STEM toys for Kids Not Born Holding a Screwdriver

So, let’s say you have a kid who doesn’t show all that much interest in playing with building toys.  Is this kid doomed to a life in the Humanities or Arts?  How do you persuade a kid more interested in crayons or Play-Doh to try out the blocks and Legos?

Your first option is to chill out and let your kid play however he or she wants to play and recognize that this is fine.

But kids do grow and develop; they outgrow one set of toys and pick up another.  Sometimes they have a goal with no real sense of the steps to get there (“I want to build an airplane!” …okay, so, the steps to take right now, today, when you’re six, involve building an airplane out of Legos or folding one out of paper.  Aircraft engineering classes are way down the road from here.)  Sometimes your gut tells you that there is an engineer (or mathematician) inside your kid waiting to come out; other times, you’re legitimately worried that your kid has absorbed, not from you, the idea that girls don’t play with that sort of toy.  So where do you start?  I’ll tell you where to start.

1. Look at how your kid plays, and seek out toys that work with those patterns.

So let’s say you’ve got a kid who is obsessed with tiny, thumb-sized plastic poodles.  He collects them endlessly, they all have names, stories get enacted in which poodles get kidnapped by bad guy poodles (or possibly by the giant evil stuffed cat) and then rescued by good guy poodles.

If you want your kid to play with building toys, look for toys that can be built, and then played with with the poodles.  A ferris wheel building set will be vastly more interesting if it can be used to give rides to the poodles.  A Lego set will be more interesting if the poodles can live in the Lego building.  And so on, and so forth.  There are a bunch of itty bitty toys that were popular when Molly was four and are still out there, including Polly Pocket and Littlest Pet Shop, which are scaled very well for Lego buildings and so on.

This ferris wheel seems to come with seats, though I haven’t seen one up close in person so whether they’d be satisfying, I’m less sure.  There are Lego tree house sets in both girly and non-girly varieties (and a bunch of other houses, but who doesn’t like a tree house?)

Some kids are really into crafts; building toys are less interesting in part because of their impermanence.  There are a whole lot of craft projects that will teach building skills, but I’d suggest looking outside the “craft kit” box.  There are some excellent craft kits (everything from Klutz that we’ve tried has been great) but also a lot of terrible ones, as well as craft kits that say they’re for 8-12 year olds that are too complex or fragile for an 8-year-old to actually put together.

One of my favorite crafting media is hot glue; you don’t want to turn a preschooler loose with a glue gun unsupervised, but kids can use the stuff, carefully, at a fairly young age, with you there.

I started buying my kids Sculpey when they were in preschool; I did the baking, obviously.  You can also check out things like Sugru and Friendly Plastic and combine them with collected twigs or purchased craft sticks to build log cabins, fairy houses, etc.  Pipe cleaners are another structural craft material.  And then there’s papier-mache, which is fantastically low-budget but will probably require more help from you (and it can make a fantastic mess.)

2. Provide for empowering role-play.

If you’ve got a kid obsessed with princess stuff, trust that it’ll pass, first of all, but also, assume that the princesses are doing stuff, and provide props along with costumes for princesses who wish to ride out and fight dragons (one of my favorite books of my later childhood was about a princess who would ride out and fight dragons, actually) or go to space or find work as a veterinarian.

Props don’t have to be complicated; large boxes are one of the most basic and timeless toys out there.  If you’re going to buy props, though, I would strongly encourage you to look outside the toy aisle.  For instance, if you’ve got a kid who wants a doctor kit, you can find a real stethoscope for under $10 that will allow your kid to actually listen to her heart (or yours, or a very cooperative dog’s). You do have to be a little careful: if your kid puts the stethoscope in her ears, and then sticks the end right on a stereo speaker, this can cause hearing damage, so if you’ve got a kid who might do that, I suppose you might want to go with a fake.  You can also buy a real but inexpensive otoscope, thermometer, blood pressure cuff, and sling, and pack everything into a satisfyingly plausible black bag. But even if you just grab a real stethoscope to add to the mass-marketed doctor kit, that’ll be vastly more satisfying than the standard fake plastic kind, and allow your child to actually hear heartbeats.

