STEM Education & Technology
STEM Tools, Games and Products to Engage Girls in Pre-K Through Early Elementary School
- By Amanda Sullivan
walking through the toy section in most department stores, adults are
often still confronted with the startling divide between “the pink
aisle” and “the blue aisle.” Walking through these aisles can
feel like stepping into a time machine, warping us into a past era
full of masculine and feminine stereotypes we have spent decades
trying to eradicate. With so much material to wade through, finding
the right STEM tools and products for young girls can be daunting.
This excerpt from my book Breaking
the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood
will provide educators with examples of tools, games and products
currently available that can be used with girls as early as preschool
to practice foundational STEM skills.
to Choose STEM Tools for Girls
choosing STEM tools for girls, it is important to choose tools that
engage girls in active problem-solving, hands-on learning, building
and engineering. Remember, it is the technical
STEM fields, like computer science and engineering, where women are
most drastically outnumbered by men. Therefore, remember to choose
technologies, digital tools and applications that teach girls about
the human-engineered world beginning in early childhood and
continuing through elementary school.
kits and materials such as blocks, LEGOs and Duplos are great ways
for girls to begin learning about sturdy building and the engineering
design process. When choosing technologies and apps for young girls,
be sure to choose applications that engage girls as creators
digital content rather than consumers
of digital content. Choose tools that prompt girls not to watch
but to do.
Instead of just playing a video game about addition, challenge girls
to make their own. Programming languages and programmable robotics
kits, described in the following sections, are a wonderful hands-on
way to introduce girls to technical skills, mathematics and
problem-solving beginning in preschool.
about color? What about choosing between products marketed to girls
versus marketed to all children or to boys? Forgetting gender
stereotypes for just a moment, when it comes to STEM learning, the
color or aesthetic design of the tool children are using will not
change the concepts they learn. The most important thing is to find
out what girls are interested in and build upon their
interests — regardless if the toy comes from the pink aisle, blue
aisle or someplace else.
science related fields remain heavily masculine. Therefore, engaging
girls with programming and computational thinking beginning in early
childhood and throughout their academic experience is critical to
bridging this gender gap. Beyond this, it is important for all young
children to learn about the technologies that surround them, rather
than viewing them as mysterious or working “by magic.” From
tablets to videogames, smartwatches to traffic lights, coding
(a.k.a. computer programming) is all around us.
there are a variety of colorful and engaging programming languages
designed just for young children. These languages use graphics and
symbols (in lieu of text) to teach programming concepts such as
sequencing, repeat loops and conditional statements to young
children as early as preschool. For example, the free Daisy the
Dinosaur app is designed for young children to practice coding by
giving a dinosaur (Daisy) instructions to move and complete simple
challenges. Cargo-Bot is another free app that consists of
programming a robot to move crates in order to solve a series of
of the most popular programming languages for young children is
ScratchJr was created through a collaboration between the DevTech
Research Group at Tufts University (led by Dr. Marina Umaschi Bers),
the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab (led by Dr.
Mitchel Resnick) and the Playful Invention Company (led by Paula
Bontá and Brian Silverman). It is a free introductory programming
language for Chromebooks, iPads and Android tablets that enables
young children (ages 5-7) to create their own interactive stories,
collages and games.
is inspired by Scratch, a free programming environment for older
children (ages 8+) so that developmentally appropriate coding
experiences could be available for younger children as well. Using
ScratchJr, children snap together graphical blocks to create programs
that make characters move, jump, dance and sing. Children can modify
the way characters look by using the app’s paint editor, or they
can draw their own. It also opportunities for children to further
personalize their projects by adding in their own voices and sounds,
insert photos of themselves or other objects, draw their own
backgrounds and more.
applications described in the previous section offer a wonderful
introduction to coding and problem-solving, but many adults worry
about giving children too much screen-time. Programmable robotics
kits offer a hands-on introduction to building, engineering and
coding. Hands-on tinkering and building is something often missing
from the play young girls engage in. Providing tangible robotics
materials can give girls an opportunity to engage in open-ended
tinkering and exploring. As an added bonus, many newer robotics kits
for young children are programmed with completely screen-free
looking for a robotics kit that will engage young girls in both
building and programming, kits like the KIBO
offer the best of both worlds. KIBO is a robotics kit designed to
playfully introduce young children (ages 4–7 years) to foundational
engineering and programming concepts through tangible screen-free
activities. KIBO was created based on research by Professor Bers and
the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University and
made commercially available by KinderLab Robotics through funding
from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
is unique as compared to its counterparts on the commercial market
because it engages children with both building with robotic parts
(KIBO’s hardware) and programming KIBO to move with tangible
programming blocks (KIBO’s software). KIBO is designed based on
decades of child development research at Tufts University and is
intended explicitly to meet the developmental
needs of young children.
The kit contains easy-to-connect construction materials including
wheels, motors, light output, a variety of sensors and wooden art
is programmed to move using a tangible programming language that
consists of interlocking wooden programming blocks. KIBO’s core
language consists of 21 blocks and 12 parameters. With just 21
blocks, children are able to master increasingly complex programming
concepts such as repeat loops, conditional statements and nesting
statements. The wooden blocks resemble familiar early childhood
manipulatives such as alphabet blocks and contain no embedded
electronics or digital components. KIBO’s body has an embedded
scanner that scans the barcodes on the programming blocks one at a
time. Once the program has been scanned, it is saved on the robot
instantly and KIBO will perform the program with the press of a
button. No interaction with a computer, tablet, or other screen-based
software is required to learn programming with KIBO. Beyond these 21
blocks, KinderLab Robotics continues to offer new extension sets and
curriculum that expand on KIBO’s capabilities each year.
like KIBO are perfect for young girls for a few key reasons. First
off, KIBO is designed for open-ended play that allows girls to make
almost anything they want based on their own personal interests. KIBO
can be used to act out a scene from a story or movie, it can be
decorated to look like an animal, it can be a carousel or a fire
truck. Therefore, it can be used to help explore almost any interest
that a young girl has.
KIBO has a neutral aesthetic, making it equally appealing to children
of any gender. With so few truly gender-neutral toys out there, this
is a plus for parents and educators that want a tool that will appeal
to many children. Finally, KIBO engages girls in hands-on building
and tinkering as well as programming. Providing girls with
opportunities to tinker and engineer is a critical piece of engaging
them with STEM in early childhood and setting them up for success
down the line.
are a few tips to guide you as you take a stroll through the toy
girls with tools that allow them to tinker, build, practice spatial
reasoning and engineer (examples: blocks, LEGOs, Duplos, recycled
girls with tools that engage them in computer science related play
(examples: programming apps and programmable robotics kits).
girls with tools that allow them to work or play with other children
(examples: STEM board games and tangible building and robotics
girls with tools and toys that work with their hobbies and
interests, whether they come from the pink aisle, blue aisle, or any
other aisle! If you are worried that the packaging/marketing of a
toy will make girls shy away, then toss the box before you offer
them the toy!
out STEM tools is only one part of the challenge educators face.
Girls must also use
these tools (more than once!) for them to make an impact. That means
adults must find ways to engage girls with these tools in ways that
playfully foster STEM learning.