If there’s one thing that parents love in their kids’ toys, it’s educational value. Who wouldn’t want their kids to excel in school and learn key skills to succeed in life? While not all kids love school, all kids love toys, and with so many STEM options out there, it’s easy to learn key skills in science, technology, engineering, and math through the power of play.
Although STEM toys are available everywhere you look, the “M” doesn’t always get as much love as the other letters in the acronym. It seems like there is a constant flow of science kits, coding toys, and engineering sets launching all year long, while the math-themed toys get the short end of the stick.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created major disruptions in schooling — and math, in particular — for students over the past year as many opted for at-home learning for the first time. Studies show that kids are struggling in school due to the “COVID slide” and math is taking a hit significantly more than other subjects.
The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a research-based, not-for-profit organization that creates assessments to measure growth and proficiency for students in pre-K to grade 12, did a study showing that elementary and middle school students have fallen behind in math during the pandemic. The MAP Growth assessments tested 4.4 million students in grades 3-8, with results showing an average drop of 5-10 percentile points in math during the 2019-2020 school year when compared to results from the previous year. The same assessments showed that students progressed at a normal pace in reading with no significant drop.
An EdWeek Research Center study published in January 2020 took a representative survey of U.S. teachers, in which 67% reported that math anxiety was a challenge for their students. Abruptly changing learning environments, loss of math retention, students’ lack of confidence, and parents’ inexperience to help teach the subject at home are all having a big impact on math education during the pandemic. As we start to see the effects of the COVID slide on students, there couldn’t be a better time to shine a light on math toys as the “M” steps back into the STEM spotlight with a plethora of new products on the market.
HANDS-ON AT HOME
“Math is very challenging to teach in a remote learning environment because kids miss out on the ability to use educational toys and manipulatives to touch, see, and feel abstract mathematical concepts,” says Elana Woldenberg, senior director of product development at hand2mind. “Because of this, the last year of distance learning has heightened the need for parents to supplement with materials, such as educational toys and resources, to keep their kid on track academically.”
The product developers at hand2mind were inspired to create new tools and toys that help families practice math together, such as the Rainbow Fraction Measuring Cups — a fun way for parents to teach kids about fractions first-hand while cooking. Hand2mind will also launch the Numberblocks MathLink Cubes Activity Sets in June, based on the Netflix series Numberblocks. Kids can practice counting as they stack the cubes to build number-themed characters, just like the ones from the series.
As an educational resource company, hand2mind offers plenty of math-related products and toys meant for classroom use as well. The selection is so large that consumers can narrow down their search by specific math subcategories on hand2mind.com, such as algebra, counting and sorting, data, geometry, measurement, and more.
“We know how important hands-on learning is for a deep understanding of difficult concepts, especially in math,” Woldenberg says. “This is rooted in all of the products we create, no matter if they are used inside the home or in the classroom with teachers.”
Keeping with the hands-on philosophy, Osmo makes educational games that combine digital gameplay with tangible game pieces. “Math is a critical life skill and is crucial to understanding other STEM subjects,” says Pramod Sharma, CEO of Osmo. “Many math concepts tend to be abstract and hard to grasp, which makes many students and parents anxious about math.”
The company offers many math-themed sets, including the curriculum-inspired Math Wizard series, that reinforce learning through physical-digital interactions. Kids can play the games on iPad or Fire tablets using the physical pieces included in the box sets to help build math confidence and solve problems on their own through hands-on, adventure-driven games. For example, the new Math Wizard and the Amazing Airships game includes a magical-themed board and ship, cargo, and balloon pieces. Players will use math skills to build and design airships that deliver packages to islands around a port. Kids can learn concepts of weight, lift, and balance by navigating challenges, such as thunderstorms and high winds. The fourth and newest game in the series, Math Wizard and the Enchanted World Games, includes food-themed pieces that players can use to create power smoothies and meals to help athletes win trophies. Kids must use math concepts to create the right blend of magic ingredients across various competitions.
Designed for kids ages 6-8, the first two titles of the Math Wizard series teach kids the foundations of addition, subtraction, and measurement standards, while the third and fourth titles dive into multiplication and division, building equations, algebraic thinking, and analytical skills. Targeted hints are built into the games to help struggling learners remain engaged to find a correct answer on their own. “By having kids learn math concepts through interactive stories, narratives, and hands-on games, they are able to experience it as a positive activity versus seeing it as a chore, task, or test,” Sharma says.