3. Beware of toys when asked for tools.

There are science items you can safely buy in the toys section (like Silly Putty and Slinkies) (I’m sorry, do you not think of those one as science toys?) but others you should avoid.  Beware of microscope-shaped objects; too often, the lenses are so badly made you can’t actually bring anything into focus.  (In that price range, you can buy a hand-held magnifier with a light that your kid will be able to use for close-up looks at snowflakes.)  I’d also be really wary of telescopes (cheap ones are likely to mostly be frustrating). You can, in fact, get decent binoculars for really cheap, but again, not in the toy department. I truly don’t understand the point of toy department walkie-talkies, which never work ever and are only a few dollars cheaper than functional walkie-talkies you can find in electronics.

Basically, if your kid expresses an interest in a scientific tool, it’s worth following up with a few questions so you know what she’s hoping to do with it, and then asking around for recommendations.  (Same goes for building tools.  If your kid asks for a real hammer, they probably mean this and not one of these.)  Obviously, I’m not suggesting you buy anything dangerous to use or seriously expensive for a little kid, but sometimes the real thing is the same price or not significantly more.

4. Don’t overlook games. And look beyond Target’s game aisle.

You guys, there are SO MANY AMAZING GAMES OUT THERE. If you’ve never shopped beyond the game aisle at a toy store, you may have NO IDEA.

Molly was lucky: my sister is a board game geek, and so early on, when Molly got into games, she had access to stuff that was better than Candyland.

A couple of recommendations: to build pattern-finding skills, get Set and Quirkle.  Looking for toys to teach physics principles? Jenga and Suspend and similar.  Clue is all about basic process-of-elimination logic; if you’ve got an older kid who loved Clue until she outgrew it, get Mystery at the Abbey, which is a much more complex logic puzzle.

If your kid likes games but has issues with losing, try a cooperative game like Forbidden Island.  (You can still lose, but you all lose together.  Forbidden Island has beautiful art and tremendously appealing props.)

And if you’ve got a kid into games, check out a board game meetup, and maybe visit a game store, source of a 8 million awesome games that Target will never carry.  (Settlers of Catan is only the beginning.)

Following a suggestion made by Judith Martin in Miss Manners’ Guide to Raising Perfect Children, when Molly was little, I explained the idea of a handicap, and we used handicapping to even things out in games like Scrabble.  (She never needed a handicap in Memory; she could wipe the floor with me when she was three.)

4. There are really good books out there and they may not be the ones you’re thinking of.

Ed was dubious when I ordered a four-book Calvin & Hobbes set from Scholastic for Molly.  “Do we really want her reading these?” he said.  She had a tendency to imitate book characters.  (“Do you remember what a terror Calvin is?”)

Calvin has actually been a great influence: he’s a creative thinker with a million uses for a cardboard box and other simple toys.

Some other awesome books: The Mysterious Benedict Society, in which genius children save the world from a villain brainwashing people through their TVs.  (That one is filled with logic puzzles, which kids can solve if they want, or just keep reading to get to the solutions.)  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which is historical fiction about a twelve-year-old girl growing up in Texas in 1899.  (Makes an excellent read-aloud for younger children.  I was expecting a depressing ending when I read it, and instead got a totally uplifting one.)

Marilyn Burns is one of the best math writers out there, and if you’ve got a kid who doesn’t like math, get him or her the I Hate Mathematics book. A kid who does like math will love Math for Smarty Pants, which kicked off Molly’s obsession with perfect numbers when she was six.


The Socialization of Mothers (and Fathers)

STEM toys — toys that promote the learning and cognitive development that support scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical thinking and learning — STEM toys are all around us.

When Molly was a preschooler, we taught her the alphabet and we counted stuff for her, just like you’re supposed to, but I was largely oblivious to the many activities I did purely for entertainment purposes that were providing her with cognitive building blocks.  Rhymes, for instance. There’s a Raffi song that goes:

Down by the bay / Where the watermelons go /
Back to my home / I dare not go / For if I do / My mother will say:
Did you ever [see a bear] / [Coming his hair] / Down by the bay?

(Replace the bracketed bits with whatever rhyme you like.  Did you ever see a swan, mowing the lawn?  Did you ever see a moose, drinking some juice?  Etc.)  I made up my own verses and encouraged the girls to do the same. It turns out that rhymes are an important foundation to reading; that if you understand that “look” and “book” share a sound, that makes it a lot easier to grasp phonemes and start piecing words together. 

