Last week I wrote an article on Stem toys entitled: "Can a STEM Toy Really Be a Toy? The Flintstone Test". I asked the question because, at least in some cases STEM toys have become a little too much like Flintstone Vitamins; medicine dressed up like candy.
On both social networks and in comments to the article itself, there were voices in support and in disagreement. Those who questioned my asking the question, pushed back on my statement that "A toy, in its very essence, is not designed to produce anything tangible except to provide joy, confidence and fantasy. It is not designed to be productive so much as to entertain."
Al Kaufman wrote: "I'm not in agreement with your assertion that a toy must provide ONLY joy, confidence, and fantasy…STEM toys do all of these things, as well as hopefully nurturing the child's intellectual curiosity.."
Peter Santaw followed with this question: "Where do you stand with Lego, K'nex, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Erector, Snap Circuits, Little Bits, Chemistry Sets etc.?"
Baby Blues, May 31, 2017, http://www.seattlepi.com/comics-and-games/fun/Baby_Blues/
Thanks to all of you who commented. You made me think, which was what I had hoped would happen, and here is my response:
All toys are educational
All toys, whether with intention or not, are and always have been educational. Stacking blocks or rolling a ball educates a child about physics. Playing double dutch jump rope can enhance coordination, socialization and communitarian skills. Playing a board game can teach the importance of following the rules and the stigma that attaches itself to cheating.
How are STEM toys different?
Therefore, I agree with Peter Santaw that the toys he mentions are educational. Yet, I don't think we would call most of them STEM toys. So what is the difference between all toys and STEM toys. My answer is that a STEM toy self-designates itself as didactic. In doing so, it markets itself as a form of mental medicine. It calls to the parent or educator more than the child.
I think we have become, as a society, much too serious about childhood. Schools now have little or no recess and children are loaded down with far too many organized, adult supervised after-school activities. Consciously disguising educational products as toys is just part of that continuum.
Children today have little time to enjoy one of the greatest aspects of childhood, free and open play. When we disguise education as play aren't we are just giving them more work to do?
So, I say lets's not be so serious. Children need time to be children. The joy, the pure joy, that comes with free time gets more constrained the older we get.
STEM's appropriate place
STEM toys are well meant and certainly have an appropriate place…in the classroom or, if need be,
as a form of homework. If, however, if the intent of the the toy is to simply be a toy and therefore education occurs without self-conscious intent, then by all means they belong in the toy department, right along with Lego, K'nex, Little Bits and chemistry sets.
Let's make toys that are all about joy. If a child learns in the process, well that's wonderful.