ToyDirectory
December 11, 2017

TDmonthly Magazine

August 2014 | Vol. XIII - No. 8


Developing STEM Skills: Education Through Play

Learn how to choose the best STEM skill-building toys for your store

By Justina Huddleston
August 2014

This article is sponsored by:

Learn more about FRACTILES and STEM here
The rise of technology and an increasingly interconnected, global world has made it more important than ever for children in the United States to be given a top-notch education - especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

The Importance of STEM Education

While other countries have focused on bringing children high-level mathematics and science programs, in many instances the US has fallen behind. A 2007 report from the National Academies Press titled "Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?" illustrates the problem.
"The aviation and telecommunication revolutions have conspired to make distance increasingly irrelevant. An important consequence of this is that US citizens, accustomed to competing with their neighbors for jobs, now must compete with candidates from all around the world. These candidates are numerous, highly motivated, increasingly well educated, and willing to work for a fraction of the compensation traditionally expected by US workers. If the United States is to offset the latter disadvantage and provide its citizens with the opportunity for high-quality jobs, it will require the nation to excel at innovation."
The number one most effective way to do this, according to the study, is to make science and math education a priority for K-12 students.



But it’s not just about remaining globally competitive. According to a 2012 study by My College Options® and STEMconnector®, which analyzed Bureau of Labor statistics,
"The number of STEM field jobs in the US is rising. The overall U.S. Science & Technology (S&T) Workforce exceeded 7.4 million workers in 2012 and it will continue to grow significantly through 2018, to an estimated 8,654,000¹ STEM workers. This number (8.65 million) does not reflect people who are "self-employed" in STEM fields. If "self-employed" is included, the number of people employed in STEM fields in 2012 is 14.9 million, and is projected to reach 15.68 million by 2018." Furthermore, "Science & Engineering occupations are projected to grow at more than double the rate (20.6%) of the overall U.S. labor force (10.1%) through 2018."
A strong STEM education can provide a child with future job opportunities, and on a large scale can help keep the US globally competitive.
 
But a lot of STEM learning can occur BEFORE a child begins school!

 

Every time a child picks up a toy, there is an opportunity to learn something new. According to an article by Gabriel Guyton in the September 2011 issue of Young Children, "Play is the mechanism by which children learn—how they experience their world, practice new skills, and internalize new ideas—and is therefore the essential 'work of children'."
 
Providing children with play opportunities that help build STEM skills is one way to prepare them for, and get them interested in, the STEM fields.

Identifying toys that build STEM skills

It’s very important to note that just because a toy is marketed as educational doesn’t mean it is so. Likewise, an electronic toy or computerized toy doesn’t necessarily help build a child’s technological skills.
 
Mark Carson, founder of Fat Brain Toys, has some choice words for those toys that would falsely market themselves as STEM skill builders. In his article "Will the Real STEM Toys Please Stand Up?" he warns against such toys.
"One of the big misnomers is that STEM is all about electronics and computers. Many of the giant toy companies are marching out a variety of electronic toys and claiming they have STEM benefits. A perfect example of this is the latest introduction in the Furby line called Furbling Friends. Because you can interact with Furby via an app, it's now a STEM toy. REALLY? SERIOUSLY?!
 
"Electronics and computers are both important skills in any STEM toolbox, but they are simply the manifestation of a solid understanding of good old fashioned science and math skills."
So how does one pick out the perfect STEM toy? According to Carson, "When you play with a real STEM toy, you may not be learning any specific skill, rather you're learning the fundamentals of critical thinking, problem solving, visualization, and perseverance." Looking for toys that focus on such skills, rather than on products that claim to teach kids a specific STEM field, can be one way to avoid toys that aren’t actually that helpful.
 

Early Childhood STEM Development Goals

(source: Engineer’s Playground)
 
Science - Immersive Play
Look for toys that encourage sensory exploration and toys that expose children to the natural world; expose kids to simple outdoor activities like nature walks, jumping in a pile of leaves or bird watching.
Products to carry in your store: Bubbles; noise-makers; books about animals; play doughs and putties.
 
Technology - Understanding Cause & Effect, Building Motor Skills
According to Engineer's Playground, it's important to "Remember that technology is more than just computers. At this age, being exposed to the different types of the basic technology areas (material, manufacturing, power, intelligent/information) will keep children on track." Look for toys with working buttons, switches, and gears; multi-sensory books and boards that expose children to a variety of different textures and materials.
Products to carry in your store: Jack-in-the-Box; water wheels for the bath; flashlights; interactive pop-up books.
 