Just as I tended to think of “letters and reading” as pre-literacy school readiness activities while overlooking the importance of rhymes, I tended to think of “counting and numbers” as pre-math school readiness activities while overlooking patterns, pattern finding, sorting, measuring, and playing with quantities and volume.  And I tended to think of “fun experiments with things you can find around the house” as being science learning activities while overlooking throwing, catching, jumping, sliding, and basically all active play.

I am sure there are parenting books out there that talk about this; I didn’t read them or they made no particular impression on me. I just embraced the idea that Play Is Good and took my kids outside a lot because hopefully the novelty of the playground would keep them entertained and out of my hair and I could think my own thoughts for five minutes or possibly even ten.

But here is where I think a lot of little girls are denied some of the really critical early learning activities that boys get as a matter of course: they don’t get to play outside as much, and the grownups around them discourage them from getting dirty.

I have always been a big fan of playgrounds.  A few years ago, the girls were playing on the playground after school pickup and Kiera asked me, “Why are there always so many more boys who stay after school to play than there are girls?”  I told her that I was pretty sure that this was due to the socialization of mothers.  If you are a mother with a little boy, when he becomes mobile your friends with boys will instruct you to get him outside for daily exercise like he’s a golden retriever lest he destroy the house. I have seen mothers of boys give this advice, and I have seen mothers of boys get this advice.  Mothers of girls tend not to get this advice even if their daughters are having behavior problems. If a boy’s having trouble in school, one of the first questions you’ll get from your friends and possibly also his teacher is, “How much exercise is he getting?”  If it’s a girl, they’ll ask, “Are there problems at home? Is she being teased?”

And since my personal anecdata suggests that under-exercised girls are less likely to destroy the furniture than under-exercised boys (or puppies), there are fewer negative consequences to the parents for not getting girls to the playground. And I think this has consequences.  Climbing on the monkey bars is a physics learning activity.  A slide is a physics learning activity. Throwing a ball.  Shooting a Nerf gun.  Filling a bucket with sand to make a sand castle or a “cake” (my kids were obsessed with making birthday cakes, covering them with “candles,” i.e. small twigs, and having me come over to the table to blow them out. Over and over.)

Building a fort out of fallen branches is an engineering activity.  Building a dam at the beach or in a pond (that requires careful supervision, obviously, as children should never be left alone around water.)  Building a snow man.  Building a snow fort.

(All this stuff is also good exercise, which has numerous other benefits to kids.)

Not only are girls taken outside less often, they’re often discouraged from getting dirty once they’re out there, especially if they’re wearing girly clothes that could be “ruined.”  There’s an overall attitude that jeans and overalls are for active play and play where you might get dirty, whereas dresses are for sitting around looking decorative.  This is an artificial line drawn by grownups; it has to be explicitly taught to little girls, who are, in general, totally willing to dive into the sandbox in fancy dresses.

For a little girl who wants to wear dresses all the time, she might absorb that she’s supposed to sit around looking decorative, or she might absorb the idea that she has to choose between pretty dresses and adventures, between femininity and activity.  My parents have a hilarious story about me, at the age of six, asking if I could wear a new dress to school.  My mother said I could so long as I wasn’t going to roll in the mud.  According to her, my face fell, and I said, “Okay.  I won’t wear it, then.”

I’m not saying that every outfit needs to be a “roll around in the mud” outfit but I will say that a Cinderella dress from Halloween should be treated as something that would be enhanced, not ruined, by some streaks of dirt.  Disney Princess dresses are inexpensive and sturdy.  But even with real clothes, anything you buy for a four-year-old will be outgrown within months anyway.  Unless it’s heirloom-quality or sentimental or there’s a sibling you really want to be able to wear it, Christmas dresses might as well be worn to the playground because it’s a sunk cost, anyway.

Molly getting filthy

Molly, playing in mud.

Kiera playing in mud

Kiera, playing in mud. In a skirt.









Despite thinking of myself as a feminist parent, I realized when Molly was around seven that I was getting a lot more irritated by her perennial attraction to filth than I would have been if she’d been a boy.  I had thoroughly absorbed the idea that boys are little pigs who will wallow in the mud given half a chance, but no one ever said this about girls. You know what? There are kids of BOTH genders who have sensory issues that will keep them out of the mud (or the finger paint) but that doesn’t mean that an average seven-year-old girl will not happily get into the mud if she’s not going to get yelled at for it.  And bath tubs, thank goodness, are equal-opportunity facilities.

