Follow, don’t lead when it comes to your kids and play.
By Nate MacDonald, co-founder and CEO of Tenka Labs

Today, toys with STEM elements (science, engineering, technology, and math) are sweeping toy shelves and gift guides. These project-based learning toys are key for igniting the imaginations of future generations — an invaluable skill as our economy and job market moves toward science, math, and engineering-focused needs. But many toy companies are STEM-washing the trend and simply slapping a teacher-approved label on the packaging, aiming to get it included in classroom curriculum.

It’s generally understood that STEM skills are necessary, and as a longtime teacher, I’m thrilled to see that STEM concepts are being embraced by the toy industry, but not all products are made the same. The thought here is that if a child understands how a smart toy works, they can invent, add, subtract, and create an entirely new concept. But filtering through marketing jargon and hype makes it tough to determine what’s best for your kids and the kids in your life. I go by these rules when doing my own shopping.

Mom, dad, get out of the way

Look for products that facilitate independent play. While every kid has different learning styles, one method that really works is to let them learn by doing; make sure the child is able to tease out the toy’s purpose and figure out how to make it work. Give them a challenge and the needed materials, then step back and let them find their own path. This means the ideal toy isn’t too complicated to require parental supervision but also challenging enough to prevent boredom.

I’ve come to understand that trusting children to learn through trial and error is a precarious idea for most parents; the modern impulse is to train our kids. But when kids can play with toys without adults having to jump in, explain the process and take over, children feel a greater sense of pride and ownership of their architecture.

For more than 85 years, LEGOs have been a tremendous example of an enduring product that inspires, but the real magic is in the design and manufacturing. The ubiquitous and extensive options for construction lets kids invent, create, build, break down, and redesign a project over and over again.

This is what we call…

Open-ended play

Author: Nate MacDonald (co-founder and CEO of Tenka Labs) for you below on open-ended play.

One of the biggest lessons from my time as an educator is that learning through hands-on, unprescribed play is most effective for a child’s development. Open-ended play means the toy does not have preset limitations but instead has multiple uses and limitless possibilities. Think building blocks and paint sets, in contrast to single-use toys like puzzles; these toys should give children the freedom to choose what direction they want to move in so they don’t necessarily have to make what’s on the cover of the box.

Allowing kids to invent, design, and play on their own terms gives them a choice in what they’re creating, imparting valuable ownership over their achievement. The open-ended play also ignites the imagination and encourages abstract thinking.

But are they really smart?

Engineering is a new form of literacy that’s best developed at a young age, especially in an economy that has moved toward digital over analog. STEM toys increase creativity and fluidity by encouraging out-of-the-box thinking, but many products that are effective for building don’t show children the mechanics and functions behind the actions. For example, there are many apps and games designed for STEM literacy that do not show the underpinning concepts, or in other words, the cause and effect. Kids learn that A+B=C, but they don’t understand why.

The importance of transparency in core design became extremely evident when I had my classroom make a trolley travel between two toy buildings. Because the tram was clear, making visible the motors, connections, and separation wires, my students could see how all the parts were physically connected and were able to understand the engineering concepts behind the object’s functions. They had to use reasoning and skill to see and understand exactly how the circuitry worked and used this knowledge to make more intricate mobile projects on their own.

But most importantly…is it FUN?

Several psychology papers suggest that the toys kids play with could affect their future interests, capabilities, and potential, but kids don’t want to be told about technology; they want to build things, tinker and experiment with fun projects. Toy lines should be specifically designed from the ground up to be fun at the core, and these types of toys are simple, analog, or transparent in their design.

When designing Circuit Cubes, we knew we wanted the child’s experience to be the adventure the kids go on, not the technology being used, so we went through many iterations to make sure the fun wasn’t lost. As a teacher-turned-toy designer, I knew that the only way Circuit Cubes would work is if they were designed to be fun first with the learning slipped in.

With the great challenges our world faces, we need to advocate for young, inquisitive minds to find creative and inspired solutions as the need for these skills is only projected to increase. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, economic projections estimate the need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals in the next decade. This is especially true for girls who want to get involved in engineering. During my time with FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics team and Girl Ignite (evenings to spark interest in STEM among young women) I saw that once they had a positive engineering experience, the majority of the girls would come back the following year — a great outcome for a mostly-male dominated industry.

Kids’ attentions are drawn in so many different directions, but we need them to develop strong hand-mind skills to build, think, explore, and question.

So I say, let them play. It’s the key to keeping the world safe.