Similarly, Thames & Kosmos recently expanded its Kids First collection with Kids First Math, the toy manufacturer’s first series with a primary focus on math. There are nine kits in the Kids First Math line, each featuring a specific type of hands-on manipulative item — such as linking cubes, tangram shapes, and abacus stacking blocks — that give kids a tangible tool to help visualize the math concepts they’re learning about. “The colorful, physical tools are not only visually exciting, but also the activities included offer an engaging way to learn about concepts like decimals, sequencing, and geometry — topics that don’t always immediately appeal to kids,” says Thames & Kosmos’ Marketing Manager Lili DeSisto.
“This addition is something we’ve wanted to do for a while, and the events of the past year showed us that now is the time that our customers — kids, parents, and teachers — need it most,” DeSisto says.
ENHANCING REMOTE LEARNING
Learning Resources was quick to respond to pandemic-related school closures in March 2020 by launching a free digital library of activities, workbooks, games, and other resources for families to supplement their kids’ learning experiences. The company conducted its own back-to-school survey with parents last year, and one of the top subjects moms expressed concern for was math, according to Learning Resources’ Chief Marketing Officer Marie LaPlante. “The free online resources make this area of learning more accessible to non-teachers who are trying to help their own kids at home,” LaPlante says. Some of the printable activities include a Summer Brain Gain Strawberry Subtraction worksheet, a Counting Cookies game, and a Learn About Numbers activity book.
Parents who already own Learning Resources products can also use the online library for ideas on how to incorporate those toys into their kids’ education to keep them on track academically and to extend the longevity of the toys. For example, parents who own the Penguins on Ice Math Activity Set can refer to the “At-Home Activities” guide online for prompts that guide kids to use the toy to practice number patterns, skip-counting, and more than/less than concepts. Kids can use the penguins and ice bars included in the set to complete the math activities.
Not all kids learn the same way, but with more than 100 math-related toys, Learning Resources ensures there is something for every kid to understand math, no matter their age. “Even toddlers can learn basic math, such as numerical recognition and counting, through play because we know early confidence in math leads to greater STEM skills later on,” LaPlante says. Little ones can learn the basics of counting with Spike the Fine Motor Hedgehog or the Calculator Cash Register, while older kids can use the MathLink Cube activity sets to add more power to complex math lessons.
Learning Resources also made it a point to fast-track items that will help parents supplement at-home learning and help catch kids up, such as the newly launched Skill Builders line, according to LaPlante. The line will feature different activity sets for various age groups, including a set that focuses on math skills.
Kert Guna designed Trigmate last year after noticing the impact school closures were having on students. With two daughters of his own, Guna wanted to create an interactive learning tool that would help students build strong foundations in math and retain critical STEM concepts by exploring how the subject is connected to the world around us. He worked with teachers to help align the product with what kids ages 9 and up are typically learning in U.S. classrooms.
Trigmate is a device that breaks down complex math concepts, such as trigonometry, geometry, and experimental design, through activities and real-world applications that encourage kids to visualize math concepts by looking at the world around them. Kids can use Trigmate to measure angles, lengths, distances, time, constellations, and more by interacting with their everyday surroundings. It also features an astrolabe that kids can use to measure the sun and stars, and includes small attachments and accessories for kids to set up experiments through gameplay, like turning it into a catapult for projectiles. It comes with handbook activities that feature different projects and challenges for different age groups, including high schoolers.
“As a parent, I noticed that teachers started leveraging more off-the-shelf platforms and tutorials for math — and some are really not time-tested or proven,” Guna says. “Math has been a challenging subject for kids for a long time because of the pace at which it’s taught and the techniques. On top of that, you add the pandemic into the mix, and teachers were forced to quickly adjust using existing tools and online courses that may or may not be effective for kids. We need more hands-on, tangible, physical items that kids can use to apply math.”
Whether parents choose to send their kids back to school in person or continue their home-school journey as we head into our second year of the pandemic, math toys can help make a difficult topic easier for everyone involved. Plus, with students about to take their summer breaks, there is even more of a reason for math toys to step into the STEM spotlight to prevent kids from falling further behind. The steady stream of new math products will help get students back on track and strengthen learning through play.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!