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STEM toys promise to turn kids into tech geniuses. Grown-up coders are skeptical

Unruly, a Boston startup, makes these programmable tiles that kids can use to create physical games.Unruly

Like many parents, Dave Balter and Sarah Hodges spend hours and hours before the holidays each year puzzling over the array of educational toys that promise to help children develop scientific curiosity and technological skills.

They’ve bought three different programmable robots, only to find them mostly abandoned after the thrill of opening them fades. This year, they’re trying a toy called Unruly Splats, which seeks to teach kids to code through physical games. The early Christmas gift has been a hit so far, but time will tell whether the kids stay interested long enough to learn something from it about computer science.


If it’s this hard for Balter and Hodges, what hope do regular parents have? He runs a startup, Flipside Crypto, and she’s a venture capitalist with the Boston firm Pillar, which invests in tech companies.

“I am constantly trying to find the instigation that will get one of them to suddenly have an eye-opening experience around science or programming that makes them want to head into this field,” said Balter, whose daughters are 10 and 13. Hodges is their stepmother.

“Every year we try a couple of them,” Balter said, “and we’re looking for the one that sticks.”

Toys aren’t just toys anymore. There’s a growing market for so-called STEM toys, which promise to imbue young minds with science, technology, engineering, and math skills. But for every product that helps kids learn, there are plenty of others that simply cash in on parents’ desire to prepare their kids for a changing economy.

“The type of toy that you give your kid matters far less than how they interact with it, or with the world, or with you,” said Joe Morgan, a JavaScript developer in Kansas who is skeptical of the value of teaching kids to code. “You cannot boil down things like creativity into a single item. It’s a lifelong process that they have to explore, and no one toy can do that.”


Morgan said he believes that open-ended play and exploration — especially the experience of taking things apart and putting them back together — are more important for early development of the skills that might help them become creative, nimble-minded technologists.

Parents, educators, and tech gurus around Massachusetts say that parents should watch out for STEM toys that lack a crucial ingredient: fun. Even if they impart real technological concepts, they’re useless if nobody wants to play with them.

Also beware if they’re too complicated for a child to figure out. Sooyeon Jeong, a research assistant in MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group, remembered buying an electronics kit for her son, who is now 8. The principles were sound, she said, but the toys were not intuitive. When something didn’t work, it was hard for a child to figure out why. Fortunately, his scientist mom was there to help. Not every kid has that luxury.

“I could talk about it, but in the manual, it was not really talking about . . . why it’s not working,” she said.

Jeong said one of the most effective lessons she has done is to show her son how the component parts of a computer fit together, so he can understand that the device is not magic, but an approachable human creation.

Yet STEM toys may be more important for children who don’t have technology professionals in their families than for those who do.


Leon Noel, a Boston educator and developer who teaches coding basics to kids as young as 4, said many toys can help young people gain the experience they might otherwise have missed.

“Especially for younger people, having systems or ways of thought to break down large problems into small, digestible pieces is overwhelmingly beneficial, no matter what you do in life,” Noel said.

Noel, who is also managing director of engineering at Resilient Coders, a program teaching programming skills to teens and young adults from underserved communities, recommended products such as the Anki Cozmo and the Sphero BOLT, both interactive robots with simple programming systems that students can pick up quickly.

Many of these toys are effective, he said, because they have visually oriented programming systems that teach kids concepts that are useful for coding: how to execute a command, for instance, or how to create a loop, in which the computer keeps repeating an action until some condition is met.

But Noel said there are ways to get these points across without toys. With younger kids, sometimes the most effective lessons come from making drawings with pen and paper or using a chess board to help them map out the series of commands that would move a piece, square by square, around an obstacle.

He also said online resources such as Code.org, which offers programming courses and activities, and Scratch, a free programming language that can build stories, games, and animations, are good for young learners because they are built around a community of users who can help each other with problems.


Whatever toys parents buy, experts said, it is important that they think about them as part of a larger effort to inspire curiosity about how things work.

Bill Bither, chief executive of the Northampton industrial technology startup Machine-Metrics. said he is in favor of anything that gets his children to put down their screens.

Bither, who has three teenagers, said his main goal is to make sure his kids understand the opportunity available in tech, whether they choose to pursue it or not.

“There’s so much opportunity in STEM that that’s half the battle,” he said. “Just educating kids to know that there are tremendous opportunities, and really just a lack of people that can do them.”

He said there are helpful products such as LEGO Mindstorms, which allows kids to build and control robots. But there are ways to inspire curiosity without going to the toy store.

“It’s more about, I’m changing the tires in my car. Bring the kids into it, have them participate,” Bither said.

That’s something that any parent can do, regardless of where their expertise lies.

Hodges, the venture capitalist, said it doesn’t matter to her whether the girls go into a STEM field, as long as they’re happy and fulfilled. They also take cooking classes, drawing lessons, and raise money for charitable causes. But Hodges does see a virtue in toys that help kids explore technology.


“It meets them where they are today,” Hodges said. “They enjoy active play, so the closer you can get to that . . . the more success you’re going to have in teaching them about anything.”

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.