Engineering - Practice Makes Perfect
Focus on toys that require repeated action to get the desired end result, Toys that help kids experience and understand basic scientific concepts like gravity and magnetism, and toys that build motor skills.
Products to carry in your store: Magnets; marble runs; block sets; balance bikes; pick up sticks.
 
Math - Understanding Spatial Relations
Engineer's Playground says that for pre-K children, "Mathematics needs to be concrete. The best way to set a good foundation is to develop spatial understanding: Shapes, sizes, rotation, connections." Look for toys that utilize differently sized and shaped pieces and toys that require kids to manipulate objects to fit together.
Products to carry in your store: Books that talk about shapes, space, and relative locations; puzzles; Interlocking blocks; shape sorters.
 
 

Some of our Favorite STEM Toys


Fractiles

 

One of the best STEM toys that integrates many of the skills mentioned above is Fractiles. Fractiles are diamond-shaped tiles that kids can use to create endless designs. The tiles come with a magnetic board, making it easy to use even for those who are still developing or have difficulty with fine motor skills. They also come in different colors, so while kids are arranging their designs, they can also experiment with pattern making.
 
Because there is an essentially limitless combination of tiles possible, kids can spend hours creating new geometric designs and patterns. Fractiles also requires kids to rotate and manipulate the different tiles so that they fit together, and help to build fine motor skills - all while they work independently. Best of all, at the end of the day Fractiles is a toy; kids are learning essential STEM skills while playing and having fun.
 
Fractiles is mentioned by Carson in his article as one of the best STEM toys available. It's also used by Nobel Prize for Physics winner John L. Hall, a Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who said,
 
"For the past several years, my wife and I have featured Fractiles in workshops we do with public school students. We have been following the currently popular STEM philosophy of combining Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to get kids interested in how to teach themselves and learn independently, with really promising results.
 
"Fractiles is ideally suited to this kind of program and extremely popular with our students as it encourages creativity and innovation. We wish there were other materials of a similarly versatile and compelling nature."


Laser Pegs

Another toy that can help kids build their STEM skills is Laser Pegs. Interlocking block sets help kids develop their foundational understanding of mathematics as they fit the pieces together. Engineering skills are also learned while planning and executing different designs. Another STEM boost Laser Pegs gives is that once a piece is connected to a power base, the pieces connected to it then also light up. This helps kids understand cause and effect, an important building-block of technological knowledge. The pieces in the construction set are compatible with other major block sets. Handling the small blocks and mixing and matching different block sets helps develop fine motor skills and is tactilely stimulating, which is another great way to prepare kids for STEM education.


Snap Circuits from Elenco

Another STEM heavy-hitter, Snap Circuits are a fun way to help kids develop their STEM skill set. Connecting circuits, adding breakers, planning and executing designs - all of these actions will help prepare kids for more in-depth exploration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics once they enter school.


Living Sands from Play Visions

Living Sands is a sensory material that feels like soft dry sand, but can be molded into different shapes. Then, when touched, the shapes break apart and appear to move, almost as if alive. Hands-on sensory experiences like this are a great way to prepare kids for future science education. Products like Living Sands lend themselves to interactive play between kids and adults. Parents can ask kids to compare the way the material feels to other substances, to experiment with different ways of molding the product, to see what the smallest and largest shapes they can create are, and to test how little and how much pressure they can use to break their shapes apart. Encouraging this type of curiosity and experimentation builds a great foundation for understanding scientific methodology in the future.


Want to learn more about STEM building toys? Then take a look at the products below.

FRACTILES by FRACTILES, Inc.

FRACTILES by FRACTILES, Inc.MSRP: $11.95 - $49.95

Fractiles - a Real STEM toy!

This award-winning magnetic tiling toy allows one to make an infinite variety of beautiful designs. It can be used to create starbursts, spirals, butterflies, beautiful mandalas of infinite complexity, bouquets of flowers, swarms of fireflies, spaceships, illusions of 3D space, and lots more. It is easy and creative. This product is made in the USA.

"For the past several years, my wife and I have featured Fractiles in workshops we do with public school students. We have been following the currently popular STEM philosophy of combining Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to get kids interested in how to teach themselves and learn independently, with really promising results. Fractiles is ideally suited to this kind of program and extremely popular with our students as it encourages creativity and innovation. We wish there were other materials of a similarly versatile and compelling nature." - Professor John L. Hall; University of Colorado, Boulder; Nobel Prize for Physics, 2005

"It is a perfect 'STEM' toy that teaches math while kids play...it has a strong art component, too! Fractiles was way ahead of its time, and now is perfectly positioned to become a hot seller for all the families who are looking to enhance education through play!" - Sallie Kashiwa, owner/president of Timbuck Toys in Co.

