Posts Tagged ‘Toys’

As two STEM parents, Domingo and I want to raise children strong in the sciences. To that end, we’re always looking at STEM toy recommendations online. Trouble is, I often disagree with what counts as a STEM toy. One list had My Pal, Violet as a “STEM” toy. It’s electronic, sure. But STEM? I just don’t see it.

Here’s this data scientists pick for STEM toys for young kids.

Different kinds of Building Toys

Building toys are the staple of any stem list. Everyone knows building blocks like legos are great for their budding engineer to learn spatial reasoning, and develop of love of design. Peg based connector toys (Lego, Duplo, Mega Blocks, etc) are great but why stop there? By varying the type of toy and how the pieces connect, you’re reinforcing the concepts by introducing new types of challenges, new ways to design and new ways of thinking to your little engineer.

There’s magnet based connectors like Magformers and SmartMax. Gear connectors like Gears! Gears! Gears! is another fun one. You can also go with disc connectors like Brain Flakes and Mighty Molecules. A big hit in our home right now is Think n’ Link.

Curious George the Astronaut

To me a good STEM toy is one that gets a child interested in a STEM topic, and not necessarily building a critical STEM skill. If you don’t encourage kids’ interests they can sometimes fade. One way to do that is to include a plushy toy they can role play with. When the girls showed interest in space we encouraged it with a Curious George the Astronaut plushie and an Astronaut custom. We build rocket ships for George out of Mega Blocks.

We noticed a similar impact with our Alexa. It sparked Nicole’s interest enough to get her thinking about robots. Even though it’s not a toy, we did get a STEM benefit from it.


Anything that helps kids look at their world differently is going to help inspire them to think about their world in different ways. In this category I really like the Geosafari Miscroscope and Geosafari Kidnoculars. Both are designed well for little faces, and don’t require focusing which make them very easy to use. The binoculars in particular are a favorite because the rubber grip eye piece makes it super easy for even Alexis to use.

We take our Binoculars (or nock-lers as Alexis calls them) to the Zoo and in the back yard. Even though they only have a 2x magnification, they proved a huge hit at the zoo. We were having an issue where Alexis would lose interest and want to move on to the next Animal before Nicole was ready. By introducing the Binoculars everything is new and interesting. If Alexis got bored with the Animals, she’d use her binoculars to people watch, or examine the trees giving Nicole all the time she needed.

We’ve looked at all mannors of things though the Microscope, including our princess necklaces and bugs. My favorite thing to look at through the microscope, however, is cereal. You can see the holes in the rice krispies!

January 26, 2014

Revisiting Girl Toys

Putting a dozen princess bracelets on her foot. Because, why not?

It’s easy for someone in my position to have a gripe with ‘Girl Toys’. Computer science (my profession) has made great strides, but still remains male dominated. As such, it sometimes attracts people who think the field should remain so. I have been witness to such sexists remarks. Perhaps some people feel comfortable sharing these beliefs with me because I’m not stereotypically girly, and therefore not one of those girls who doesn’t belong. At least, that’s how I internalize those conversations. I’m not a mall crawler who likes to have her hair done and her nails polished, so I still belong. I want Nicki to belong in my world as well. To love math and science as I do.

Yet even though I’m not stereotypically girly in many respects, I am in others. Yes, I am a data scientist, a cross between a mathematician and statistician who never wears makeup, and am more comfortable sporting free t-shirts acquired from tech conferences than in wearing something ‘nice’. I also played with Barbies as a child, and collected model horses as a child. I prefer science fiction, but have been known to enjoy a romantic comedy. We are allowed to like contradictory things. Humans are complex creatures afterall with multiple facets to their personalities. Little humans are no exception. Just because a girl likes ‘girl toys’ doesn’t mean she can’t also like ‘boy toys’. It doesn’t mean she can’t grow up to be a mathematician.

I hate the notion of dumbed down ‘girl’ versions of otherwise gender neutral toys, but there’s nothing wrong in marketing toys specifically to girls. My goal as a parent is to expose Nicki to as many things as possible, and let her decide what she likes. That includes stereotypical ‘girl’ toys and interests.

That’s easy to say, harder to follow through.

This Christmas Nicki got both a baby doll, and a play kitchen. The play kitchen and doll were ideas that came right from day care. I picked her up a little on the early side one day and found Nicki, and her best friend Kai, playing together with the little wooden kitchen. They were mimicking washing dishes together. Last month she came home with a doll because she could not bear to be parted with it. Both toys were easy to justify, as both are great for creative play and role-playing. She feeds her doll (and other toys) constantly, both with baby bottles and spoons from her kitchen. She’s constantly mixing up something in her big sauce pan. She makes a mean headband soup.

She’s also been turning everything into jewelry: the rings on her stacker, headbands, even my work id lanyard. Anything that fits on her wrists or ankles goes on her wrists or ankles. I’m not sure where she learned to do that. Not from me, I don’t were jewelry other than wedding rings. Not that I can complain too much – her love of jewelry did make the pearl necklace photos that much easier. Unlike the kitchen or the doll it’s hard to come up with a good reason to introduce Nicki to custom jewelry. It’s not a role playing toy. It doesn’t help build her spacial awareness or fine motor control, at least no more than stickers and crayons do. The sole function of jewelry is too look pretty. But I knew she would like it. That should be reason enough.

I still want to discourage the idealization of princesses who wait for princes to come fix their problems, but I should let her enjoy playing princess. I don’t want Nicki to feel limited because of her gender, but I don’t want her to feel like she has to hide it either.

December 19, 2012

Legos are for Boys, Apparently

My sister and I had those big boxes of legos and k’necks growing up. They came with instructional booklets on how to build twenty to thirty different things. After building everything at least half a dozen times, we started coming up with our own designs. We built race cars to launch from the top at the stairs. At first the goal was to have the car that remained the most intact and go the furthest, but it quickly devolved to whose car could break apart the most.

We must have thought we were boys.

Domingo and I were in the toy isle at Target and noticed that the toy that is the basis of so many child hood memories is not the same. Gone are the generic kids with large instructional booklets in favor of very specialized kits, and they’re no longer gender neutral.

Boy legos are for building and exploring new worlds: the wild west, dinosaurs, space travel and deep ocean adventures. What could be cooler than building your space station, and then visiting the National Air and Space Museum? Or building your deep ocean explorer and seeing the sharks in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Legos are a great learning tool in their own right, building toys promote spacial awareness, but you can build on the interests sparked by those kits for all kinds of opportunities to learn.

Girl legos are pastel. You can build beauty parlors and bakeries. Where do you go from there? Good job with the bakery, Nicki, now let’s make some cupcakes? I love to bake, and I hope my daughter enjoys baking with me as well. I also like pink, and pastels, but that doesn’t mean I want Nicki to be awash in pink things. I hope she dreams of space travel, or exploring the ocean in her own submarine one day. Why should she be regulated to little plastic figures with budding breasts, and focus her attention on beauty and food?

I don’t fault Legos for this ‘girl legos’ design, it’s a response to consumer demand. If they didn’t sell, stores would stop carrying them and manufactures would stop making them. And the good news is there is a consumer shift. Swedish toy manufacture produced a gender neutral catalog, and while there was a backlash to the catalog, Metal recently announced they’re making a Barbie construction set. Although, I’m sure it’s primary color will be pink.

In the mean time, this consumer has made a decision: Nicki will be playing with boy legos too.