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Do STEM toys actually teach kids science and math?

With a rocky year of pandemic-related educational disruptions ahead, many parents are looking for ways to help their kids learn at home. Toys advertised as teaching STEM might seem like one way to fill the gap. But do they really work?

The answer is yes, research shows that toys can indeed teach science, technology, engineering and math concepts — but don’t focus on advertising or fancy labels to find the best bets. There’s no minimum educational requirement that toys must reach to label themselves a “STEM toy,” so almost everything on the market is untested. Instead, experts say, look for toys that encourage open-ended, active play and problem-solving. Some proven winners? Tinkertoys, board games, decks of cards and building blocks

Related: The best STEM toys of 2020

“If I had a huge amount of money, I would donate it to getting a nice classic set of hardwood blocks for every child on Earth,” said Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, a professor emeritus at the Center for Early Childhood Play at Eastern Connecticut University. “The things we’ve seen children do — they use language, they do pretend play. [Blocks] are just magical toys.”

Trawick-Smith’s work is part of a large body of research showing that creative, open-ended play is how young children learn STEM concepts. In preschool, for example, the construction of complex block buildings is associated with an improvement in math learning, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Early Childhood Research. Blocks, puzzles and shape toys boost spatial skills, according to a 2014 review article in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education. Spatial skills, in turn, are associated with later math learning, suggesting that the early exploration of shapes acts as a springboard for more complex math concepts.

There are five characteristics that make for a good educational toy, said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University who studies learning in early childhood. The toy should be active, not passive like watching something on a screen. It should be engaging, encouraging the child to get into a flow of activity rather than distracting them with bells and whistles that interrupt their concentration. It should be meaningful, giving the child control and agency over play. It should encourage or allow for social play. And finally, it should be fun.

“One of the really cool things about everyday good, old-fashioned play is that it has these characteristics built in,” Hirsh-Pasek said. 

Toys that allow children to build and create also have the advantage of being renewable, Hirsh-Pasek said. They’re different every time children return to them, meaning that kids don’t become bored of them easily.

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