"On top of being a great selling toy, [Fractiles] have become one of our personal favorites. They are educational, reasonably priced, and made in America by a reputable company. It's very rare for a toy line to meet all of those qualifications. " - Kristine Reed from Whispering Winds in Mr. Dora, Fla. (Watch the FRACTILES Video Watch Video) 4/28/2014


Travel Fractiles by FRACTILES, Inc.

Travel Fractiles by FRACTILES, Inc.MSRP: $29.95

Fractiles - a Real STEM toy!

These 96 brilliantly colored, flexible magnetic tiles come with a sturdy 8" by 8" black textured steel activity board, color-illustrated instructional material, and a double-record album-style package to store the board and tiles. The diamond-shaped tiles are used to create everything from snowflakes and starbursts to a bouquet of flowers and swarm of fireflies. Made in the USA.
— Patti Tepper-Rasmussen, owner of Learning Tree Toys, Games & Books, Inc. in Oklahoma City, Okla., told TDmonthly in an April 2013 survey that Fractiles are one of the store's best-selling travel products.
—  "For the past several years, my wife and I have featured Fractiles in workshops we do with public school students. We have been following the currently popular STEM philosophy of combining Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to get kids interested in how to teach themselves and learn independently, with really promising results. Fractiles is ideally suited to this kind of program and extremely popular with our students as it encourages creativity and innovation." - Professor John L. Hall; University of Colorado, Boulder; Nobel Prize for Physics, 2005

"It is a perfect 'STEM' toy that teaches math while kids play...Fractiles was way ahead of its time, and now is perfectly positioned to become a hot seller." - Sallie Kashiwa, owner/president of Timbuck Toys in Co.

"A great selling toy, [Fractiles] have become one of our personal favorites. They are educational, reasonably priced, and made in America by a reputable company." - Kristine Reed from Whispering Winds in Mr. Dora, Fla. 4/28/2014 (MSRP: $29.95; Age: 6 and Up)


LARGE FRACTILES by FRACTILES, Inc.

LARGE FRACTILES by FRACTILES, Inc.MSRP: $49.95

Fractiles - a Real STEM toy!

This award-winning magnetic tiling toy allows one to make an infinite variety of beautiful designs. It can be used to create starbursts, spirals, butterflies, beautiful mandalas of infinite complexity, bouquets of flowers, swarms of fireflies, spaceships, illusions of 3D space, and lots more. The set includes 192 brilliantly colored flexible MAGNETIC tiles, a sturdy, 12” x 12” black textured steel activity board, color-illustrated instructional material, and a double-record album-style package to store the board and tiles. It is great for the ambitious budding designer or for classroom use. This product is made in the USA.

"For the past several years, my wife and I have featured Fractiles in workshops we do with public school students. We have been following the currently popular STEM philosophy of combining Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to get kids interested in how to teach themselves and learn independently, with really promising results. Fractiles is ideally suited to this kind of program and extremely popular with our students as it encourages creativity and innovation." - Professor John L. Hall; University of Colorado, Boulder; Nobel Prize for Physics, 2005

"It is a perfect 'STEM' toy that teaches math while kids play...Fractiles was way ahead of its time, and now is perfectly positioned to become a hot seller." - Sallie Kashiwa, owner/president of Timbuck Toys in Co.

"On top of being a great selling toy, [Fractiles] have become one of our personal favorites. They are educational, reasonably priced, and made in America by a reputable company." - Kristine Reed from Whispering Winds in Mr. Dora, Fla. 4/28/2014 (MSRP: $49.95; Age: 6 and Up)


FRIDGE FRACTILES by FRACTILES, Inc.

FRIDGE FRACTILES by FRACTILES, Inc.MSRP: $11.95

Fractiles - a Real STEM toy!

This set includes 48 brilliantly colored flexible MAGNETIC tiles and a color-Illustrated cardboard CD-style package to store the tiles. Board not included. Fridge Fractiles make great stocking stuffers and can be used on a fridge or filing cabinet. They are made in the USA.

