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Today’s Toys: Engaging Kids with STEM Subjects or Stifling Imagination?

From tinker toys to talking teddy bears, children’s toys continue to evolve.  They are often bright, colorful, loud (!) and lots of fun.

But what will the future toys of tomorrow be like?  Does the increasing digitization of playtime help or hinder child development?

We have reached the era of digitally-integrated toys, that guide learning and help children acquire skills that, until recently, were the preserve of software engineers.  In fact,  toys and games that encourage the development of coding skills are hugely popular, with many – such as Fisher-Price’s Code-a-Pillar – targeting toddler-aged children. The Learning Resources’ robot mouse activity set promises to engage children with STEM learning through the exploration of coding and programming concepts. And the Kano Computer Kit invites kids as young as six to build a computer and then begin coding apps, music and art.

Many toys and games now integrate with digital technology like smartphones and tablets. These toys blend the physical and digital worlds to guide learning in engaging new ways.  For example, the board game Beasts of Balance sees players build towers from physical animal pieces, which are brought to life on-screen via an in-app fantasy world. Even Lego is in on the act, with an app extension that adds functionality and movement to their physical products.

When it comes to play, the lines between the digital and the physical worlds have never been more blurred.

Digital integration is here to stay.  But is the increasing prevalence of sophisticated smart toys a good thing or a bad thing? In guiding learning so prescriptively, is there a danger that smart toys might stifle a child’s imagination? Is the outcome-focused, results-oriented nature of some connected smart toys too dogmatic?

In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, Yale University psychologist Dorothy Singer, an expert in imaginative play, explained how she found some connected toys “very upsetting”. “If a child is given a stuffed animal he or she can use their imagination to talk to it, give it a name and use a voice for it. If the toy already comes with a voice and personality there is less room for a child to be creative and make up the story themselves. It takes away the child’s contribution.”

In this case, balance is best.  Clearly smart toys are an invaluable learning aid. Those that have a construction or coding element to them can go a long way in getting young minds engaged with STEM subjects. Yet that must not be to the detriment of letting little imaginations do what they do best. Imagination fosters creativity and it cannot be stifled by over-exposure to toys that are too outcome-focused. As spectacular as smart toys can be, the smartest way to play is probably to have a balance between different types of age-appropriate toys and different types of learning.

As for creating the engineers of tomorrow, author and toymaker Roger von Oech couldn’t have put it better when he said: “necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.”

To read more about how modern toys are engaging kids with STEM subjects, click here.

 

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