For the past decade, families have tried to find a balance between two research-backed parenting mandates: Limit your kids’ screen time but make sure they’re ready for a future in science, technology and mathematics.
At CES this year, a handful of companies are offering what they say is a solution to the new age dichotomy with learning toys that trade the screen for hands-on STEM activities.
It’s a shift that has been happening over the last two to three years, according to family tech producer Tonda Bunge Sellers, the family tech producer for CES, who added that it’s not necessarily driven by kids’ preferences.
“They don’t see a difference between screenless and screen,” Sellers said. “The driver is parental. Parents want to keep a watchful eye on the screen or what they get from the screen.”
And while not every classroom can put a tablet in the hands of each student, Sellers said she believes some of these products will first make their way into the classroom as a collaborative STEM education option.
Learning Resource’s Coding Critters, recognized as the best STEM/STEAM toy in the 2020 Kids at Play interactive Awards, introduces coding concepts to preschoolers by way of a pet buddy that can be taught to chase its friends, knock over trees and boulders and fetch treats. Each kit comes with coding challenges that relate to the critter’s storybook, so kids can recreate what they read through coding.
LoCoMoGo introduces basic coding logic in train set form. After drawing a track, kids can add colors that tell the train to perform one of three actions: for example, if blue, a whistle sounds; if green, a special color car lights up. This toy can be screen-free, but kids can also use the companion app to complete challenges and earn awards.
Co-founder Kibet Kipkemoi says his business partner was inspired by his three children, who, like many kids, liked to watch videos of other children playing with toys. He wanted to give them something more interactive.
But even kids who don’t like to code will find a fun toy train in LoCoMoGo, he said.
“Having fun is the most important thing,” Kipkemoi said.
With Creativity Box’s Mochi Robot, kids use picture tiles to set up an algorithm on a wooden programming board. The LEGO-compatible robot will then follow the directional commands to move around a story map. At its CES exhibit, Mochi followed a map of outer space to move to new planets and avoid asteroid belts. Mochi has 12 accompanying storybooks for inspiration, as well as a plush bear that sits in the driver’s seat.
Sellers emphasized that despite the trend, screens aren’t going away anytime soon. For kids today, they’re a fact of life, she said.
“It’s more about how you talk to and interact with your children, through physical and digital play,” Sellers said. “Hopefully the technology will keep up with that theme.”