Buzzwords like “STEM” and “STEAM” are everywhere these days. When it comes to educating young minds, learning these skills — science, technology, engineering, art, and math — can help prepare budding minds for the future workforce. More specifically, .
“Often children don’t know any scientists or engineers personally, depending on the family,” says Roger Malina, professor of arts and technology at the University of Texas at Dallas. “The earlier they can get hands-on experience, the better. This helps to demystify careers they don’t have family models for.”
In today’s technology-driven world, it’s important, more so now than ever before, for children to have a firm grasp on digital literacy. There are classes, camps, and other coding-centered experiences for kids. But you don’t have to go all-out with flashy electronics to provide your kids with a firm understanding of coding. Simple toys can also help to teach the 21st-century technique.
Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, encourages parents to provide a variety of toys that engage children visually and allows them to have a flexible mindset when it comes to learning to code.
“For math, we’ve overemphasized numbers…we have underdeveloped visual thinking and thinking in different forms”
“To be successful in life, in school, and in many fields, students need constitutive reasoning so they can lay a quantitative lens upon the world and see patterns and order,” says Boaler. “They are learning to use computational thinking and reasoning to develop coding.”
Don’t expect your first grader to develop an app just yet, but these toys can help build up their brain power and set them up for more advanced learning later.
While coding is a digital skill in today’s workforce, the basics of it can be taught without using screens.
“We are now in a culture that relies on digital devices,” says Malina. “It’s important that children get to learn what’s ‘under the hood.’ Meaning the skills needed include how to model something and convert it to a list of instructions or steps like a cooking recipe shows you a picture of the end.”
It may sound elementary, but Boaler says that building blocks and bricks are one of the best ways that children can practice math and coding skills. Blocks offer children a way to develop and work on tangible computing methods and patterns.
“Wooden blocks or building bricks such as Legos let kids think creatively as they design and build their own things without having to follow instructions all of the time,” says Boaler.
Recommended for all ages.
The Code-a-Pillar features colorful lights and encourages children to arrange the segments in their own unique pattern. Each piece of the toy represents a different function. Once a child has completed their desired arrangement, they can turn the toy on and watch the Code-a-Pillar act out the programmed movements.
This is the type of creative free play that Boaler says is important in developing crucial coding skills.
“For math, we’ve overemphasized numbers,” says Boaler. “We’ve helped students develop numerical work but we have underdeveloped visual thinking and thinking in different forms that can allow that type of brain communication. What’s important is for students to engage in multidimensional thinking.”
Recommended for preschoolers.
Simple toys can also help to teach the 21st-century technique.
Robot Turtles was invented by , a former Google executive. It’s a board game that inspires children use critical thinking skills, programming methods, and silly turtle sounds to tell the turtle which way to go. This game helps teach basic coding concepts in younger children and helps to reinforce coding skills in older kids.
Once the turtle reaches a certain spot on the board, the child will then reprogram the turtle to move left, right, or forward to reach a jewel. This multi-level game also includes a “bug card” to undo a move.
When it comes to coding, Boaler says that toys should let kids think visually, be creative, and offer movement. That’s the goal of Robot Turtles.
“We want kids to understand that mathematics is about thinking visually and deeply, as well as using quantitative reasoning, flexible thinking, and approaching a problem in different ways. When children think numerically, they should also think visually about what that would look like if they were to draw it or model it in some way,” Boaler says.
Recommended for ages 4 and up.
There can be a lot of value something apart and putting it back together again, according to Malina. It’s a skill that easily translates to the world of coding. When he talks about “getting under the hood,” he’s referring to this exact method of doing things.
The Lego Boost Creative Toolbox allows children to build five different robots. Each model is more challenging to build than the previous one. There’s some limited screen time involved, as once the model is built, kids use the Lego Boost app to program the robots to do certain tasks. Once they’re done, they can take the model apart and build it again or construct a new one.
“The concept of modeling can then be transferred to modeling other tasks one is trying to do,” says Malina. “As a child, I learned what was ‘under the hood’ of my parents’ car and this motivated me with interested in mechanics and fixing things. In a similar way, children today should be encouraged to not only use digital devices but use them for purposes they might not have been intended for. There are easy first steps in coding that allows a child to get under the hood.”
Recommended for ages 7-12.
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