their children are geared toward increasing creativity.

Thankfully, there are easy and fun ways to preserve and further develop creativity during and past childhood. It simply requires a mind that is willing to think outside of the box and a heart that is open to possibility. One such way is to buy STEAM based products and encourage STEAM based play/activities.

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math. All types of creativity can be encouraged through STEAM based toys and activities and a quick Google search will provide endless options.

One great product to help your child hone in on their “Edison” skills is the Coding Awbie which uses problem solving to introduce children to coding. Because its technology based, this game will peak the interest of both boys and girls. Also, its educational and teaches much needed tech skills for this ever evolving world.

Snap Circuits Pro by Mindware is another toy that helps build Edison thinking and creativity skills. In this small box, there are over 500 projects with 75 pieces. This includes an integrated circuit for a digital voice recorder, FM radio module, analog meter, relay, transformer and even a 7-segment LED display! Like Edison with the light bulb, kids can try the projects over and over again until they get them right.

Another great product is Lakeshore’s problem solving kit. This set helps grow Newton style creativity as it requires students to think outside of the box to help their favorite characters from traditional fairytales. With each problem-solving kit, children can work together on engineering projects such as how to build a troll bridge for the billy goats or at house for the little pigs.

A second toy that works on building Newton Style creative muscle is Brain Builders by Keva. With this STEM toy, children are expected to convert 2D diagrams into 3d structures. Once all of the structures have been mastered, children can use their thinking skills to come up with new architectural designs.

For older kids and teens, Laura Ginsberg’s I AM journal can help grow creativity types two and four. Listing, writing, drawing, and responding to emotion based prompts can help young journals make emotional connections in a unique way. The journal allows young people to list, doodle, write, color, and dream, all while working on self-discovery.

Imagination Patterns by Mindware are a great option for younger children who are just now getting their creative juices flowing. Like a puzzle, children can use these magnetic pieces to create a picture outlined on a card in the case. But the interesting part is that they don’t have to follow a pattern if they don’t want to! Instead, they can create their own objects. This toy mixes several types of creativity together, making it a great choice for parents and teachers. There are other perks to Imagination Patterns as well, like the fact that they promote fine motor skills, spatial relation, and concentration.

If you have a budding artist on your hands, Brain Flakes by Best Choice Products is a great option. Like the Keva Blocks, children working with Brain Flakes can build 3D structures. But these discs offer a different twist because of their unique shape and colors. Because it is budget friendly, this toy is a great one to use as a STEAM introduction.

There are endless toys and activities that encourage creativity and problem-solving skills in children, but we as parents and educators have to provide the opportunity. Regardless of what type you are trying to foster, the resources are out there. Check out this page to find more STEAM based toys and this one for creativity building activities. But most importantly, keep encouraging your Picasso to find his creative side!

Irresistible Brain Teasers – Brief History (and Near Future) of Puzzles

Irresistible Brain Teasers – Brief History (and Near Future) of Puzzles 400 300 Leon Shafir

Meaning ‘bewilder’ or ‘confound’, the word ‘puzzle ‘dates back to the 16th century. Though the art of puzzle making may be even more ancient, it was during this time that the first jigsaw puzzle was made.

In 1767, when both the U.S. and Canada were nothing more than colonies, a European mapmaker named John Spilsbury was working to help children learn geography through play. His creation, known as “Dissected Maps”, was the first of its kind.

1800s, solving jigsaws moved from being just a children’s activity to a pastime for wealthy adults. By the 20th century, mass production allowed puzzles to make their way across the Atlantic. Now, they are household staples.

Benefits of puzzles to players

But are puzzles for play only? Or could it be that they offer cognitive and physical benefits that would make John Spilsbury proud?

It’s true, there are benefits. The biggie: puzzles strengthen the brain. Figur8, a whole child based educational organization, holds the advantages to be sevenfold. In general, puzzle have been proven to:

  • enhance visual perception and coordination
  • increase memory and critical thinking
  • foster creativity and interesting ideas
  • strengthen dopamine (“the happy hormone”) production

As author Shelley Webb explains in her article on jigsaw benefits to the brain, puzzles are able to engage the brain and strengthen its ability to retain information based on shapes and colors.

The person completing the puzzle is required to choose pieces that will fit together properly, with the hunt for each piece requiring your brain to memorize what each shape looks like.

This not only reinforces short-term memory but also builds focused eyesight and hand-eye coordination as each piece is placed. The right brain (creative side) is strengthened as the left brain (analytical) works to solve the problem. During this “best of both worlds” activity, pleasure hormones such as dopamine are released as each correct piece is connected.

Emerging puzzle toy trends

In 2016-2017, there was a move towards integrating older toys with newer technology. Though this didn’t necessarily since the classic jigsaws still reign supreme. Still, 2018 may see a change in the types of puzzles that are being purchased by parents.

Fidget Puzzles

In 2017, fidget toys were all the rage and it seems as if many toymakers will extend this trend into 2018 with the combining of hands on objects and problem-solving puzzles (think Rubik’s Cube). The great thing? They include all of the traditional benefits while strengthening spatial reasoning as well as logic.

Two great examples for kids are the Cube-tastic and the Gear Ball Brainteaser Puzzle. Both provide the hands-on opportunities of a traditional puzzle but with a 3D twist.

Travel Puzzles

One of the drawbacks of traditional jigsaws is that they have to be completed on a flat space that is wide enough to hold the puzzle until it is completed. For puzzles with lots of pieces, the space challenge is a real one. Many millennial parents are on the go and wouldn’t purchase puzzles for their children because of the inconvenience. This is where travel friendly puzzles are becoming a trend.

Coogam’s Magnetic Travel Tangram Puzzles Book is on Amazon’s toy list for this very reason. The objective of the puzzle is to form a specific shape (given only an outline or silhouette) using all seven pieces, which may not overlap. Because it includes a book and a limited number of magnetic pieces, the toy is easy to keep up with and can be played with anywhere. With 240 different patterns, this travel puzzle includes many different puzzles in one.

Traditional Jigsaw’s with a Twist

Another cutting-edge puzzle trend embraces the traditional concept of a jigsaw and shakes things up a bit with odd shaped pieces.

The Baffler, sold on Amazon, is one such puzzle. As its maker explains, instead of using a recognizable image with, the Baffler’s designs are abstract. Unlike traditional jigsaw’s, each piece is a single color and oddly shaped, requiring the puzzle solver to think “outside of the box” for a solution. But there isn’t just one! Unlike a traditional puzzle, this jigsaw is designed to be solved again and again.

Hybrid Puzzles

One final trend making waves in puzzle-making is the creation of hybrid puzzles. These toys take traditional puzzle play and combine it with digital pieces or gadgets. This is a fad that is much more likely to last as the technology age continues and children crave technology based gameplay.

One company creating innovative toys related to this particular trend is the creators of Osmo. The Osmo game system is used with an iPad or iPhone and combines digital fun with hands on play. There are lots of different kits including the Hot Wheels one pictures above, the Masterpiece kit that teaches drawing and the Newton which fosters creative problem-solving skills. The real pieces add a puzzle-like feel to game play that helps tune fine motor skills along with cognitive reasoning.

My startup, Play-A-Maze, develops another innovative toy 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. But this is not everything! This toy also lets children create their own puzzles to challenge themselves or friends. The possibilities are endless!

Craving to learn more about puzzles and toys? Check out my other articles on LinkedIn.