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Expose Kids to Engineering and Science With Toys

08/07/2013 01:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2013
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Toys are an inevitable presence in most children's lives, from birth and beyond. They have a myriad of uses including entertainment, skill building, and learning. Today's generation has access to toys that have survived generations of time such as blocks and new technology like applications on mobile devices. These resources can be used as leverage by parents seeking to take advantage of toys for learning. Some of the skills that can be formed and honed using toys include:

➢ Spatial skills
➢ Reasoning
➢ Hand-eye coordination
➢ Color coordination
➢ Problem solving
➢ Tactile-Kinesthetic skills

For example, this week's release of a doll in celebration of the one-year anniversary of Mars lander Curiosity can be a great segue into science, space, and exploration. For the Barbie I Can Be series this year, Mattel designed the doll in collaboration with NASA to be a Mars Explorer. Following in a line of jobs such as an architect and computer scientist, Barbie's career is quite timely with NASA's selection of the next class of astronauts which was 50 percent female for the first time in the history of the space program.

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Another example is the ever-present block set can as a way for parents to discuss engineering and building with their child. Parents can begin explaining how building is needed for a job called engineering, and engineers are the people who find out what the problems are and conjure up the solutions. With older toddlers, you can use the blocks to create a game combined with their imagination. You can set up a scenario where the child is on one side of this big, swishing river, and she has to build something to get across the river safely to the other side. Then, watch in awe as your toddler comes up with an ingenious design using her blocks. Additionally, Goldie Blox is an engineering-themed toy designed with girls specifically in mind. It combines the favorite pastime of reading with building. Parents can use Goldie Blox to talk about building through the use of literature, a great way to communicate with children.

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Here are the highlights on how to use toys to discuss science and engineering. I will go into more detail throughout the article.

➢ Use blocks to talk about building
➢ Expose kids to the word "engineer"
➢ Describe an engineer as someone who finds a problem and solves it through building
➢ Create an imaginary scenario to allow child to use blocks to solve the problem
➢ Use nature around you to discuss science, such as trees, bugs, and stars
➢ Toys like Mattel's latest doll can be great role-play models when they are presented as explorers and scientists
➢ Use other dolls in the house and make believe you are in a science lab
➢ Create an imaginary scenario similar to "playing house" but instead "play science"

One of the most relevant space exploration fetes of this generation was last year's landing of Curiosity, or the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). It even inspired New Yorkers to visit Times Square in the wee hours of the morning, chanting "science rocks" as the SUV-sized robot landed wheels down on the red planet's surface. When I speak to classrooms about space exploration, I always try to discuss MSL and the latest findings on Mars. It never fails to capture the attention of students from kindergarten to college. There's something intangible about landing on another planet and searching for evidence of life elsewhere in our Solar System. For students, this is the real world application of the science they are learning in school. This is a time when we are at our smartest, where kids can rattle off astronomy facts like the order of the planets and various heavenly bodies. It is a time where they wonder about black holes and when the sun will die. Their curiosity is astronomical at this age (pun very much so intended!).

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The Barbie package features space facts geared towards the age range of children who play with Barbies. These facts are a great way for parents to begin the conversation and progress to Curiosity using resources below. An example space fact would be something like: Did you know that the Sun is a star? They are wonderful tidbits of information without overwhelming mom or dad! Moreover, Barbie is dressed up in a spacesuit with an explorer backpack and helmet for when she lands on Mars. This is a great way to talk about space, the moon, the earth, stars, and the other planets. Even better, you can use this doll as a jumping board to topics about science.

For example, I think one of the coolest features of the largest robot NASA has ever attempted to land is a built-in drill. This drill can pick up a sample from the Martian surface and analyze it for composition within its own science laboratory. When your daughter is playing with her doll, you can create a scenario where she and Barbie are both astronauts on Mars looking for water and life. For example, one of Curiosity's findings is evidence of water-bearing minerals within rocks on the planet. This would be a great way to talk about what water is made out of and what the significance of water is to life. You could talk about elements as things that exist in nature and define our makeup. Water, for example, is made from hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen is in the air that we breathe. These small bits of information are common for adults but likely brand new to your toddler and possibly reinforcement of school learning for your precocious student. You could also talk about how many things live in water and need water for life, from humans to fish to bacteria. I find that kids take in much more than adults often give them credit. Even if their interest wanes because the temptation of Barbie's luxurious space backpack or combining the red, yellow, and blue blocks to build a boat is just too strong, the exposure to science is one giant leap towards inspiring their interest.

Mars Exploration from NASA, click here.

Resources for Girls, click here.