Albert Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” When it comes to kids learning through play, the old fashioned way of showing kids how to use a toy or kids learning through reading instead of experiencing has faded away in the wake of a new (and more effective) type of learning called STEM play.
STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” (also known as STEAM if you include art in there as well).
Far before your child knows how to do math or completes science projects, STEM skills are developed naturally in babies and toddlers by exploring and learning about the world. (Source – Baby Savers)
Bright Hub Education explained each element of STEM very well:
- “Science is a way of thinking
through experiments, observation, making predictions, asking questions,
and deciding how things work.
- Technology is a way of doing. With
learning tools, kids become inventive, identify problems, and make things
- Engineering is also a way of
doing. A child can solve problems with a variety of materials – they
design and create. Little learners build things that work.
- Math is a way of measuring. Preschoolers explore shapes, size, volume, and learn about patterns and sequencing.” (Source – Bright Hub Education)
What are the benefits of STEM learning?
- STEM gets kids excited to learn.
- STEM is all about curiosity which strengthens the brain.
- STEM teaches kids to fail – and that it’s okay!
- STEM prepares kids for today’s technology.
- STEM fosters creativity and the imagination.
- STEM promotes independent play – let your child lead and see what they discover on their own.
- STEM helps kids relate to the world around them.
- STEM helps kids with memory retention.
- STEM better prepares kids for school.
STEM learning does not mean a complicated DIY science experiment where you need a ton of time and materials. It can be as simple as going outside in nature with your child.
Ask “What” questions when exploring:
are those ants doing?
What shape is that rock?
What is on the branch?
What is under the rock?
What do you see in the sky?
For babies, try to not say “no” often and instead let your baby explore more freely. For example, our son used to get into this cupboard in the kitchen that was located on the ground level (all the other cabinets had safety locks), but this particular cupboard was filled with old baby bottles, plastic containers, lids, and things like this so we left it unlocked.
Our son LOVED opening this cupboard and taking out everything inside and then he would even climb in the cupboard and play in there (the door was always open). Yes, it made a huge mess on the kitchen floor, but instead of saying “no,” we allowed him to play and explore. Afterwards, I just cleaned it up – no big deal.
This cupboard would keep him entertained for a good 45 minutes! With a baby’s short attention span, this was amazing and proves that STEM activities and toys are more engaging for kids.
For toddlers, STEM gets even more fun when we can talk with our kids, listen to what they have to say, and watch them imagine and figure things out.
Stemsational is a fabulous blog about STEM activities for kids.
“STEM projects for toddlers help children explore a variety of thinking skills that boost both their creativity, logic, spacial awareness, fine motor skills, and gross motor skills. Toddlers who engage these systems, versus toddlers who largely learn from screens an immobile activities have a huge advantage once they reach school-age.” (Source – Steamsational)
In addition to DIY STEM learning, STEM toys are really important because these are the best toys that will help your child develop and learn instead of just sitting around collecting dust.
Take a minute to think about your child’s top three favorite toys. I bet they are interactive in some way, right? We just donated two trash bags of toys to our son’s pre-school because we noticed he only played with three main toys:
- His cars / hot wheels (he loves to line them up and one by one he looks at each car carefully, it’s really cute. Especially when he says, “Look, Camero!” or “Mama, Hummer!” Also, he sorts all his cars by color in piles)
- Building blocks
- Lincoln logs
Baby Savers published an amazing list of ideas and activities for parents to refer to when choosing STEM toys:
“Seek out toys that encourage one or more of the following ideas or activities:
- Sequencing (putting things in order)
- Speed and distance
- Cause and effect
- Identifying shapes, numbers and/or letters
- Spatial sense
- Problem solving
- Building or balancing” (Source – Baby Savers)
Additionally, here are some great tips to follow when introducing your baby / toddler to STEM toys:
- Keep it simple.
- Avoid technology.
- Don’t use battery operated toys which tend to guide the child on how to play instead of the child exploring and learning on their own.
- Avoid teaching.
- Make it fun.
- Talk together.
- Follow your child’s imagination – there’s no right or wrong way!
