I’m grooming my daughter to become an engineer. No, I’m not going to tell her what career or fields of study to pursue. But, I want to train her brain to tinker away at the world as she manouvers her way through it. When I wrote about encouraging her S.T.E.M. education during infancy, I shared a standard definition of the term:
“STEM refers to the subjects Science (e.g. biology, physics, chemistry), Technology (e.g. information systems, robotics, programming), Engineering (e.g. electrical, mechanical, chemical) and Mathematics (e.g. geometry, equations, logics).”
But, even as I continue to explore these fields of study, I have come to realise that the “E” in S.T.E.M. is much more than electrical engineering, mechanical engineering or even chemical engineering. In its most basic form, engineering is about problem-solving and creating or building. When we ask, imagine, design, create, test and improve on things, we are practicing engineering skills. So, whether my daughter decides to become an educator or a businesswoman, I think her successes in life will be maximised if she becomes comfortable and competent in engineering.
Since children learn through play during the preschool years, it helps if we’re more intentional about selecting and making toys that align with our priorities. If the infant years have passed you by and you’re now looking to expose your toddler to and encourage their interest in engineering, then the time to get specific is now! We can give our little ones a head start in problem-solving by giving them toys that get them building and designing.
Toys to Buy
To kickstart my gameplan, I got my 3-year-old a set of screw-assembly vehicles (she loves trains, fire engines and ambulances – LOL). The set included a motorcycle, jeep, car and train. They came with screws and bolts that hold their various parts together and a set of wrenches and screwdrivers to pull-apart and set up the vehicles. She randomly grabs any of the toys and will either pull them apart or set them up while waiting for dinner to be ready or getting her hair done. She sometimes struggles to figure it out, and we encourage her to start over or try again. Then once she gets efficient with pulling apart and putting together any of the vehicles, we swap it out with another one – to keep the challenge high. These are the kinds of toys more children should get to enjoy.
Some other types of toys that make great investments are:
Foam, plastic or wooden. Alphabet, numbers or picture. All blocks are great. If you can get the kinds that can be mixed and matched to utilise all sides of the cube (with different info on each side) then you will score big, too.
2. Building Sets
The challenge is increased when your child has more than just cubes to express their imagination. Some sets include basic building bits like pillars, arches, columns, and triangles to create a small city. Legos and Duplos are great for this.
3. Construction Sets
Similar to building sets, but capable of more intricate designs and complex structures, constructions sets usually come with predesigned model illustrations that your child will try to replicate. They may create a spaceship or detailed city with highways and neighbourhoods.
Gears add the element of motion and vibrant colour to the design and building experience for your child. Your child will be able to see how the interlocking segments spin to complete tasks like vehicle transportation or moving creatures.
5. Robot Kits
Although you can go straight for full-on robotics, a great place to start with your little one is with a build-your-own robot kit. While the more popular kits feature vehicles like army tanks and cars as the final product, you can also find models which finish up as spiders or artmaking doodle-machines.
6. Jigsaw Puzzles
From basic 4-piece puzzles to those with hundreds or even thousands of pieces, these oddly-shaped pieces interlock to produce a complete picture. These toys are unassuming, since they engage both the right and left hemispheres of our brains, stimulating the development of both the logical and creative aspects of our child’s problem-solving skills.
7. Crystal Puzzles
I only learned about 3D or crystal puzzles recently. My mind was blown, when I found out children were putting together 3D models of castles or their favourite cartoon characters using transparent, interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. The genius about these toys is that the completed puzzle can then be displayed like any other decorative object in your child’s room of the living area of your home.
8. Twisty Puzzles
Many of us grew up playing with the world’s best-selling toy, Rubik’s Cubes, and now we know they give our brains a good workout. Improved hand-eye coordination, sharpened short-term memories, increased patience and longer attention spans are all benefits of challenging out little ones with twisty puzzles.
Toys to Build
While the market is flooded with toys we can buy to nurture our little engineers, us Mommies can get into the building practice too. If you want to try your hand at designing and building some toys for and with your little engineer, you could try some of the ones below.
9. Fractal Pattern Posters
My favourite way to use fractals (never-ending patterns of symmetry) is by decorating your home or just your child’s room or playspace with African or ankara fabric. But, if you’ve already got your décor locked, an online fractal generator can design many patterns with all the colours you like. Just print them out as flashcards or large posters for your child to gaze at.
10. Lacing Frames
As easy as punching holes into a cardboard frame or or remove the glass window from a picture frame.
11. Play Dough
With many simple recipes to choose from, you can make your own play dough or silly putty. Little ones can get lost in exploring textures and manipulating shapes and colours.
12. Button Snake
Threading a button through bits of fabric can be quite entertaining for your toddler. The repetition involved builds up fine motor skills and depending on how you vary the position of the slit in the bits of fabric, the challenge can be further increased. Of course a great benefit is your child being better able to dress himself ? .
13. Puzzle Blocks
A genius idea and so easy to make. You could use mini juice cartons wrapped in plain paper, cubes of foam or real wood blocks. The key is getting a nice rectangular image to cut into pieces for lining up when the blocks get stacked.
14. Cardboard Dropbox
My 3-year-old adores these. Her favourites have cut-outs on each side of the box. It is so exciting to watch her flip the dropbox from side to side trying to find the ‘hole’ that fits the shape she has in her hand.
15. Activity Boards
If you’re not much of a DIYer, an old control panel with knobs, switches, buttons, etc. will be just fine. But, a custom activity board can have latches, wheels, whitsles, buzzers, lights, etc. There are many examples online for inspiration.
16. Cardboard Construction Sets
Grab some rigid cardboard and cut it into shapes with slits and notches. Your little ones will have lots of fun connecting them in different shapes.
So, whether you choose to browse the shelves of your local stores to stock up on toys or you want to get in the middle of a pile of string, glue and safety knives, you can provide all the toys and games needed to encourage your little one to ask, imagine, design, create, test and improve on things. Maybe you will join in and become a better ‘engineer’ too ?
About Didan Ashanta
Didan Ashanta is the author of "Jamaican Green Smoothies" and a LifeDesigner who blogs about eating your way to vibrant health at DidanAshanta.com. A native of Jamaica, she currently lives in the Tokyo, Japan with her husband and 3-yr-old daughter.