Image: Phil Roeder via Flickr

Kids are naturally curious. They explore, play, and dream. They love taking things apart (sorry, Mom and Dad) and finding new ways to see things differently. Childhood is the best time to develop important lifelong skills through play.

The type of play kids engage in is important in how their minds will develop. STEM and STEAM activities (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) benefit children in many ways, from fostering creativity to honing leadership skills. These skills will help them succeed in school now and later as adults: STEM jobs have increased 24 percent over the last decade while non-STEM jobs have increased by only 4 percent.

STEM and STEAM education at school will help children gain a solid foundation in innovative thinking. However, they don’t need to wait for the classroom to start gaining STEAM superpowers—purposeful play at home can start now.

What is STEM and STEAM?

STEM is a movement in early education that gets kids ready for solving the world’s biggest problems. It’s an integrated approach to learning Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics where children get opportunities for hands-on innovation using all four disciplines. STEM is different from traditional science and math education because it offers a blended approach to solving real-world problems, bringing together what a child knows with how to apply that knowledge.

Image: NASA HQ via Flickr

STEM started in the 1990s and caught on in the mid-2000s when it became clear how competitive and in-demand scientific fields would become: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics jobs are expected to increase by up to 62 percent before 2020. In 2005 journalist Thomas L. Friedman identified countries competing with the United States in innovation and technology. The United States responded with STEM education thanks to the National Science Foundation’s initiative to get American children a balanced education rooted in innovation principles.

The arts were added to STEM curriculum, transforming it to STEAM education. STEAM enables kids to change the world in a multidimensional way that STEM can’t. STEAM education helps children problem solve for the human experience. For example, creating technology to make someone’s job easier requires understanding what that person’s job frustrations are—a skill honed by communications studies through Art. Art is the perfect way to connect ideas to solve human problems.

STEAM Education Teaches Kids to Play with Purpose

STEAM education teaches children a variety of interdisciplinary skills and thought processes. It’s an especially powerful approach to education as it gives children opportunities to learn in the way that’s best for them. Drawing, constructing, collaborating, and using technology are a few of the ways kids can learn in a STEAM environment.

Image: Woodley Wonderworks via Flickr

Children don’t need to wait for the classroom to benefit from STEAM play. Here is how they will benefit from interdisciplinary science, technology, engineering, art, and math, and easy ways you can make it fun at home.

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

STEAM gives children the tools to solve problems both inside and outside the classroom. In a national survey, 87 percent of eighth-grade STEM students reported figuring out why something wasn’t working in order to fix it—outside of their school work. That takes initiative and the special kind of critical thinking kids learn through STEAM.

Image: Swivel-Snaps via Twitter

Swivel-Snaps are a new take on open-ended construction toys. Kids strengthen their problem-solving muscles when they set out to create a structure without a detailed step-by-step guide. Colorful squares and triangles snap together and “swivel” into any direction, creating endless possibilities for structural challenges. As kids connect Swivel-Snaps, objects take shape. Creative geometry and critical thinking is required to complete the object in mind, whether it’s a basket, a tie, or even a rocket ship.

Creativity and Innovation

Creativity is more than just fun play and stretching the imagination—it’s an important ingredient to solving the world’s biggest problems. A recent study shows that 60 percent of CEOs said that creativity is the most important leadership quality, and creative leaders are 81 percent more likely to value innovative problem solving in their organizations.

Children hone their creativity when they look at things from a different angle. 4M’s Weather Science kit has an experiment that shows how Earth’s water cycle works. Kids become their own meteorologists by building a mini atmospheric model that contains a “mountain”, a body of water, a heat source, and “clouds” with precipitation. Ice suspended above the “mountain” melts, raining water that collects in a mini lake and underground water source that eventually evaporates and rains down again. Kids can even grow a plant at the top of the “mountain” and see how it contributes to the water cycle.

Fun DIY projects like this atmospheric model helps kids understand weather science from a different angle. What is otherwise a large and abstract phenomenon like Earth’s water cycle can be better understood through creative mini-model building and enlightening observations. Identifying patterns like these can help build pattern recognition, a key ingredient to creative problem solving.

Collaboration and Leadership

Studies show that STEAM education leads to better collaboration and communication. Challenges sometimes require people with different skillsets to share their unique perspectives, knowledge, and skills to create something new. And with group work, children receive opportunities to hone their leadership skills that they can take with them into adulthood.

Image by Max Pixel

Kids can learn collaboration at home by coming together with any STEAM toy. Crayola Modeling Dough gives kids the chance to build their own prehistoric landscape. Between coloring and model-making, they can share skills and materials to make the landscape come to life with dinosaurs, volcanoes, and waterfalls.


Patience is a learned skill. STEAM projects encourage children to hone their self-regulation skills by slowing down for experiments and thinking critically about the results.

Growing rock candy like in 4M’s Kitchen Science kit mimics the growth of natural crystals in a fraction of the time. Even though kids don’t need to wait thousands of years for their rock candy to take shape, they will need to wait days for their treat to finish forming. And the longer they wait, the larger the rock candy becomes. Patience can be so sweet.

Video: Hannah and the mini beasts via YouTube

Another way kids hone patience is by learning how to be paleontologists excavating dinosaur bones. The Dinosaur DNA kit from 4M gives children a rare chance to excavate “dinosaur bones” from a clay block. It could take hours or days to excavate all the pieces before they can build their glow-in-the-dark dinosaur. The slow process mimics the process real paleontologists use when digging up the dinosaur bones kids marvel at in museums.

Knowledge Retention

STEAM not only provides children with a wealth of information, it helps them remember it. One study revealed that STEAM education increases test grades by at least half a letter score. How? STEAM curriculum requires active learning—actually conducting the experiments and engaging in self-guided projects—instead of passive learning through lectures.

Video: TheDadLab via YouTube

The My Body Anatomy science kit from 4M teaches kids about the human body through colorful puzzles. Mixing and matching layers of the body helps them understand the skeleton, internal organs, circulatory system, and more—making what could be a complex topic fun and memorable.

Learn How to Make Mistakes Constructively

Resilience is a strong predictor of success. Employers often value a candidate’s ability to learn from mistakes over their IQ. STEAM education teaches a child that not only is it okay to make mistakes, it’s essential to finding solutions. It’s a safe environment where a child can test their grit—their ability to bounce back from failure. This is a muscle honed through many trials, which builds confidence and boosts success.

Video: SKE Monsters via YouTube

Children can hone their resiliency by having fun at home in a low-risk environment. 4M’s Tin Can Robot is not only adorable—it’s an excellent way for kids to learn robotics. There are a number of steps to building this little robot from scratch, and if directions are not followed closely, the tin can robot might not come to life. The instructions contain a troubleshooting guide for kids to walk themselves through the process again and to fix their mistakes.

These are just a few of the ways in which kids can benefit and grow from STEAM play at home. Other benefits include entrepreneurship, flexibility, self-regulation, focus, self-esteem, and information processing. Who knew that solving the world’s most pressing problems of the future starts right in a child’s home with fun and play?


Lauren Hall-Stigerts is a marketing consultant for software and technology companies. She is passionate about getting children interested in STEAM education to help solve the next generation’s biggest problems. Lauren enjoys spending time with her child and drinking lots of tea.