June 19, 2019

Why Your Child Doesn’t Need STEM Toys to Be a STEM Star

And 4 other ways to prepare your child for a STEM career

Two young boys playing with building blocks

From prenatal vitamins to preschool waiting lists — even before your little nugget is born, you do things to give them a leg up in life. And toy manufacturers know it.


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Enter STEM toys, which run the gamut from Legos to make-your-own robot kits. But are these toys the key to unlocking your child’s potential?

STEM toys now, STEM jobs later?

STEM toys are designed to stimulate your child’s interest and skill in science, technology, engineering or math. And it’s obvious why parents are buying in. According to a Commerce Department study, STEM jobs are growing faster than non-STEM jobs. In 2015, people who worked in STEM fields earned 29% more than those who worked in other fields.

But according to pediatric behavioral health specialist Amy Lee, PhD, you may want to think twice before opening your wallet too wide. Your home (and the great outdoors) already contain everything you need to build up your child’s STEM love and skills. Who knew?

Step away from the screen

As tablets and other tech continue to be marketed to and for children, warnings from the pediatric health community are getting louder. “Early access and exposure to screens and screen time is detrimental for child development,” states Dr. Lee.

She says there’s even some research showing an increase in children being referred for occupational therapy for sensory integration problems. Symptoms of sensory problems include oversensitivity to the environment, being uncoordinated and having difficulty engaging in play. There’s some evidence that these problems are related to having less free and outdoor play.


Child development needs outdoors, not fancy toys

Free play is exactly what it sounds like: play in which children can do what they want. It should be fun, unstructured and technology-free. And it’s critical to a child’s development.

Benefits of free and outdoor play:

  • All fired up: The brain develops neural connections that teach kids about their environment and interacting with the world.
  • Learning, naturally: Free play teaches kids about physical spaces, their relationship to real things, their body in space and their relationship to other people.
  • Pretend play is practice: Pretend play is enjoyable for children and it’s a chance to practice skills they need in their daily lives as well as in the future. Pretend play helps kids develop problem-solving, collaboration, communication and self-control.

And as it happens, explains Dr. Lee, these are the exact skills people need to excel in STEM fields.

How to develop STEM skills in your child

Think about the skills involved in science. You need to ask open-ended questions, manipulate the environment and problem-solve. Problem-solving is also critical in math, along with sustained effort and attention, repetition and practice.

To cultivate these talents, you need exposure to people and the natural world — not the latest gadgets. Give your children ample opportunity to interact freely with their environment. That will help them develop the STEM skills needed to harness the power of techie tools.


“The idea of STEM toys capitalizes on parental anxiety about their kid falling behind. But no child, unless they’re living in a bubble, is going to be technologically illiterate in this era,” assures Dr. Lee.

We can teach things that look flashy, exciting and advanced, but we’re missing essential skills if we go there too soon. STEM toys should be add-ons to enhance play, not the main event.

The bottom line: Send your kids outside to play, and stay strong in the face of “I’m bored!” complaints. Not only will they have a chance to hone their STEM skills naturally, but they may even thank you later.

4 free ways to raise a STEM star

How else can you help build your child’s brain?

  • Interact with your children: Talk and play with your child as much as possible. “Interacting with your children throughout the day is how they learn,” says Dr. Lee.
  • Encourage free play: This type of play is easy because you’re off the hook. Just step back and let the magic happen. Child-directed play increases self-esteem and teaches self-regulation. “These are the things that used to be a normal part of a kid’s day,” says Dr. Lee.
  • Take care with technology: Set screen time limits (or avoid screens if your child is under 2), have no-screen zones and choose slower-paced educational or interactive games.
  • Teach assertiveness: Assertiveness is standing up for yourself while respecting the feelings of others. To help your children develop this skill, praise good and expected behaviors, teach them to identify and understand their emotions and how to problem-solve.

What are the best educational toys for kids?

If you want to go STEM, Dr. Lee recommends lower-tech versions, such as Legos and K’Nex. “Choose things that involve building or creating. Look for toys that are interactive, involve open-ended solutions and encourage collaboration. Those are the building blocks of STEM.”

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