More and more parents are looking for ways to spark their children’s interest in science, technology, engineering, or math (collectively referred to as STEM fields), and it’s not hard to understand why. Job opportunities in STEM have grown at a much faster rate than non-STEM jobs over the last decade (24.4 percent versus 4.0 percent, respectively), and STEM jobs are projected to continue growing by 8.9 percent between 2014 and 2024, compared with 6.4 percent growth for non-STEM jobs, according to a Commerce Department study.
And not only are there more new opportunities in STEM, but STEM workers earn higher wages, too. As of 2015, STEM workers earned 29 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts. Interestingly, STEM degree holders who don’t work in STEM also earn more—12 percent more than their non-STEM colleagues, according to the same Commerce Department study.
The benefits of a STEM education are clear. So what can parents do to help prepare their children for success in an increasingly STEM-dominated workforce?
According to education experts, the most important thing isn’t to focus on teaching kids content. These days, knowledge changes so rapidly, particularly in STEM, that most information is quickly out-of-date. Instead, we need to help kids become “creative problem solvers,” which, according to Harvard education expert Tony Wagner, is what 21st-century employers really need—and struggle to find.
Developing skills such as “collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence” will help them become adults who can adapt to new circumstances and tackle unfamiliar problems.
The good news is that the best way to help young children acquire these skills is simple—just sit back and let them play.
According to evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, “free play,” where children play on their own with limited adult intervention, allows them “the freedom to test their limits, discover new things, figure out how to interact with others, fail and bounce back, and solve problems.”
As children do these things, they’re developing the neural pathways that will compose their adult brains.
On top of free play, can parents use STEM toys to help spark an early interest in science or technology? It seems reasonable to believe, as Andrea Schwalm of Wired’s GeekMom blog does, that “toys do help foster interests that can turn into hobbies that can turn into careers.”
When you consider that the skills that STEM toys aim to develop—creativity, logic, problem solving, experimentation, and collaboration— are skills that will help your child succeed in all types of academic and professional pursuits, in STEM and beyond, it’s hard to lose. Plus, they’re fun — research suggests that toddlers actually prefer toys that help them learn.