How today’s toys are preparing our kids for the future

As science, technology, engineering and maths become more integrated into our world, a corresponding emphasis is being placed on teaching our kids about these topics. Part of this has been a huge rise in educational toys over the past decade. Baz Macdonald investigates.

For most of us, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) were not subjects that we really grappled with until high school, except for some basics at primary school. But these days the subjects are being introduced to children as young as pre-school – and with them, a new wave of education, toys and resources that focus on STEM topics.

Over the last decade the government has created several initiatives in an effort to get kids engaged with STEM. A good example is the MBIE-funded Curious Minds, which aims to bolster interest in science and technology through hands-on events for New Zealanders of all ages.

But while we expect kids to learn these skills at school, there’s been a more surprising change in how kids are engaging with these subjects at home. Toy Library Federation of NZ toy buyer Pam Pearce says that though educational toys are far from a new phenomenon, in the last five years there has been a massive surge in products designed to teach and engage kids with STEM principles.

Pearce says this rise is the result of parents recognising that STEM skills are becoming an increasingly integral part of our world. What is a nice-to-have skillset for work now may become an essential skillset for work in the future.

Google STEM toys and you’ll be inundated with kits ranging from simple electronic and model packs all the way to 3D printing systems and programmable robots. While educational toys used to be a niche of the toy market, these days more companies are finding ways to put a STEM spin on their brand. Just this year, video game company Nintendo announced a line of cardboard kits which kids can construct into objects such as pianos and fishing sets, then interact with using the company’s latest console.

But while the STEM label is becoming trendier, Pearce says such play experiences have always been around. Toys such as Lego and Meccano, for instance, have been popular for decades, teaching kids engineering skills without necessarily marketing themselves for that purpose.

In fact, STEM has been a large part of almost everybody’s upbringing without many of us even realising it. Everyday activities such as cooking and cleaning include many aspects of STEM. The difference is that there are now books and other resources which more succinctly outline for kids, and adults, how to understand the science involved.

The STEM new wave

One of the pioneers of this new wave of STEM is our very own world-renowned science communicator Dr. Michelle Dickinson, A.K.A Nanogirl. Dickinson and her team at Nanogirl Labs have been touring the world with their science show for kids, and last Christmas released The Kitchen Science Cookbook. Developed by Dickinson and a team of science communicators, the cookbook gives kids simple kitchen recipes and experiments, and helps them understand the science behind each step in the cooking process.

Michelle Dickinson (centre) and the rest of the The Kitchen Science Cookbook team. Photo: Kickstarter

Dickinson says the idea for the book came from a conversation she had with a mother after one of her science shows. The mother told her she would really love to engage with science with her kids at home, but that she didn’t know anything about science and was afraid she wouldn’t know the answers to her kids’ questions. According to the introduction to the book’s Kickstarter, the mother then proceeded to offer Dickinson a gift of a cupcake she had made at home.

“But she was a scientist!” Dickinson wrote. “She knew how to measure, she knew how to follow the cooking method.

“It made me realise that maybe if we could have the format of baking and cooking, and insert the science into it, we could help build the confidence of people who don’t think they are good at science, but are actually really scientists.”

Speaking with The Spinoff, Dickinson says getting parents involved is a key way of keeping kids engaged with STEM topics. “I have lots of mothers say to me, ‘I’m not good at math, so it is OK that my daughter isn’t.’ But the daughter now feels like it is OK not to be good at math, and doesn’t try.”

The Kitchen Science Cookbook removes the barrier to entry for parents and grandparents by tying the science into something familiar. Dickinson says that science is integral to a huge number toys and activities that were part of our childhood. “We all had a spinning top as a kid, but we didn’t call it a STEM toy. Yet it still demonstrates to kids centripetal force.”

The difference now is that parents are not just giving their kids a spinning top, but are motivated to understand and communicate to their children how a spinning top works. And resources such as Dickinson’s book are helping.

“I’m very excited [about the STEM trend]. It’s hard not to be. I think anything that brings science, engineering and maths to the forefront, and gets kids into it, can only be a good thing.”

Although there have been toys teaching STEM skills for decades, new to the scene are toys and resources which focus on digital skillsets such as coding. There are now toys and books for kids as young as two or three that teach the principles of coding, from blocks which teach kids to create logical orders of operation, to a caterpillar that allows them to programme its trajectory.

“I am a big fan of teaching kids to code, because I want them to be creators of technology, not just consumers of it,” Dickinson says. “And to be a creator, you have you have to understand how it works.”

Pam Pearce points out that many parents prefer not to introduce their children to technical concepts at a very young age. But Dickinson’s philosophy? The earlier, the better.

“Kids pick up second languages without even trying, yet learning a second language as an adult is really hard. Coding is just a second language. And so understanding the second language of computers – the earlier you learn it, the easier it will be.”

Plus, you don’t even need to have a computer to have kids engage with these technology heavy concepts. Dickinson often teaches kids programming skills using just a pen and paper. She says she tries to stay mindful of finding ways to make STEM accessible without spending lots of money. The high price points of many STEM products are a concern, she says.

“What we don’t want to do is make STEM education just for the people who can afford to buy their kids a robot. We need to make sure that there is accessibility around STEM education.”

And Nanogirl Labs walk the walk when it comes to accessibility. For every copy of the cookbook sold through Kickstarter, they have committed to donating a copy to a school, community, or family who may not have otherwise had access to it. They also worked hard to make sure that all the ingredients in their book could be readily found in almost anybody’s cupboard – not just here in New Zealand, but around the world.  

It’s not just about inaccessibility, Dickinson says. Many expensive STEM products are simply unnecessary, especially when there are plenty of more reasonably priced toys and books that teach kids the same set of skills.

The electronics set Makey Makey, for example, is an inexpensive but rewarding way for kids to engage with STEM. It guides kids through projects such as making a piano (the keys are bananas), and allows kids to experiment with electronics as they gain understanding of how it works.

By playing with kits like this, kids gain not only an understanding of underlying principles but also confidence that they can learn complex systems – and this will be crucial for the kids of today to succeed in the digital future. Many of us don’t really understand how our car engine or our computer works, and probably feel we couldn’t understand these complicated systems even if we tried. But this kind of ignorance might not be an option for coming generations. Dickinson says the adults of the future will need to understand and work with the complicated systems around them.

“Also, exposing kids to an array of things is important, because I don’t think we are going to have careers that will last a lifetime anymore. I think future generations are going to be switching a lot – where you have to be good at something, and then the technology changes, and then you have to be good at something else.”

“So, introducing kids to a diverse range of things is important, so that they get used to changing and adapting.”

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