December 2004 | Vol. III - No. 12
From Erector and chemistry sets to microscopes and Sea Monkeys, buying a child a science-based toy opens them up to a whole new world. Through these products, children can learn the disciplines of scientific methods, appreciate the value of observation, and realize that good results are predicated on following directions. They also teach the most valuable lesson: There is a rhythm and reason to the universe, and kids can unravel those mysteries if they so desire.
The children of today have a broad selection of scientific toys and nature kits to help them learn those lessons. And while parents and grandparents may not be able to develop the next Albert Einstein with their gifts of scientific toys, they should rest assured that they are giving huge gifts to their children--the gifts of exploration and access to knowledge.
Whatever a child’s age, there are appropriate scientific kits and tools on the market that will stimulate their interest. Some examples of appropriate scientific toys on the market today include: Creative Brains´ I Dig Excavation Adventures; Store for Knowledge´s Electricity Science Kit and award-winning Celestial Seeker (an illuminating, portable star finder); Skilcraft ChemLab 1100 Chemistry Set; and, GeoSafari´s Talking Microscope for the younger set.
Sharon DiMinico, Founder, CEO and also the buyer for science-based toys at Learning Express, details some of the types of science toys popular now: crime lab forensic science kits (popular because of the hit "CSI" television series), snap circuit kits, (very popular with dads), 4-cylinder engine model-building kits and spy toys because "spying is FUN!"
Sales for science-related toys and kits remain strong, DiMinico says. At Learning Express, that market continues to be as important to their company as their games and construction toy categories are. She believes that science toys and kits will continue to appeal to kids and parents into the future.
"Science items have become much more innovative, especially in the past year or so. No longer for ´nerds´ only, science toys are looking ´hip,´ more mainstream," DeMinico continues. She believes science and nature kits can help improve school performance because "they pique a child´s interest in learning because of their added hands-on nature."
Another science retailer, Science Stuff®, is a premier source of science supplies for schools, industry and scientific "tinkerers." Company president Sue Bachus holds a Master of Arts degree in Secondary Science Education and believes that sales of science toys and kits will remain perpetually strong because "science is fun."
Sue adds that problem-solving kits, chemistry kits and activity-based science kits remain all-time favorites and that individual toy best sellers include gyroscopes, tornado tubes, magnifiers and magnets. However, she thinks that some toys that used to be popular some time ago such as Slinky, Newton´s Cradle (balance balls), drinking birds, and Levitrons have saturated the market and sales have faded somewhat.
"Parents, especially home school parents, prefer-curriculum based science kits and use them in teaching. Actually, most everyday toys (tops, kites, Slinky, water squirters, etc.) are scientific in their design. Science toys help introduce children to science concepts in a fun way outside the classroom. We strongly believe that science toys can contribute directly to a positive attitude toward science and therefore, indirectly to science success in the classroom."
Creating ´complex thinkers´
Other experts and educators agree that science-based toys and nature kits can advance complex thinking in children. Author Jo-Ann Lake, in her article, "Literature and Science," for Connect: A Magazine of Teachers´ Innovations in K-8 Science and Math states that the "process skills developed through science can be integrated into all parts of our lives." She also stresses that "the skills developed through science teaching help children make sense of their experiences."
Those skills include:
Observing: using the senses to gather information about objects and events
Classifying: organizing information into logical categories
Seriating: arranging items or events according to a characteristic
Communicating: receiving and expressing information through listening, speaking, writing, reading, viewing, and presenting
Measuring: comparatively or quantitatively describing the length, area, volume, mass, or temperature of objects
Inferring: reaching conclusions based on evidence and reasoning without direct observation
Predicting: estimating the outcome of an event based on observation
Hypothesizing: providing a possible explanation based on a number of observations and inferences
Experimenting: designing and performing exploratory investigations to probe predictions or hypotheses
Controlling variables: discovering and manipulating the situations and/or environments that determine the results of an experiment
Interpreting: drawing conclusions about the data gathered
Making models: constructing actual or creative representations of items using a variety of materials
Manipulating equipment and materials: using appropriate commercial or homemade tools and supplies for investigative purposes
Joaquin Banda, a fifth grade teacher for 35 years at Adams School San Diego, Calif., has observed firsthand the importance of these fundamentals in the classroom. Students who have access to science-based toys and nature kits both at school and in the home seem to excel in all areas of learning.
"My experience has been that the ´hands on´ approach makes the experience a more meaningful situation and increases the likelihood of [them] being able to apply the learning to real life situations."
A student heading off to his first term at college, Tyler West, 18, also of San Diego, remembers the impact nature kits had on his educational development. He said that "being the one in charge of a science project" led to confidence in all his other subjects.
"My aunt used to send me kits like ´find a fossil´ or ´glow-in-the-dark stars´ to put up on my bedroom ceiling. Those gave me a chance to get my hands dirty and find something out for myself--or to lie in bed and contemplate the really big picture. All kids should be given such science toys...they make you realize that you really can think."