Expert Perspectives

Tools, Games, and Products to Engage Girls in Pre-K through Early Elementary School

When 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.

How to Choose STEM Tools for Girls

When 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.

Building 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 of 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.

What 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.

Programming Languages

Computer 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.

Today, 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 puzzles.

One of the most popular programming languages for young children is called ScratchJr. 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.

ScratchJr 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.

Robotics Kits

The 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 interfaces!

When looking for a robotics kit that will engage young girls in both building and programming, kits like the KIBO Robot Kit 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).

KIBO 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 platforms.

KIBO 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.

Kits 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.

Secondly, 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.

Recommendations for Adults

Here are a few tips to guide you as you take a stroll through the toy aisle:

  • Provide girls with tools that allow them to tinker, build, practice spatial reasoning, and engineer (examples: blocks, LEGOs, Duplos, recycled materials).

  • Provide girls with tools that engage them in computer science related play (examples: programming apps and programmable robotics kits).

  • Provide girls with tools that allow them to work or play with other children (examples: STEM board games and tangible building and robotics kits).

  • Provide 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!

Picking 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.