STEM Toys for Children: A Parent’s Guide

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Emily Smith

By Emily Smith

July 6, 2023

Playtime might be fun and entertaining, but it’s hardly frivolous. In fact, play is essential for kids to foster imagination, creativity, confidence, problem-solving, and many more lifelong skills. 

Add STEM toys to the mix, and playtime becomes a laboratory where serious discovery occurs—and it can help kids ignite a passion for learning that sticks with them throughout their education and into adulthood.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. On the surface, these might sound like complex topics better reserved for a structured classroom setting and professional teachers. But STEM toys for kids can help make home a place for exploring and building new skills.

How STEM Toys Help Kids Advance

Research shows children’s play is critical to learning, and STEM play has been found to enhance kids’ understanding of STEM concepts, increase their problem-solving and communication skills, and help them develop critical thinking skills.  

Maria Shaheen, Senior Director of Early Childhood Education at Primrose Schools, says the lessons children learn from STEM play are far reaching. 

“As children engage with science, technology, engineering, and math, they are also building a strong foundation for learning in all subjects,” she says. “STEM toys and activities promote cognitive, language, physical, social, and emotional development in children, helping to build a strong foundation for future learning.” 

On a practical level, children can learn and practice many math and science skills through STEM play. A play store set or cash register, for example, gives kids experience with basic arithmetic, while making slime can teach kids basic chemistry concepts. 

As children become more familiar with basic concepts, STEM toys also provide the chance to develop and practice skills that will be necessary for success in school. 

“The skills children learn when engaging with STEM concepts at a young age are transferable and useful across many aspects of their lives,” Shaheen says. “For example, process skills, which include making observations, hypothesizing, and critical thinking, are basic skills for math and science but are also valuable skills for learning any subject.”

On top of those practical skills, STEM toys and activities can inspire curiosity, an investigative spirit, and a love for discovery. Those are qualities that children can put to use in the classroom, in their future careers, and in overcoming countless obstacles.

“The problem-solving skills children learn through experimentation and design thinking can be used to solve increasingly more complex problems throughout their lives,” Shaheen says.

STEM Toys Range From Simple to Complex 

So what exactly counts as a STEM toy or activity? The range of STEM toys is vast, in terms of both cost and complexity. On the simpler end, remember that tons of common objects are the tools of discovery for the youngest learners.

“For young children, science encourages investigation, asking and answering questions, and often involves experimentation,” Shaheen says. “Technology refers to using simple tools like crayons and rulers, as well as more complex ones like microscopes and computers. Engineering refers to recognizing problems and testing solutions. Mathematics deals with numbers, but also patterns, shapes, organizational skills, and much more.”

Simple STEM Toys

Classic toys such as wooden blocks can be excellent STEM toys for learning basic math and engineering skills while also practicing creativity and imaginative play. Many other building sets also fall into this category, including LEGOs and MAGNA-TILEs, a colorful, magnetic toy set that can be designed into a variety of three-dimensional shapes, buildings, and scenes.

Experiments are another popular STEM activity that kids can enjoy from an early age. For young kids, experiments might be as simple as making an egg float in water, or creating a sundial in the backyard, or—for a real wow factor and a lesson in chemical reaction—making your own volcanic eruption.

Ideas for Deeper STEM Exploration

If your child loves experimentation and hands-on learning, DIY and subscription kits can help you dive into novel and more elaborate projects with all the necessary tools and guidance in hand. CircuitMess offers subscription boxes with projects to suit your child’s age and interests, such as electronics or coding. Their Wacky Robots subscription, for example, includes a robot character to build each month while learning engineering basics like how capacitors work or building with intentionally unbalanced motors.

Kid-friendly equipment for tech and science projects can also lead to hours of discovery—consider tools like a microscope, rock tumbler (a machine that polishes rocks into “gems”), or chemistry set. 

How to Get Kids Excited About STEM 

So you want to get your kid interested in STEM play, but you’re finding it tough to convince them STEM activities can actually be fun. Here are a few tips to try: 

1. Tackle a STEM project or activity together 

If you have the time—or if your child has a grandparent, neighbor, or friend who’s game—choose a STEM project that you can work on together. Emphasize that this isn’t a chore or a formal learning session; this is a special activity that you’ll approach as a team. In the end, you’ll both get to enjoy the reward of accomplishment.  

2. Make it a creative challenge

Crush boredom with an open-ended STEM activity, and see what your kid can come up with. One idea: Invite your children to make the longest paper chain possible using only one sheet of paper. The goal here is to experiment and think creatively. 

3. Build off your child’s current interests

Seek STEM activities that relate to your kid’s existing passions. Does your kid love dinosaurs? Try a fossil kit that allows you to dig up a model T-Rex. Video games? Look for a coding-based activity like CircuitMess.  Ocean life—or mermaids, as the case may be? Check out a colorful, moldable sand-based toy, or look for toys related to water play.

Above all, keep activities fun and hands-on, and encourage your kids to be curious and use their imagination. Over time, as they build confidence with STEM activities, you might see their excitement carry over into the classroom and beyond. 

If the idea of adding STEM play to your child’s day feels overwhelming, either because of the cost or time involved, remember that you can keep it simple. Many STEM activities can be designed around everyday items you already have at home, and your child may already be learning basic STEM concepts from some of their existing toys. Check online resources for STEM activities that are affordable, age-appropriate, and easy to set up.

The Bottom Line

When children play, they’re doing more than whiling away an afternoon or having fun with friends. They’re learning, developing, and practicing new skills. You can help your child gain even more from playtime with toys and activities designed to teach STEM skills and spark their curiosity to keep exploring. 

A good place to start:

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