A Brutally Honest Holiday Guide to STEM Toy Shopping

As a parent, I have gotten caught in the “it is labeled STEM, it must be good” trap. And all that’s gotten me is a dusty basement full of expensive toys.

I have a confession to make. There is a Legos Mindstorm Robot gathering dust in my basement. He is stacked on top of circuit boards. All well-meaning gifts to my kids a few Christmases back. Why did I buy a $300 robot? I bought it because it was labeled as a STEM toy. I bought it because I thought I was supposed to as a mom trying her best to bring STEM into her kids’ lives. I thought all of that meant my kids would not only love it, they would be STEM gurus after playing with it. The truth of it is the robot held their attention about as long as the Furby. And the box the robot came in beat out the Furby and the Mindstorm.
I am expecting the next STEM related acronym to come out just in time for the holiday season. We have STEM, STEAM, STREAM. It all started out innocently enough with only a four-letter acronym but now we are up to STREAM (Science, Reading, Electronics, Art, Math), which kind of encompasses everything. It is as if the three R’s went rogue. It is why there are a myriad of parenting jokes about kids that play with the box instead of the toy. I have another secret to tell you parents: Listen carefully while your wallet is open and the frenzy of holiday buying is upon us. Kids like fun.
As a parent, I have gotten caught in the “it is labeled STEM, it must be good” trap. I love the idea of STEM. I love the idea of my kids being doctors someday because I bought them a certain Lego set. I think the designers of STEM toys have the very best intentions. The toys are good. They are made with the very best ideas and research. They are made with kids at the core of their creation. They have been tested by experts and reviewed by educational gurus and run through focus groups.
However, if you have to explain what the toy does to an eight-year-old, you might as well buy them a Furby or a Kinder Surprise Egg. The “my parent bought me a STEM toy and I have to play with it because I want to open something else that might be an Xbox” novelty will wear off if you are only buying because of a label. Or because of the enormous parent guilt/pressure that is levied at you. I fell prey to the pressure. I bought the Mindstorm robot and Snap Circuits. Both are highly rated toys. I wanted my kids to love them. I badly wanted them to play with the toys 700 times so I could justify the cost. They held my kids’ attention for a month or so and got relegated to the land of lost STEM toys. The STEM that both kids have loved the most: their computers, their iPads, and the WiiU.
What follows, then, is my veteran parent tips on STEM shopping:

Do not buy the hype … or the guilt

Buy for your kid. If something on a STEM list looks great, take your kid to the toy store and let them play with the toy. See if it is a fit for them. STEM can be awesome. But if you are only buying STEM hype, that’s what you will get. And your kids won’t get it.

Do not make play time strictly learning time

Kids spend 40 hours a week in school. If you are buying them a STEM toy to play with in their free time at school, apply this simple rule: what would you want to bring home from your 40 hour a week job to play with at home? Would you want a stapler? Would you want to spend your free time at home working in PowerPoint? The answer is probably no. As a grown-up, you want things like a boat or a fictional book or Godiva chocolate. Kids honestly love the same stuff: toy boats, the latest Rick Riordan book, and Hershey bars. However, if you have the kid (or spouse) who would love a stapler and their own home copy of PowerPoint, go for it!

Labels are for parents

Guess what? Your kid could probably care less if a toy is labeled STEM, STEAM, STREAM, Educational, Researched, or Award-Winning. That doesn’t diminish those STEM toys in any way. But kids have their own priorities. They want to have fun. They want to make noises. They really want the toys their friends label as fun. They want toys that they can change and manipulate and get on the floor and explore with. They don’t know about toy councils and research firms. They know about play. And being kids.

Think outside the STEM box

I am guessing you are a smart parent. With a smart kid. If you want to include STEM in their daily play, do that in same way you sneak in kale and broccoli. Get your holiday parent fun by turning a non-STEM toy into a secret parent victory. Buy the EZ Bake Oven and take special glee in knowing they are doing math when they calculate cooking times. Get the NERF gun and think about fine motor skills. Playdoh and finger paints are art tools. As they destroy your house with Perma-Play-Doh, dream of the day they become Jackson Pollack. You can do that. Parents are allowed to dream those dreams. You need something to dream about as you dig fluorescent Play-Doh out of your hardwood floors.

Look for multi-purpose toys

Read reviews! Many parents that spend $300 on a robot are going to say nice things about it. But there is a lot of honesty out there. Parents are also going to tell it like it is. That village of parents buying on Amazon and your IRL village of parents around you are a great resource. I looked through many STEM toy lists and kept finding reviews that looked at the toy beyond the STEM purpose. Many were positive. Their kids enjoyed building and coding and creating. But moms also noted when their kids quickly lost interest and how disappointing that was. Beyond that the reviews said things like “once the coding is done, this toy is just hard plastic.” Basically, if you buy a robot dog, it should also be soft, convert to a car, or make snow cones.

Think about your child’s STEM age

Another note of a positively reviewed toy was that “in today’s world, this coding option is more for four-year-olds.” If your kid has done coding at school and a toy says for ages eight to 12, take a really hard look at what the toy offers to your 10-year-old. Also think about your own STEM skills. If it takes you the parent an hour to figure out how the darn toy works, it may not be right for your three-year-old. No one wants frustration on Christmas morning. And while it may only take your kid five minutes to figure out the same toy, that may be the toy’s sole purpose.

Let kids be kids

Ask yourself this question: If your child isn’t potty trained and can’t walk, talk or read, do they need a STEM-labeled toy? That may sound harsh but there is something to be said for not introducing coding to a one-year-old just because all the other one-year-olds are coding. There are all kinds of studies that show the benefits of certain toys and activities for babies and toddlers. Music. Art. All great parts of STEAM. But do you need to expose your six-month-old to a board book about lady scientists? If that is what floats your boat and you want to share that with your kid, girl power to you! But what has happened to the toys of the 70s? Weebles. Dollhouses. Simple blocks. Blocks are blocks are blocks. Do they need to be called STEM blocks and have a matching app for designing with them?
As you go out into the overwhelming STEAMing, STREAMing world with money in your pocket and a cloud of parent guilt, you only have one thing to really consider: your kids. But please also consider if you have space for a dusty two-foot tall robot.