Girls are also often expected to keep their toys nice, even cheap, disposable toys like Barbies. There’s no reason that Barbie can’t be played with in sand or in a swimming pool. I realized early that one of the advantages of Barbie is that she is cheap and easily replaceable, and let Molly take those dolls anywhere. (It turns out they’re also nearly indestructible! I mean, you can pull Barbie’s head off, but you can also pop it right back on.)

Anyway. My point here is that a lot of this actually comes down to how parents are socialized. It comes down to how the people around us teach us how to parent. We need to recognize that changing how girls are socialized starts at a much more fundamental level than which toys we bring home from the store.

(Let me note for the record that I am advocating here for giving girls the regular opportunity to run around and get dirty. I am NOT suggesting that these opportunities be denied to boys in the name of equality. Educational trends have taken recess away from a whole lot of kids, and advocates for boys will point out that girls can tolerate this sort of BS better than boys can. This is true, but not because it is a trend that is GOOD for girls. ALL kids deserve recess, regardless of their gender.  ALL kids deserve to play.  ALL kids deserve to get dirty if they like getting dirty.  It is good for their minds.  And good for their future STEM skills.)

Girl Toys and Girly Play

The new Goldie Blox ad has been making the rounds on my Facebook.  It features three little girls and a Rube Goldberg device built from tea sets and princess costumes, and it’s a genuinely delightful ad.  I showed it to Kiera, who loved the ad and was disappointed when I told her that in fact, Goldie Blox were not a Rube-Goldberg-device building kit.

For reasons that mystify me, Goldie Blox seem to be wildly popular among some of the same parents who despise the Lego Friends line.  And yet both toy makers did research.  The Goldie Blox founder will tell you in her video that girls read and boys build, therefore she integrated the two of them by writing a story about a builder to get the girls to use the toy.  Lego watched girls play and concluded that while boys tended to sit down and build the toy, start to finish, before playing with it, the girls wanted to build for a while, then play for a while, then build some more, so they made the “girl” Legos more modular. They also found that girls disliked the traditional minifigs and wanted more realistic figures, so they added some. Finally, they doused the product in pink and purple so they’d be shelved next to the Polly Pockets instead of off in the Lego aisle.  (There was a lot of grumbling about the fact that this implies that the rest of the Legos are “boy toys” as opposed to gender-neutral toys.  But, in fact, you’ll often see an entire aisle that’s devoted to Lego stuff; the Lego Friends line was a clever way to extend their placement, grabbing space in the Pink Aisle by the Polly Pockets and the Littlest Pet Shop stuff.)

I have to admit that I’m also bothered by the number of parents who will contemptuously put down princess play.  Unless you’re raising your daughter in a box, she’ll probably go through a “princess” phase between about age three and about age five.  For an awful lot of little girls, a “princess” is a girl who gets to have adventures while wearing fabulous clothes.  Disney Princess costumes tend to be cheap yet indestructible, which is why they are also ubiquitous.

Molly in a princess dress

Molly, age three, in a princess dress.

Molly, at three, liked to dress up in pretty dresses and sparkly shoes (the red ones they sell at Target every December) and she would regularly choose things with princesses on them. Ten years later, she does Lego Robotics at her school, she’s in a program at the U of M for gifted math students, she plays roller derby, and she acts like the color pink is kryptonite.

I do think that it matters what toys people buy for their daughters and what activities they encourage.  It matters.  Girls should have building toys, just as they should have toys and clothes that encourage physical activity and active play (IMO, a Nerf catapult is as much as STEM toy as a set of Goldie Blocks — more on that later), and there are a million and one ways in which girls get the message that math, science, engineering and technology are for boys, not for them.  And I’m going to come back with both some specific toy recommendations and some general ideas for what makes something a “STEM toy.”

But I think we need to start from a place where we believe that girly play is valid.  If we tell a little girl that she is DOING IT WRONG because she wants to pretend to be a princess — you know what, this is NOT how we get more girls in STEM careers.  There is no wrong way to play.  Okay, actually, I take that back.  Throwing blocks at your sibling is the wrong way to play.  But there’s nothing wrong with dressing up in costumes, and we do girls a disservice when we treat their preferred type of play as unacceptable because it is too girly.