STEM learning in the early years

Little Tikes has launched a new collection of toys: ‘STEM Jr’ which are aimed at getting children thinking about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Tom Smith, senior mechanical engineer at our Birmingham office, has taken over the blog this week to talk about this new toy range in line with our aim to combat gender inequality and inspire young people to pursue engineering apprenticeships and careers in the sector.

Inspiring children, both boys and girls, to take an interest in science and engineering from a young age before the added complication of gender stereotyping is one of the biggest challenges we face in this sector. Using toys to ignite the curiosity of the innovators of tomorrow is just the beginning of a long journey to increasing apprenticeship rates and closing the gender gap.

As an infant, there were no toys available to me that were comparable to this Little Tikes range – except very basic science sets. These held no interest to me because I didn’t understand what to do with them. Instead, I would watch my father do DIY and this played an important part in me pursuing a creative career in plumbing and engineering.

Having these readily available, highly stimulating STEM toys accessible for today’s youngest generation is of a huge benefit to the industry.

These toys from Little Tikes would be immediately engaging for my four-year-old son, Ethan, and I imagine that a lot of children would be excited and naturally inquisitive. They are highly interactive, with many hands-on experiments, playful sounds and phrases.

The three toys in the range – Wonder Lab, Tornado Tower and Builder Bot – are visually appealing and Little Tikes has successfully created a product line that will instantly provoke the inquisitive nature of a child and encourage them to explore.

The variety of the Wonder Lab is especially interesting as it ignites a child’s curiosity by bringing many different aspects of science and maths to life.

I believe however that, on a practical level, the age range being aimed at children aged at three plus years is a little too young for the complexity of the toys. The short attention span of younger children may work against the overall ambition of these products, as the toys seem to require a large amount of parent participation. Parents who are willing to spend time explaining some of the more complex aspects would be working directly towards our mission to engage more children with STEM subjects.

If I were to design a STEM Jr product, taking into consideration BSD’s engagement aims alongside the practicality of the toy, I would consider a doll’s house concept.

A house could be created, allowing the child to use building services to create rooms, such as using plumbing and boilers to install bathroom facilities. This would engage children with the engineering they encounter on a daily basis, and inspire them to be inquisitive about their surroundings.

Little Tikes has commendably created a range of toys which involve a much higher degree of detail than other products already available. Not only do they draw the attention of a young child, they allow the ability to work out a solution or to make something work, using detailed engineering.

The benefits of these toys are that they test a child’s ability to understand maths, science and technology and encourages them to consider why something works through various puzzles and scenarios. They are also helpful in educating a child on basic health and safety matters too – such as the hazards of seemingly harmless components.

These toys only scratch the surface of a much bigger task that we have on our hands in terms of breaking down gender stereotypes, reducing the skills gap in the industry and inspiring people to undertake apprenticeships. However, having them available tackles the grassroots level of STEM engagement which BSD can benefit from in the future.