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Childhood is that magical time when learning is play, and we’re only limited by our imagination. It’s also a time when we as parents have the opportunity to nurture our children’s curiosity and provide them with strong foundations for future structured learning at school.
In an increasingly technological world, there is no doubt that being competent in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is highly beneficial. What many people don’t realize, however, is that foundational learning for these fields begins in early childhood.
Research shows that young children are capable of engaging at a developmentally appropriate level in the same scientific practices as high school students. Young children can make observations and predictions, carry out simple experiments and investigations, collect data, and begin to make sense of their findings.
Children learn through discovery, and when they play, toddlers and preschoolers often exhibit the same characteristics as scientists and engineers: exploring, taking things apart to figure out how they work, trying new things, and interacting with their environment. While a lot of what our children learn happens organically while they interact with the world around them, we can supplement this learning with the introduction of engineering and other STEM toys.
What are STEM toys?
STEM toys are toys that utilize science, technology, engineering, and math concepts to engage kids and encourage them to take a hands-on approach to tasks and challenges. These toys introduce kids to many core concepts in a way that is fun and exciting.
Why are STEM toys important?
Apart from the obvious reason of introducing children to STEM concepts, these toys are important for many other reasons, such as:
- They instill confidence and dispel the negative perception that STEM is difficult.
- They break down barriers to learning and challenge stereotypes.
- They make learning new concepts fun.
- They promote cognitive development.
- They appeal to all kinds of kids.
- They provide opportunities for family interaction.
What are the benefits of engineering toys in relation to STEM?
Most engineering toys are comprised of many components. If your child loves taking things apart and reassembling them or enjoys creating new things, then toys that encourage and teach engineering skills are an ideal choice.
Engineering toys are designed to develop many skills, including creativity, intellectual curiosity, problem-solving, analytical and critical thinking, and perseverance. Moreover, these toys develop hand-eye coordination and promote spatial skills, which are essential when working in the STEM field.
Engineering toys for toddlers provide age-appropriate opportunities to assemble items and experiment with moving parts. Toys for kids of this age are usually colorful and easy to hold. Toys like Jumbo Nuts and Bolts improve concentration, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and fine motor skills. They can be used as sorting toys, learning tools for colors and shapes, or part of a workbench for imaginative play.
Building toys for kids
Building blocks are in many ways the literal “building blocks” of early engineering skills. As toddlers play with these construction toys, they begin to experiment with concepts like balance, gravity, and assembly. They hone their fine motor skills and learn to use their imagination and follow instructions. They also learn differentiation as they build with blocks of different shapes and sizes.
Construction toys for kids become more complex as the children get older, allowing them to experiment with things such as moving parts, robotics, and electronics.
Choosing engineering toys for your child
It’s important to remember that most engineering toys are made of multiple parts or components. It is therefore essential to follow the safety guidelines and age recommendations when buying these toys for your child. Small parts may pose a choking hazard, and some toys are recommended for older children because they require a certain level of dexterity for assembly or use.
Ensure that the toys are well made and don’t have any unnecessary sharp edges or broken parts. Where assembly is required, make sure the instructions are clear. If your child is younger, you may have to assist them in reading the instructions or carrying out the task.
7 types of engineering toys for kids
There is a variety of toys that can promote curiosity and engagement in your kids. While not every child is a budding engineer or scientist, engineering toys have multiple benefits, including the development of critical thinking and reasoning skills and the improvement of fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Here is a list of 7 types of engineering toys-from basic building blocks to more complex toys that use mechanics or electronics.
1. LEGO building kits
LEGO is a toy that has no upper age limit. Easy-to-handle, large brick LEGO kits are great for toddlers from the age of 18 months. Children aged 4 and above will love the LEGO Classic Large Creative Brick Box—a 790-piece starter kit that is ideal for free-building projects.
As their confidence grows, your kids may want to tackle a building kit where they follow instructions to build a specific item, such as the LEGO City Holiday Camper Van.
Safety warning: LEGO pieces are small and may pose a choking hazard. Follow the age guidelines on the product and supervise use by small children.
2. Building sets for kids
STEM building sets are slightly more complex than standard building blocks and incorporate science, engineering, and technology principles.
Kids First products by Thames and Kosmos are a great introduction to engineering principles with kits like the Automobile Engineer kit for kids over 3 and the Engineering Design kit for older children.
Construction kits such as the Stem Learning kit from IQ Builder demonstrate concepts such as geometry, physics, and mathematics, and are suitable for kids from elementary school age right through to adults in college. The kits include instruction books for different skills levels and promote critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.
Safety warning: Building kits often have small parts and are a choking hazard. They are not suitable for children under 3.
3. Engineering kits for kids
There are a number of engineering kits that allow children to learn how engineers use their knowledge to design machines and devices. This First Intro to Engineering Kit includes building moving machines, experimenting with engineering in water, and finding engineering in your own home.
Safety warning: This kit is suitable for children aged over 8 as it contains small parts and balloons which may pose a choking hazard, as well as functional sharp points or edges. Adult supervision is required.
4. Mechanical engineering toys
Mechanical engineering toys such as gear toys for toddlers and motorized building sets introduce concepts such as kinetics (motion) and improve hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and spatial awareness.
Safety warning: These toys should be used under adult supervision. Small parts are a choking hazard.
5. Chain reaction toys
Chain reaction toys such as the Think Fun Gravity Maze develop critical thinking, logic, spatial reasoning, and planning skills. Kids can use their imagination to build their own custom marble runs. The game includes multi-level challenges, which makes it an ideal family toy.
The Think Fun Gravity Maze is recommended for children aged 8+. Since it contains a marble and a small ball as well as small parts, it poses a choking hazard to young children.
6. Electronic and circuitry toys
The Elsky Electronics Discovery Kit and the Elenco Snap Circuits Junior Kit give kids the opportunity to learn about electric circuits. The kits include real circuit components and clear instruction manuals for many different projects.
Safety warning: These toys are designed for older children (ages 8+) as small parts may be a choking hazard.
7. Robotic toys
Robotic toys combine many aspects of building and mechanical engineering toys with sensors, computers, and motors. These toys usually interact intelligently with their environment and may provide kids with the opportunity to also do some coding.
Robotic toys can be simple, such as the Critter Bot Vibrating Robot Tinker Kit, or more complex and suitable for older children, such as this 4M Table Top Robot.
Safety warning: These items have small parts and are not suitable for small children.
By introducing your children to age-appropriate STEM toys early, you are encouraging them to remain curious and empowering them with the acquisition of skills and competencies they will need for STEM subjects at school. Despite the misconception that STEM isn’t for everyone, by providing your kids with opportunities to engage with STEM concepts while having fun, you are laying a strong foundation for life-long learning.