Can toys teach coding to kids?

Luke Winkie, a freelance writer for Vox, looks into how STEM toys are impacting kids. They discuss the history of STEM toys as well as what role they have in kids’ lives today. The full article was originally published August 07, 2019 on Vox.

Kids playing with STEM toys

On a Christmas morning in the early 2000s, my mom found herself slaving over a freshly unwrapped copy of Lego Mindstorms: Star Wars. The commercials aired on Cartoon Network for months, offering a fantasy that was too appealing for me to pass up: Supposedly, with a sturdy hard drive, an elementary understanding of computer science, and my own recess-honed Lego skills, a 10-year-old like me could construct and program his very own AT-ST mech from The Empire Strikes Back all by himself. With a press of a button, my robot would be able to walk along the kitchen table and swing its head side to side.

This was catnip for any parent; not only would your kid live the glory of a Sith Empire architect, they’d also learn the fundamentals of programming. It would’ve been a picture-perfect success story: from Lego Mindstorms to Google in less than a decade.


It’s a fact of life: Coding is hard, for anyone at any age. But that hasn’t stopped toy companies from trying to bring computer science to elementary schools. Over the past five years, there’s been a huge boom in children’s recreation that aims to teach kids basic coding literacy, essentially merging the rules of playtime and the rules of JavaScript into one.

The term most education experts use for these products is STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. So “STEM toy” refers to any piece of children’s entertainment that engages with one of those mechanical principles. The ancestors of the current STEM toy movement are classics like Legos and Rubik’s cubes, but lately the philosophy behind those toys is being adapted for the digital age — specifically to teach kids coding and robotics.

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