"For the past several years, my wife and I have featured Fractiles in workshops we do with public school students. We have been following the currently popular STEM philosophy of combining Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics to get kids interested in how to teach themselves and learn independently, with really promising results. Fractiles is ideally suited to this kind of program and extremely popular with our students as it encourages creativity and innovation. We wish there were other materials of a similarly versatile and compelling nature." - Professor John L. Hall; University of Colorado, Boulder; Nobel Prize for Physics, 2005

"It is a perfect 'STEM' toy that teaches math while kids play.  In fact, it plays into 'STEAM' because it has a strong art component, too! Fractiles was way ahead of its time, and now is perfectly positioned to become a hot seller for all the families who are looking to enhance education through play!" - Sallie Kashiwa, owner/president of Timbuck Toys in Colorado

"We have carried Fractiles for several years and, on top of being a great selling toy, they have become one of our personal favorites. They are educational, reasonably priced, and made in America by a reputable company. It's very rare for a toy line to meet all of those qualifications. " - Kristine Reed from Whispering Winds in Mr. Dora, Fla. 4/28/2014 (MSRP: $11.95; Age: 6 and Up)


Laser Pegs Land, 8 in 1 by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLC

Laser Pegs Land, 8 in 1 by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLCAn 8 in 1 land themed construction kit with Laser Pegs, construction parts, and a Triangle Power Base.
— In a May 2013 survey about construction toys Joe Berardoni Jr, owner of Pun's Toys in Bryn Mawr, Pa. told TDmonthly that "Here at Pun’s, we continue to sell Laser Pegs very well, mostly the Land, Sea and Air series. Their new design which makes them compatible with other construction bricks has helped boost sales over last year at this time."
— In a July 2013 survey Joe Berardoni Jr., owner of Pun's Toy Shop in Bryn Mawr, Pa., told TDmonthly that Laser Pegs is one of the store's best-selling electronic or battery-operated toys.
— Karen Laroche, manager of Kid's Ketch in Lews, Del., told TDmonthly in a Fall 2013 survey that Laser Pegs are one of her store's overall best-selling toys.

 6/3/2013 (MSRP: $24.99)


Laser Pegs Predator, 16 in 1 by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLC

Laser Pegs Predator, 16 in 1 by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLCA 16 in 1 Predator Bug themed construction kit with Laser Pegs, construction parts, and a Triangle Power Base.

 6/3/2013 (MSRP: $39.99)


Laser Pegs Bot, 6 in 1 by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLC

Laser Pegs Bot, 6 in 1 by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLCA 6 in 1 general themed construction kit with Laser Pegs and a Triangle Power Base.
— In a July 2013 survey Joe Berardoni Jr., owner of Pun's Toy Shop in Bryn Mawr, Pa., told TDmonthly that Laser Pegs is one of the store's best-selling electronic or battery-operated toys.

 6/3/2013 (MSRP: $19.99)


Laser Pegs Play Table by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLC

Laser Pegs Play Table by Laser Pegs Ventures, LLCA Table Top Power Base with 144 connection points along its surface, it allows for groups of kids to play together at one time and from any part of the tabletop. Comes with 150 Pegs.

 6/3/2013 (MSRP: $299.99)


SC-300 Snap Circuits by ELENCO

SC-300 Snap Circuits by ELENCOSnap Circuits make learning electronics easy and fun. Kids follow the colorful pictures in the manual to build exciting projects, such as FM radios, burglar alarms, doorbells and more. Parts are mounted on plastic modules and snap together with ease. “Children can play with this kit for hours and hours and still have not completed all the projects the snap circuit kits have to offer,” Walter Larsen, national sales manager for Elenco, told TDmonthly.
— One retailer said in summer 2007 his store sells 25 Elenco units monthly. Five percent of 64 retailers said in August 2008 that Snap Circuits are a best-selling science product, reporting average sales of six units per month. Four of 38 retailers echoed the same a year later. “They’ve gone back to this game six or seven times,” between January and July 2006, said TDmonthly's homeschooling mom Susan Ledford.
— Any time TDmonthly asks specialty storeowners about top-selling science toys, Elenco's Snap Circuits heads the list. This simple electronics kit appeals to both girls and boys. By making science fun and easy, Snap Circuits earned a TDmonthly Classic Toy 2007 award.
—  As of 12/17/2012 this product had 4.8 out of 5 stars from 575 reviews on Amazon.com. Cons: One user said that her grandchildren were "not all that interested" in the Snap Circuits, and told her that they would prefer LEGOs on their birthday. (Watch the SC-300 Snap Circuits Video Watch Video) 10/27/2005 (MSRP: $59.95; Age: 8 and Up)


