Child’s Play: How Modern Toys are Engaging Kids with STEM Subjects

Digital Toys

What toys will your child play with during the next school holidays? Chances are they’ll be big, bright and lots of fun. But what’s the future of kid’s toys – and does the increasing digitization of playtime help or hinder child development?

From Ken Dolls to computer coding…  

Children’s toys have come a long way from Slinkys, Magic 8 Balls and Ken Dolls. That may well stir the nostalgia in you. But the fact is that 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. Then there’s Learning Resources’ robot mouse activity set, which promises to engage children with STEM learning through the exploration of coding and programming concepts. Or how about the Kano Computer Kit? It invites kids as young as six to build a computer and then begin coding apps, music and art.

It’s a far cry from Play-Doh and My Little Pony.

Digital integration  

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.

With Osmo for example, you set up your tablet on the base provided and clip a small reflector over the camera. This allows the app to “see” what children are doing with the physical pieces of the game. In one game – purported to improve dexterity, hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness – kids must use the physical blocks in front of them to match the shape they see on screen. Once they’re successful, the game moves on to the next shape.

The board game Beasts of Balance meanwhile 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.

“Play is the beginning of knowledge”

Digital integration is here to stay. UK market analyst Juniper Research has forecast that smart toy sales will reach $15.5 billion in hardware and app content revenues by 2022, up from an estimated $4.9 billion in 2017. But is the increasing prevalence of sophisticated smart toys a good thing or a bad thing?

US politician George Dorsey once famously said that “play is the beginning of knowledge”. But 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.”

There are also obvious data privacy concerns with connected toys. Especially with smart toys that “listen” and “respond” to children’s spoken language.

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.”


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