Playful Learning: STEM and STEAM Toys

Jacob Sullivan
Dec 30, 2019 · 11 min read

As all parent do, I think a lot about how to prepare my kids for the future. What skills and life lessons will they need to be successful in tomorrow’s world?

As an engineer and technologist, I know that a lifetime appetite for learning is more important than any specific knowledge gained today. And I have learned as I have gotten older, that a healthy dose of emotional intelligence goes a long way too. Developing an approach, or framework, to understanding the amazing capabilities of science and technology was an important foundation for me. I have met too many people that are turned-off by the complexity of software, science, and tech. I wish they could feel the sense of wonderment I feel in the creative potential of humanity. This feeling has accompanied me my entire life.

I wanted to find a way to share that optimism of opportunity with my kids, and instill in them the tools to understand the world as it is today … and as it could be tomorrow.

The future will be determined by those who make it.

So, I began looking around to see what options were available for teaching kids about science and technology. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. And STEAM is STEM plus the “arts” — humanities, design, visual arts, etc. And there are a lot of options out there today for kids and families. As in so many other ways, the world is different than when we were younger.

In the 2nd half of 2019, my kids and I began trying out many of the different options. And we documented this journey on YouTube.

We made over 30 videos and wrote 15+ reviews of different products and subscriptions.

Tinkermites YouTube Channel

We spent hundreds of hours making, playing, and breaking STEM/STEAM subscription kits and inventive learning toys.

Three lessons I learned

(1) There is no substitute for parent involvement.

I often talk to parents that want a recommendation for a STEM toy or project to buy. And I ask the parents which type of project would interest them(the parent). And mostly the say, “no, no. I am not interested in it myself. But I want my kids to learn to program.” Well, that is a challenge. Even the best kits and toys will require some parental involvement. And the best projects will need a lot of adult involvement. And why would your kids want to learn something you yourself shun?

(2) Although variety is fun, foundational knowledge comes from repetition.

My kids and I tried a lot of different projects. And the newness did keep things interesting. But I found that there retention was low when we pulled the same toy out again. So in 2020 we are going to focus on doing fewer new projects, and get deeper into the concepts we have already tried once.

(3) Playful learning is real.

There is a lot of literature about “playful learning”. It is about learning by doing things that are fun. This relates a lot to my first two lessons I learned. Repetition and family involvement. In a previous lifetime we would have learned all of our skills at the side of our parents. Farming or apprenticing with adult tools beside the adults. I think this is also why kids used to play “house” or “shopping”. They mimic the activities they witnessed their parents doing. But in today’s world, they learn everything from screens, or strangers, or other kids. I think we need to find ways to bring more of this playful learning back into our world.

What projects do you recommend?

You will be amazed at both the breadth and depth of options that are available. From circuits to software projects, Legos and robotics, woodworking and a 4-piston engine. Subscription kits, DIY projects, iPad apps, and so much more. The resources available really blow the mind. Unsurprisingly, the quality and value also vary quite a bit.

Favorite Subscription Kit?

Creation Crate is a monthly kit that has you building electronic circuits and programming. It is surprisingly accessible. They provide several different subscription options.

The kits come with everything you need to complete the project.

Creation Crate could teach a masterclass in subscription kits and electronic projects. They are absolutely in the top tier of projects that Christopher and Sean have tried.

Each month we received a different electronics project with all of the wiring, sensors, and Arduino board needed. Someone went to tremendous effort to develop thoughtful and education projects that are very accessible to kids.

You build fun and interactive devices like a mood lamp and mobile bot. Unlike many other kits and projects we have encountered, Creation Crate does not oversimplify or abstract out the actual tech part. They use the same components adults are using to prototype IoT and other circuits.

The instructional videos are awesome. Christopher and Sean were able to follow the clear instructions, and there were several helpful hints of the best way to accomplish the more complicated steps.

You will be impressed how overall complicated projects become doable for your kids. The programming portion can be quite involved. But luckily the Creation Crate team let’s you decide how involved you want to get in that portion. The boys moved quickly through that section, uploading the example code that was provided.

Favorite Non-Electronic Project?

