Our Top 3 STEM Toys
Finance Toys Suck
We have an ongoing debate in our family about whether our kids should follow in their father’s finance footsteps and enjoy a career of glamor and endless excitement*. My wife is not a fan of the idea and is instead subtly (or not so) indoctrinating them as engineers – a life where undoubtedly people’s eyes glaze over when you tell them what you do*. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like…
I clearly want the best for my kids i.e. a life in finance. That should have been clear from the paragraph above, but some of my family claim to read this blog, and I need to connect the dots for them.
Despite my desire for a bunch of 007 finance agents, the world of toys makes it virtually impossible to encourage them into this career path. My wife can roll out a bunch of exciting toys to foster a love of engineering. How can an abacus and a calculator compete with these? And for the record, one of our twins thinks an abacus should be used to hammer siblings ‘things’.
Our Criteria for Worthwhile Toys
We have learned the hard way to stay away from licensed toys that are based on cartoons or movies. Our kids get bored of them quickly – despite having begged, pleaded and offered their souls in exchange for the latest piece of plastic. They generally look cheap, cost way too much (someone has to pay the marketing costs!) and break easily. Not only that, they are usually single player toys and cause a series of ugly battles in the first few days. Yay. And most disappointingly, they tend to be one-dimensional – meaning that all a child usually does is come up with some derivative play about what they saw on TV.
So, our big tip, fight the urge to buy that novelty toy that they irrationally want. Instead pick multi-purpose, durable toys that several kids can simultaneously play with and create their own worlds using their imaginations. This set of criteria also happens to lead into a category of toys that you can keep buying expansion sets for… exceptionally useful for grandparent suggestions, rather than being subjected to another piece of annoyingly-loud-plastic that will be taking up space and gathering dust in your home within a week.
My wife has spent hours researching STEM toys. Toys that help foster and develop the skills required for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. These following suggestions are our tried and tested STEM toys – well worth your investment!
Current Top STEM Toys
If you don’t know what Lego is, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Seriously. Stop reading this immediately and go and get some therapy to rediscover your lost childhood if you haven’t heard of Lego. It is one of the greatest toys of all time. I still have two shopping bags full of Lego that I used to play with as a kid. A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. (Note: extremely durable)
We think the ‘Classic’ sets (UK link) provide the best value and the greatest opportunity for creativity. Lego Classic inspires open-ended building play with a vast array of colorful bricks and special pieces. Lego Creator (UK link) sets are also great, as they have few specialized bricks and featured instructions for at least 3 different possible builds from the bricks included. Our eldest son loves dinosaurs (UK link)…
2. MAGNET TILES
I had no idea what magnet tiles (more commonly known as Magna-Tiles) were until my wife bought them for our kids a couple of years ago after some PhD level research. If you have not heard of them and have kids, you should really check them out. Essentially they are hollow plastic tiles that have multiple magnets around the edges, which make them very easy to attach together. Kids figure them out quickly and can build tall structures with ease and speed. Ours use them to build multi-storey car parks, tunnels, hospitals as well as an assortment of vehicles.
These things are worth their weight in gold (almost) and our kids still play with them weekly. Even our two-year-olds, who are still developing their fine motor skills can build some pretty impressive structures – unless the other twin is around at the same time…
My wife settled on PlayMags (UK link) as they were on average 50% cheaper than the more well-known ‘Magna-Tiles’. PlayMags have survived two years of severe stress testing with our four kids. We bought a large 100 piece set for our eldest two as their joint Christmas present and the following year we bought a second set. The kids now have almost limitless building options. Although in writing this post we have discovered that PlayMags are now selling a curved set of tiles… Mrs Chaos is pretty excited.
3. WOODEN TRAIN SET
My wife is obsessed with building train tracks – I think she may have actually missed out on this particular aspect of her own childhood. I have frequently occasionally found her alone building intricate train systems with no small humans anywhere in sight. But that obsession has led to multiple purchases of wooden train tracks and accessories, to the benefit of our kids.
To be fair, the kids love it. I often find our non-verbal twin methodically and systematically building track and then proceeding to derive all sorts of calamitous accidents for the naïve little ‘choo-choos’. But we have enough track and enough floor space that all the kids can collectively build whatever wacky and convoluted design they want to. It’s like a puzzle with endless possibilities.
We started off with a simple figure or eight train track, then added a suspension bridge, a station and some high-level track that wound its way around a mountain… I happen to know that she sourced a very large secondhand set of accessories off ebay, including a turntable, a multiple engine shed, tunnel, and helicopter landing pad for Christmas.
We suggest beginning with a starter set like this one (UK link). It comes with a handy storage box. Make sure the kids learn to tidy it away or you won’t thank me for tripping over it when you are wandering around in the dark trying to find a late-night snack….
Most of the main brands are compatible with other brands including Brio, Kidkraft and Melissa&Doug (but not IKEA last time I checked). Best to do your homework before you buy any expansion sets!
Extracting Finance Skills From STEM Toys
Although Mrs Chaos thinks she is winning the career war by rolling out these great engineering toys, I wanted to share a few of the reasons why I think they’ve been so great. And the big plus, is that these toys teach some amazing finance skills. Anyone appreciate my Trojan finance horse? Anyone…
- Creativity / critical thinking – it’s important to be extremely creative when filing in tax returns. I’m joking. You should fill in your tax returns correctly. Always. However, finance people often get a hard time for not being creative. But the truly impressive finance people I have worked with are those that can come up with solutions to problems they have not encountered before. Watching our kids play with these toys teaches them to come up with solutions to problems they come across – like how to build the tallest possible tower with their magnet tiles.
- Hand-eye coordination / fine motor skills – our four-year-old has recently started playing with Lego every day. There has been a noticeable improvement in his hand-eye coordination. Those little fingers should be flying around a calculator in no time…
- Attention to detail / following instructions – finance often involves small details, and Lego has been a great way for our kids to practice following instructions down to the last detail. Watching our 7-year-old daughter build complicated Lego constructions by herself is awesome. Though don’t hold your breath expecting that will translate into more parental instructions being followed. We’ve emailed Lego to ask for this feature to be improved.
- Counting – this shouldn’t really make the list, but we do use Lego and magnet tiles to practice counting and math problems with our kids. More fun than using their fingers…. And math skills are kind of important in finance
- Dealing with pain – ever stand on a piece of Lego? Ever done so without swearing? I’ve mastered the skill, thus allowing me to silently review spreadsheets so bad they would have previously given me a brain bleed.
There is one big downside of having these toys. You’ll find that you and your significant other will end up arguing over whose turn it is to ‘help’ the kids build their latest Lego toy.
As for the finance toys, I’ve already introduced our eldest to the greatest finance toy of all time – the spreadsheet. And she loves it. Kind of. At the minute she loves shading cells in different colors. But I’m in it for the long game.
* Statement may contain traces of sarcasm and or exaggeration