- Switch it up a bit – dad can be cooking and mom can be mowing the lawn.
Here are our top five STEM toys for babies and toddlers:
#1 People Blocks – Magnetic Building Blocks
People Blocks are GENIUS and it’s cool that their toy designer is the brainchild designer of the -world-famous Magna -Tiles. These magnetic blocks get babies and toddlers building earlier and learning while having fun. This is the epitome of STEM play.
“Most toys today are designed to only keep the attention span of a child for a short period. We are changing that by creating toys that grow with your child, not outgrown by your child like you typically see,” says Rudy Valenta, CEO of People Toy Company (aka People).
Throughout the toy development process, People looked for ways to take the developmental milestones acknowledged by the medical community around the world and find clever ways to incorporate the skill development in play. They have their own private studies and research with parent groups and child industry experts to ensure their toys are not only fun but have high play value with STEM features.
Their newest People Blocks collection are their Working Cars, a magnetic click and stick car set with 18 new automotive inspired shapes. Your child can build cars and discover how to fit the blocks together to build different shapes. Remember with STEM there is no right or wrong and it’s all about discovery.
Another new People Blocks set we love are the Zoo Animals Clear Magnetic Blocks – perfect for light tables and a fun way to explore colors and light. This set comes with 17 new creature inspired shapes.
#2 Puzzle and Geometric Lacing Toys by Manzanita Kids (Merged with Little Sapling Toys)
We love toys from Manzanita Kids because:
- Natural wooden toys – no icky toxins!
- Made in the USA – Seattle, WA.
- For every toy sold, they plant a tree…100,000 trees so far!
- Wide array of toys for babies, toddlers and big kids.
- High quality – toys that last and can be passed down.
For younger babies the Natural Shapes Puzzle toy is a great way to introduce STEM play.
- Handmade four-piece wood puzzle
- Solid wood – maple, cherry and walnut
- Finished with our homemade organic, natural jojoba oil/beeswax finish.
- Simple, modern, natural and waldorf-inspired fun.
- Solving puzzles helps children develop problem-solving skills, spatial reasoning, and builds their confidence!
For older kids (3 years old and up), this geometric lace toy really gets kids thinking and focusing!
#3 Kiddybrain Matching Eggs
They say this is a great Easter gift and we agree, but my son loves playing with this year round. Kids love anything to do with food. These eggs are not just any eggs though. Once opened, tiny shapes are revealed and to put the egg back together the child must match the extending shape with the shape hole from the other egg half.
#4 Bug Catching Magnetic Puzzle Game by Melissa & Doug
I love watching my son play with this toy. There’s a bug net with a magnet at the end of a string and when it touches on of the bugs, the puzzle piece comes out. Once all are out, he then fits all the pieces back in the right place.
At first, my son realized the magnet on the string would not easily go to where he grabbed the magnet at the bottom and placed it on the puzzle piece. Instead of me saying, “that’s not how you are supposed to use it” I said, “that was smart of you to realize you had to hold close to the magnet to get it where you want faster. This is an easy way of doing it. Now let’s try the harder way. Try with one hand only holding the fishing pole and I know you can do it with just a little bit of patience.”
So he then tried again and slowly lowered the magnet on the string as it swung back and forth. As he lowered it more, it finally clicked on to the magnet. He was so excited he did it with only one hand.
#5 Bettroom Geometric Shape and Color Board
I love this toy because it has many levels of learning. First, there are the shapes, then the colors, and lasting the peg holes that kids must fit the shape on in order to stack on the board.
- Encourages hand-eye coordination and imaginative play
- Great for 1 -5 year olds
- NON-TOXIC and safe to use
- Stacking blocks contains 20 pieces
STEM play is not just a hype word; it’s a very important part of how our kids should be learning on a daily basis. Remember that STEM play can be done using anything around you like nature, a bunch of empty dishes that fit into one another or have covers that snap on, to more advanced STEM play using the best developmental toys for babies and toddlers.
By introducing STEM play early on, your child will be ahead of the curve when they go to preschool and school so get out and get your STEM on!