The Best Present for Your Child Isn’t a Baby Shark Doll

Guess what? Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math can be fun

robot

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

When I was growing up, a good STEM or STEAM toy would’ve been an old-school (and probably very dangerous) chemistry set for science, my dad’s spiffy new Polaroid SX-70 for technology, an Erector Set for engineering, and nothing for math because, thank god, it stayed in the classroom.

I don’t think my parents bought or showed me these things to inspire learning or a future in science and technology. This was before the era of helicopter parents. My parents barely knew what I was learning in school—unless I was struggling (math!)—and had no idea about the lessons I was learning outside the classroom and our Queens apartment. I would argue that my afternoons spent digging up the neighbor’s yard and discovering orange dirt and natural chalk counted as geology, too.

Old science kit
Old-school science kits included some questionable materials.  Ripley's Believe it Or Not

The codification of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—sometimes STEAM with “A” for “Art”) curriculum coincided with a generation of young parents who took a much more active interest in the educational lives of their kids. It was also in lockstep with the rise of the internet, consumer technology, and ubiquitous connectivity.

The growth of STEM and STEAM educational tools and toys also overlapped with rising anxiety about the U.S.’s position as a technological leader. A 2018 National Science Board study found that “many countries have surpassed the United States in the percentage of the younger population (ages 25–34) with a bachelor’s degree or higher."

The only way to prepare our children for higher education and, perhaps, careers in lucrative science and technology fields is through fun.

That’s right, fun.

Have A Good, Educational Time

You see, the glut of STEM (and STEAM) toys is marked not by their hard-nosed adherence to the principles of higher learning, but to tactile experiences that almost trick children into learning about science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

Amazon has countless STEM toys for children ranging in age from 10 to as young as 6—it’s never too early to teach your child about the principles of direct-current electricity.

Unlike traditional toys that need only appeal to kids who will torture their parents until they get the evolving Rizmo, STEM gadgets have to attract parents and then win over the kids when they finally tear off the wrapping Christmas morning.

The only way to prepare our children for higher education and, perhaps, careers in lucrative science and technology fields is through fun.

This causes a sort of strange tension in packaging and marketing prose. Some products look needlessly silly to inspire young minds to at least give them a chance. I came across one science kit called, somewhat hyperbolically, “My First: Mind Blowing Science,” with, naturally, a cartoon kid’s head exploding on the box top.

I found a more subtle approach in Pakoo STEM Toy Kit’s product shot, but its marketing text ends up sounding a little confused: “If you want your children to have fun with boring engineering concepts and knowledge, Pakoo STEM building blocks are the perfect choice for your young builder.” What would possess them to call engineering concepts “boring”?

Later the company claims that “This funny and educational STEM building toys [SIC] will keep your kids away from video games, phones, and TVs.” Really? Will they? Does it include restraints?

robot
Artie 3000 is cute enough to engage even the youngest coders.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Meet Artie 3000

My children are too old for STEM products, but even when they were young, I wasn’t keen on buying them toys with an educational flair. I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that they could learn even from more traditional toys and, if they had a stronger interest in one of the STEM / STEAM tent poles, we could encourage that with more targeted educational gifting. When my daughter showed an interest in art, for instance, we got her more art supplies. That counts, right?

Still, I realized my experience with modern STEM toys is a little narrow, so I decided to try one for myself.

In the weeks before the holiday buying season officially kicked off, I met with Lee Parkhurst, a spokesman for Educational Insights, which has been making kid-friendly educational toys since 1962. He brought with him Artie 3000, a drawing robot that slips neatly into the Art and Technology slots of STEAM.

The concept behind Artie 3000 isn’t necessarily that new. I’ve seen other robots that can draw. However, Parkhurst told me the secret sauce here is that kids can program and have Artie 3000 drawing within five minutes.

I nodded appreciatively but wasn’t buying it. Because STEM toys try to blend fun and learning, they are naturally harder to use and almost always require parental intervention. Often, it’s the parents that stumble the hardest over the sometimes minimal tech hurdles.

I decided to put Artie 3000 to the test.

Artie 3000 interface
This is coding that's even simple enough for me.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Code and Draw

Aside from adding a few AA batteries to the robot, Artie 3000 is pretty much ready to go right out of the box. Unlike most modern STEM robo toys (think Lego Boost), Artie 3000 works with a computer and—this is where I think many parents (if not kids) might stumble—you have to connect it via Wi-Fi to your computer.

The good news is that this worked on the first try and, after entering a special URL into my web browser (another tech hurdle), I saw a simple web-based programming interface based, Parkhurst told me, on the popular Scratch programming language. Scratch uses drag and drop blocks and plain English controls. I didn’t even bother reading further instructions and, instead, programmed Artie 3000, which I had equipped with a marker, to draw a square on a blank piece of paper. Next, I programmed the robot to draw an Octagon. However, this time before drawing, I used the simulation tool in the Web interface to check my coding work.

This was all done in under 10 minutes. That’s two programs in 10 minutes for someone who last mastered a programming language (BASIC) in 1982.

Robot
I did this.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Okay, so Parkhurst was right. On the other hand, just because a STEM product is well-made, fun, and easy to learn doesn’t guarantee sales.

When I asked in an anecdotal Twitter Poll if people were buying their kids STEM or STEAM gifts for the holidays, 36% said no, but a shocking 45% didn’t know what I meant by STEM or STEAM.

Parkhurst, however, told me that the $69 Artie 3000 is already selling well and that, as a category, STEM and STEAM products are a good business for the companies making them and retailers stocking them. “People wouldn’t keep doing it if retailers weren’t providing the space,” he told me.

So What

I couldn’t find much direct research showing a correlation between STEM / STEAM toys and educational success or careers in science and technology. Perhaps it’s too early in the whole, “Hey Jenny, I got you a Raspberry Pi for Christmas,” cycle.

There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that these tactile toys will forever compete for kids’ attentions with the pure screen, all digital worlds of video games and social media. And that may not be a bad thing.

Who’s to say that digital platforms like Instagram and TikTok aren’t fostering some STEM themselves? Have you seen some of the creativity and sheer ingenuity on these platforms? Kids are so hell-bent on copying memes and building on them that they come up with some truly innovative ideas. Not to mention that there is a fair amount of science and, yes, even math on TikTok.

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