For the upcoming holiday season, parents are once again swamped with the responsibility of finding the perfect gift for their children. With America’s appraisal of careers involving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), it hardly comes as a surprise that parents are looking for gifts that their children will not only enjoy, but will foster their development. At the time of writing this article the nonprofit organization Science Friday released a list of the best science books for children with the intent of encouraging parents to gift these books for Christmas. Similarly, the Smithsonian released an article with a list of engineer-approved STEM toys for children to improve their critical thinking skills.
However, not all families are able to afford expensive toys like these. Additionally, how well STEM toys actually help children understand complex concepts is often debatable. The best toys for learning engineering, such as Lincoln Logs, LEGO bricks, and TINKER TOYs, have been around for a long time, which raises doubts regarding whether toys marketed as “STEM toys” are really any more beneficial than other forms of play.
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), children learn through play. They develop cognitive skills, physical abilities, an increased vocabulary, social skills, and literacy skills. Play is healthy for children and reduces their stress, but also acts as a child’s context for learning in multiple areas of life. Certain skills can be improved upon through the use of specific tools; or in this case, toys. STEM toys claim to aid in a child’s cognitive development, which includes areas like mathematics and problem solving. They also exist as a way to promote STEM education outside of the classroom. The extent to which kids are able to pursue their passions for science and technology may be limited by their school system; however, the use of toys can supplement that education from a young age.
But, all forms of play are important. Children learn social skills such as understanding and empathy from play. This type of play does not require any toys at all and can be encouraged through regular social interaction between children. By developing a strong sense of morality, children are already learning skills that will aid their interests in STEM subjects, or any subject for that matter. Therefore, it is questionable whether or not it is ethical for companies to market their toys as genuinely helping children learn complex concepts such as coding. This isn’t to say that these toys are useless. In fact, many modern-day engineers and scientists can fondly remember the toy coding kits or LEGO build sets they received during the holidays. However, as all forms or play are important, the glorification of STEM interest from a young age could often be seen as unnecessary.
Annette Jacobson, a professor of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says due to the pressure placed on children to be involved in STEM early, her students often find themselves suddenly aware of everything they’ve missed out on. After being forced through STEM courses from a young age, students get to college and realize that this is not what they expected and have a difficult time finding out what they really want to do with their lives. The increased focus in STEM education has led to a generation of students that lack more well-rounded backgrounds. There has been an issue in education with the prioritization of science courses over the arts for a long time, and its effects have often been felt by those with interests in the arts. Now, the impact on children who believed they preferred STEM courses is finally being seen in secondary education.