Snap Circuits Motion by ELENCO

Snap Circuits Motion by ELENCOContains over 40 parts. 165 experiments can be completed using the kit, like a spinning lighted fan, a small RC car that moves forward and backward, and more. It stimulates the mind and teaches kids about electrical engineering, gears and rations in a fun and educational way.
Awards: 2014 TDmonthly Top Toy Debut Award

 2/26/2014


Snap Circuits LIGHT by ELENCO

Snap Circuits LIGHT by ELENCOSnap parts together to build different circuits, and watch the different pieces light up. Includes fiber optics over a light organ that can be connected to an iPod; the lights will flash to the beat of the music. Includes strobe lights with different plates so kids can experiment with strobe patterns, white LED lights, glow in the dark and lighted fan blades, a light up egg, and more.
Awards: 2013 TDmonthly Seal of Approval

Where to buy:

NORTH EAST
SOUTH  5/25/2012 (MSRP: $75.00)


Sands Alive! Deluxe Set by PLAY VISIONS INC.

Sands Alive! Deluxe Set by PLAY VISIONS INC.Set includes 5 pounds of Sands Alive!, 6 Geometric Shape Molds, 4 Deluxe Castle Molds, 4 Small Castle Molds, 5 Mini Castle Topper Molds, 2 Sculpting Tools, 1 Paver, Brick and Pebble Rollers with Interchangeable Handle and Large Play Tray.
— In a March 2014 survey, 2 out of 9 retailers told TDmonthly that Sands Alive! was a best-selling product.
— Kelly Ratoff, owner of Kennebunk Toy Company in Kennebunk, Maine, told TDmonthly in a May 2014 survey that Play Visions sands are consistently best-sellers. "As many as we can get, we sell through," she said.
— David Castillo, vice president of The Red Balloon Toy Store in Salt Lake City, Utah, told TDmonthly in a November 2014 survey that Sands Alive is one of their store's best-selling educational toys. "Sands Alive especially has been hard to keep on the shelf," he told us. 3/31/2014 (MSRP: $80.00)


Yamie Chess: The Adventures of Tigermore and the Mind Angels (Math learning aid) by YAMIE CHESS LTD

Yamie Chess: The Adventures of Tigermore and the Mind Angels (Math learning aid) by YAMIE CHESS LTDYamie Chess is a Harvard/MIT math PhD-backed STEM learning aid based on classic chess. Supports math education for 12 year olds in the K-8 educational grades. The math learning aid has been designed by MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Columbia, Vanderbilt and University of Arizona math educators and engineers in collaboration with 2-time United States chess champion Jennifer Shahade. Made in America.

Praise for Yamie Chess:

"Yamie Chess is a beautiful, inspiring and very valuable educational tool. Teaching chess and math in a playful manner, embedding both in a fantasy story, is a great approach. The outcome is a feel-good-book for children and their parents with great pedagogical value. I recommend it highly." – Harvard University Mathematics Professor Christian Hesse

"I highly recommend Yamie Chess: The Adventures of Tigermore & The Mind Angels. When a child learns how to play chess, adds a lot to his or her science education, and has a wonderful time walking through a rich fantasy world, you can’t go wrong!" International Master Jeremy Silman, Harry Potter chess consultant on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Warner Bros, 2001)



 2/5/2014 ()


Jumperbot by THAMES & KOSMOS

Build an energetic bouncing robot that uses an electric motor and a springloaded mechanism to jump forward in a continuous motion. Watch the robot crouch down, compress its coil spring, and store up energy. Then see how it instantly extends its legs and releases the stored energy all at once, launching itself upward and forward. Experiment with the metal coil spring to discover how the robot’s jumping mechanism works. See if the robot can jump over objects in an obstacle course you design for it. Learn about elasticity, potential and kinetic energy, the spring constant, cams, and linkages. Build seven other functional models using the same mechanical components — the spring, cams, and motor — to perform other tasks and demonstrate physical science principles firsthand. Construct a car that moves forward on spiral-shaped wheels. Build a crab that moves sideways, a kicking machine that uses the spring-loaded mechanism to propel an object away, a pitching machine, and a grappler claw. Assemble a fun amusement park ride that spins around using the electric motor. Learn about the physics of force, mass, and weight by making and experimenting with a spring scale. The full-color, 24-page instruction manual provides step-by-step illustrated assembly instructions. 4/29/2014






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