The Discovery Kids DIY Toy Model Engine Kit is a see-thru replica of a four cylinder combustion engine. Valves, cylinders, pulleys, belts, cranks, and pistons give your kids real insight into the workings of a real engine. With close to a hundred individual parts, this is quite a project!

This was a big project. It took more than four hours in total, and we completed the project in several phases.

The instructions are solid, with good diagrams. A few steps can be tricky, as several pieces can be installed with the wrong orientation … leading you to have to disassemble and reassemble whole sections. So you need to pay close attention. And with close to 100 pieces, 67 screws, and 20 steps … it requires some dedication.

As you can see in the video, the boys struggled with some new terminology, crankshafts, timing rods, and all that. But learning new parts and ideas is the whole point! You could tell they were getting more and more excited as the project came together and parts started moving.

And when we put the final pieces together and the electric drive motor started the engine model moving and cranking … check it out for yourself in the video!

Annie’s Woodworking Kits are a monthly subscription for kits to construct wooden toys. It involves hammer and nails, screws, painting … and did I mention hammering?

Annie’s Woodworking Kits were great! Thoughtfully made, complete parts, sturdy pieces. And did I mention? We got to hammer and hammer! The instructions were pretty, but a bit sparse on details.

I often needed to help the boys understand the various steps. Video steps would have been great, but then we would be back to screens and stuff.

A big part of woodworking is learning to deal with minor variations in the wood or equipment, and most instructions are light. The kits also include the paint and paint brush, and stickers, necessary to make a beautiful finished product. And although the end results don’t usually look like the picture in the instructions, we had a great time building and painting!

Favorite Robot?

Lego Boost Creative Toolbox is a 840 piece advanced Lego kit. It is also a Bluetooth connected programmable robotics set. It is not compatible with Lego Mindstorms, but the standard Lego pieces can be used with all other Legos.

Wow! Where to start. What an amazing awesome cool super unbelievable … did I say amazing .. fun kit! Imagine taking the Lego building experience, and adding motors, sensors and easy to use visual coding blocks … and you have this amazing awesome cool super unbelievable fun robotics kit!

As you would expect from Lego, the instructions are fabulous. You need an iPad or Android device, and the projects can be long, but anything this great is worth the effort.

We tried the first getting started project. As you can see from the video, Christopher and Sean loved the building and loved the easy to use programming app. The programming is an even simpler version of MIT Scratch. Your iPad communicates directly with the Lego Boost control block.

We have not gotten to the sensor that measures distance and color … yet! You can build robots, interactive guitars, a cat … oh my!

The downside is you have to dismantle your creations to build the next one … but our projects usually fall apart from excessive play anyway. :-)

Overall, we love the Lego Boost kit and look forward to hours and hours of play!

“Easy, but still Enriching” Favorite?

Elenco’s Electronic Snap Circuits are a fun learning platform for basic electronics. All of the components, like switches and leds, snap together onto a plastic board. The circuits are connected together with longer blue pieces that also snap into place. The basic kit has a workbook for many projects.

Sean was very excited to tackle a circuit project on his own. He had completed several other electronic projects that used breadboards and Arduino with his brother. Those projects were a bit hard for Sean to follow, and would have been more then he could accomplish on his own at this time. But the Snap Circuits were a snap!

The color box comes well stocked with dozens of pieces small and large. And they make a satisfying click as the snap into place. The kit is quite sturdy and can handle rough play without fail.

The large instruction book is thoughtfully put together, and the circuits get progressively complex as it goes on. But Sean was able to handle the first few on his own with no direction. And I feel confidant he will be able to progress through the entire book.

The Base Inventor Kit is the first of several options from the littleBits company. The kits are comprised of many small modules, that are color coded and snap together with magnets. The base kit includes 10 “Bits” or modules, and 12 different activities. There are also paper templates, similar to Nintendo Labo, for folding different pieces for the various projects.

Christopher and Sean took very quickly to the littleBits projects. Although we already had a lot of exposure to building circuits, I can see how the littleBits approach is really well designed for first time users. The color coding and magnetic attachments solve several of the problems encountered by younger makers. Our first project was the Door Alarm, and the boys loved making a noise maker!

