Mark Coster, of STEM Toy Expert, guest writes this week’s blog and reminds us of the learning benefits of play:

Are high schoolers too old for toys? It’s a word that often brings up images of much younger kids playing with action figures or dollhouses. However, I contend that even the most jaded “I’m too old for that!” teenager can have fun and learn with STEM toys.

What are STEM Toys?

In our view, STEM toys are educational toys, kits, sets and games that facilitate learning Science, Technology, Engineering and Math skills. Perhaps more importantly, however, STEM toys engage kids in learning activities that often enhance their enjoyment and interest in STEM.

At the infant to toddler age level, there isn’t much to differentiate a STEM toy from an educational toy. Building blocks, shape-sorting puzzles, and bath pipes were popular well before the term ‘STEM Toy’ was coined.

For older children, particularly teenagers, the increased access to consumer-level robotics and electronic parts, advancements in beginner-friendly coding environments, and a growing recognition of the importance of STEM skills for careers of the future, has led to an explosion in high-quality STEM toys being available.

How Can Toys be Part of a ‘Serious’ Curriculum?

To incorporate STEM toys into the school curriculum, it is important to abandon any negative connotations between the term ‘toy’ and wasting time. There is no reason why kids can’t learn highly valuable skills while having fun!

Codable robotics kits are certainly one of the most iconic types of STEM Toy available. One of the hardest facets of teaching coding to high school students is to bridge the gap between abstractions and the real world. A robot that can be coded to pick up objects, move around a room while avoiding objects, or even play simple games like tic-tac-toe, is perfect for this. STEM toys allow open-ended exploration and a degree of genuine challenge that is difficult to replicate with traditional classroom activities.

Another advantage of STEM toys in the classroom is the time-saving potential. Many companies are now producing sets and kits that not only provide all the materials for an engaging STEM activity, but also incorporate evidence-based learning outcomes that can be aligned with your curriculum.

STEM Toys in Homeschooling

One of the significant challenges of homeschool is teaching specialist subjects, such as Science and Engineering, where the parents or caregivers have limited experience. Indeed, STEM subjects are rapidly evolving, so that many adults may find that their experiences in these areas are of limited relevance to their child’s education.

STEM toys can be a valuable focal point for homeschooled children to develop these skills while also exploring their own interests in an open-ended way. For example, there are many chemistry sets now available that provide engaging at-home experiments alongside curriculum-aligned support materials to help students develop their understanding of the scientific method.

Another challenge faced by homeschooling parents is to gather the ideas and necessary materials for their children to engage in STEM activities on a regular basis. An increasingly popular option with homeschooling families is the monthly STEM subscription boxes that have exploded in popularity. Kits are available that cater to everything from coding and electronics to chemistry to engineering challenges, and many incorporate Art into STEM = STEAM!

STEM Toys for Any Age

If you have an opportunity to try STEM toys out in your teaching environment, give them a try. You’ll quickly discover that even teenagers who protest that they’re ‘too old for toys’, get caught up in the joy. You might even discover, yourself, that you’re never too old to play with toys!