I was recently asked for my view on STEM toys and was happy to be able to say that I think toys that make science, technology, engineering and maths fun, engaging and more accessible, especially for girls, are to be welcomed.
Ah, yes, but we mustn't ignore the arts - so now we have STEAM toys. And in the US, they have recognized the importance of children learning to read - teach children to read and they can teach themselves pretty much anything else, so we now have STREAM toys.
My question is, where does it end? Isn't it also important to teach children the soft skills that they learn so well through play? Skills such as confidence, empathy, communication, sharing, turn-taking, perseverance, commitment, loyalty, leadership and listening - if you can make an acronym out of that lot you're a better linguist than I am. Oh yes, let's not forget languages, history, geography and environmental responsibility, citizenship, money management, first aid, parenting skills - the list goes on and on.
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Surely as an industry we want to make toys which, first and foremost, appeal to and engage children - children learn nothing from toys which sit on the shelf and aren't played with. Toys need to be age appropriate, inclusive and fun. We all know that children learn a lot through play - and free play is a particularly powerful teacher - the paradox for toy manufacturers is that you can't predict exactly what a child is going to learn when they are playing freely and imaginatively (and that's the point).
But how do you communicate that to parents, especially those pushy parents who want their children to be top of their class before they even start school? I understand that 'let your kids play, we know it's educational, we just don't know what they'll learn' toy isn't a great marketing message, but neither is diluting a targeted label so that it becomes meaningless.
I completely understand the motivation of toy manufacturers who are making fantastic non-STEM toys to want a piece of the action as STEM has had so much publicity over the last few years but unless you want to end up with a 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocius'-esque mouthful of a label to cover all of the possible learning outcomes that toys can facilitate, we need to let it go.
Those of you who know me and my work will know that for me it's all about balance. A balanced play diet does include some STEM toys, but it also includes lots of other toys that promote the skills listed above. And can we also remember, that with the rise of conditions such as depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, isn't having fun and learning how to make yourself laugh one of the best learning outcomes of play?