The instructional videos were easy for the kids to follow, and the progression of complexity in the projects was well paced. Everything in the box worked the first time, which isn’t always true for other electronic kits.

The paper templates feel a bit flimsy and are easy to tear. And they are not as well labeled as I would have preferred. We are probably a bit spoiled by the Nintendo Labo kits, which are surprisingly sturdy and incredibly well organized/labeled.

The magnetic connectors are an awesome idea, and really help when the kids would have struggled with the fine motor skills necessary to connect wires. But the magnetic connectors also disconnect a bit when you are moving around. Certainly not a deal breaker, but also something I did notice.

Overall, we couldn’t be happier with our littleBits kit! It was tons of fun, very educational, and a thoughtful product.

Be sure to check out the video to get a feel for the steps and activities involved. We are excited to try other littleBits projects and kits!

Overall Favorite?

The Nintendo Labo Variety Kit is the first in multiple sets of the Labo product line. You must also own the Nintendo Switch console for the Labo projects to work.

The Labo kits include cardboard pieces that you fold and assemble into various objects. Such as what might look like a piano, fishing rod, or moterbike handles. The objects you create have slots for the Nintendo Switch screen and controller. Once assembled, you can play games and interact with the screen and controllers and objects you have created.

Nintendo Labo is an amazing product. I can’t imagine the time and energy that went into development. Everything, and I mean everything, about it just works. And works well. Christopher and Sean do a lot of kits, projects, and games. And Nintendo Labo is my favorite for 2019.

The Variety Kit contains 50 or 60 sturdy cardboard sheets. Each sheet has clearly marked pop-out pieces, and is well labeled and organized. Far superior to many other kits that have a folding/building component.

The instructions are all animated videos on the Switch that guide you through folding and assembling various interactive props. You can tackle progressively harder projects. After the first two build, these projects are very time intensive. But provide enough variety in the parts that you build, the kids stay engaged for hours at a time. I do recommend taking a few breaks during the process.

The projects are ingenious. Every part fits as designed. Every motion works as expected. The kits are robust enough for kids extended play. We have gone back to the projects several times afterwards.

Once built, the Switch and joy-con controllers are incorporated into the cardboard props to replicate a piano, simulate fishing or bike riding, or create an interactive play house. At every step I was impressed with the creativity and functionality.

Once you have completed several projects, the “Garage” function opens up and you can use the visual programming tool on the Switch to reprogram the projects you have built, or create entirely new contraptions. Endless exploration.

Overall a masterful product.

The Piper Computer Kit is a build-you-own working computer. It contains all of the electronics needed to assemble a fully functional screen, mouse, speaker, and Raspberry PI based system. Your creation will run a modified version of Minecraft(a build-you-own virtual world game). A very hands-on DIY adventure! Kids will learn circuit construction(wires and switches with a breadboard) to complete challenges within the game.

The Piper Computer Kit has been one of our favorite projects! We can highly recommend!

We like projects that combine multiple play and learning aspects together, and the Piper Computer has everything. You use your construction skills to assemble the wooden case, get hands on electronics experience wiring the Raspberry Pi, speaker, and screen together, and play/learning possibilities for coding and circuits too.

The list of capabilities might be intimidating, but the instructions are thoughtful and easy to follow. I had worried the lack of video tutorials out of the box was going to be an issue, but the beautiful blueprints were awesome. In fact, every part of the Piper Computer kit is beautiful and well crafted.

The assembly process is going to take a while. It might be best to do it in stages. The modified Minecraft story based game is good. Navigation can be a little tricky, but the circuit building challenges are excellent in their simplicity and relevance to the game. We have already gotten hours of entertainment, and I feel like we are just getting started.

We do a lot of projects at our house, and many of them sit on a shelf after the first pass. But we have gone back to the Piper Computer several times for more play and learning. I feel like we got an excellent value for the cost.

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Jacob Sullivan

Written by

Entrepreneur, dad, maker.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +647K people. Follow to join our community.

Jacob Sullivan

Written by

Entrepreneur, dad, maker.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +647K people. Follow to join our community.

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