Are you looking for quality STEM toys for your toddler — toys that will nurture an interest in science, technology, engineering, or math? Some of the best STEM toys are actually the simplest toys. Electronic toys that are labeled as educational often do not provide the early STEM educational benefits that simple toys can provide. In fact, studies suggest that electronic toys that make noise, light up, talk, and play music can inhibit communication between the child and the parent or caregiver.
When a child plays with an electronic toy, he tends to tune out other things and people in the room. Adults tend to interact with the child less as a result. Therefore, the best STEM toys are not necessarily electronic toys. And that makes sense, because early STEM education is not actually not about the electronics and tablets and screens. Rather, it is about exploring, creating, learning, testing, critical thinking, and innovating — all of which can be fostered at a young age.
Perhaps most importantly, remember to talk to your child all day long to help him process the new information he learns. Studies show that the best predictor of future academic skills is the quantity and quality of personal interactions between a child and their parent or caregiver. It’s not just about STEM exposure; it’s about the adults that foster STEM exposure and the personal interactions that take place.
Let’s take a look at some toys that encourage important social interactions and early STEM skills.
Simple toys that encourage a child to build creatively are always a hit with kids. LEGO offers a wide range of toys for multiple ages. For example, LEGO idea sets offer some of the most challenging projects. For younger kids, you may want to consider a LEGO-compatible table for free imaginative play (and easy storage, too). K’Nex are another line of buildable toys that offer something fun for all ages.
If you’re shopping for a baby or toddler, you may want to start with something even simpler, such as a set of stacking blocks. The mere act of creating simple structures plants the seed for important math and geometry skills as babies experiment with shapes and sizes and use trial and error to assemble and fit objects together.
Building blocks are great for older children, too, and you can make playtime even more challenging by introducing additional concepts. For example, ask the child to build a simple a pyramid and then knock it down. Next, ask the child to replicate the structure from memory. See if he is able to use his engineering skills to figure it out.
Playing with construction materials is also a great way to introduce STEM vocabulary. Talk about the sizes and shapes of the blocks and structures. Talk about what is bigger, smaller, wider, thinner. For older children, verbally direct them to build structures using spatial terms. You could say, “Stack the red block on top of the blue block. Then, put the triangle beside the blue square.” See if they can identify the shapes by name, follow simple directions, and sequence the activity.
A child who plays with an electronic toy that makes noises is likely to have 67 fewer interactions with his parent per hour than a child who plays with a more traditional non-electronic toy, according to a study by Sosa published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Water play is great for early STEM education, and there are several inexpensive toys that lend themselves to this activity. Items such as eye droppers, turkey basters, stacking cups, measuring cups, measuring spoons, and small plastic toys are great for water play. These toys can be brought into the bathtub or used in a baby pool outside, in the kitchen sink, or in a basin on the floor.
During water play, encourage younger children to fill containers and dump them out. Talk about volume, and use words such as full and empty. You could build on this activity by filling small cups with water, then using food coloring to dye the water different colors. In so doing, you will introduce a whole new world of science by mixing colors!
Encourage older children to make predictions or hypotheses during water play. For example, you could mix two colors together to see if the water turns the predicted color. Include a cup of milk for a base color.
Books are great for teaching early STEM skills. Begin reading to babies as soon as they are born — or even before they are born, as a baby can hear Mommy’s voice resonate through her body in utero. While reading, incorporate math concepts by counting items on the page. Touch each item with your finger to teach your child that each number represents an item. Say, “There are three kitty cats on this page. Let’s count them. One, two, three.”
You can also use books to explore things that are similar or different and to point out patterns. Perhaps you could look at a picture and say, “This man is wearing a hat; this man is not. The next man is wearing a hat; the man after him is not. That makes a pattern.”
Books can also be used to hone the scientific skill of making predictions. For example, you can ask your child what she thinks will happen on the next page. Then, read the next page to find out if she’s right.
In addition to construction sets, water toys, and books, there are lots of toys on today’s market that encourage STEM skills.