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Toys and Play in STEM Education

By Clare Schinzel

photo/ the Toy Association

To a lot of parents, perfect grades on a report card are the best indicator of success in a classroom. As a result, studying is considered more valuable than playing sports or video games.

This mindset that success is all work and no play is being debunked by the Toy Association: a company that aims to promote STEAM-focused learning through play. This STEAM Strategic Leadership Committee includes members who range from professors of mathematics and design to biochemists and cognitive scientists. They came together with one goal: promote play and creativity as one of the primary ways to encourage STEM careers for children.

To understand the importance of play, it is necessary to see where we would be without it. Jack Ma, a co-founder of the Chinese internet browser Alibaba, expressed that China’s educational standards don’t allow time for students to experiment and have fun. This is why they seem to produce fewer innovators than the United States.

Even in the U.S., it’s common for a teacher to ask a question to a classroom and be met with a heavy silence simply because the students are too scared to answer. We raise kids to be afraid to make mistakes. We teach them to think that one mistake means failure in all fields when that’s simply not the case. The Toy Association hopes not to pollute the next generation with that logic.

The expert committee began working to promote toys in STEM and compiled a list of benefits in their “Decoding STEM/STEAM” report. Their aim was to explain how toys combine the analysis and logic of the left brain with the creativity and intuition of the right brain.

The first pro-toy argument was in favor of mistakes. The committee expressed the significance of learning to accept failure and still have fun. It's a trait that is vital to developing patience and perseverance. Toys like dominos and building blocks are childhood staples that encourage this attitude. This encouragement of failure not only boosts perseverance, but also problem-solving. The ability to bounce back after constant failure is an especially amiable trait in the science and research community where endless barriers are met when developing everything from medical cures to treatment breakthroughs.

Toys also allow kids to focus on collaboration and social/emotional skills. In a school environment, it's easy to compete with test scores. But in the real world, collaboration is needed to further the development of technology and medicine. These collaborations can apply to all genders, therefore furthering women’s involvement in STEM careers.

Additionally, working with your hands tends to be the best way to internalize information. After all, a student can read in a textbook that baking soda reacts with vinegar, but they will remember it much longer if they are shown the classic baking-soda volcano experiment.

Risks are also a common benefit of toys. It’s important to get children to understand that healthy risks are beneficial to further knowledge and that staying in a box of fear––whether that be asking a question in class or the workplace––doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Thinking deeply about something and choosing to act on it with reason and a little risk is a healthy trait in the workplace.

Finally, toys help kids break past the daunting barriers that STEM careers and subjects often pose. The STEAM Strategic Leadership Committee found that about 50% of people have math anxiety. Those kinds of barriers are part of what discourages people from careers in STEAM. By giving children toys and experiments, we are allowing students to create a passion that can very rarely be mustered from the pages of a textbook. Additionally, with toys, we are allowing children to apply math and logic to real-world situations, which is a more accurate representation of the workforce than a classroom lecture.

So, while some parents think traditional studying is the only key to success, the STEAM Strategic Leadership Committee has proven that a little fun has never hurt anyone. Their next goal is to see play implanted in all learning communities so that innovators can be found all over the world.

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