I'm a Mom and a Robotics Coach: Here Are Fun Ways To Boost Your Kid's STEM Skills

It's easier than you might think to help your child build strong STEM skills right at home—even if they don't show any interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Mom and robotics coach
Photo: Kailey Whitman

When I was a newly single mom of two toddlers who was also pregnant, I needed something that would keep my kids busy and not leave me feeling guilty. My son especially needed a little more attention, not only because his brain seemed to work differently than mine (which was tough enough!), but also because he never seemed engaged enough to sit still.

Finding a robotics program changed everything. My son went from not being able to understand the definition of sitting still to being laser-focused and attentive for his whole robotics class. Even more impressive, he stayed engaged for hours of productive, self-directed projects at home. Whether it was a seesaw to go with the merry-go-round that he built in his robotics program or a castle constructed with the help of the crane he built, his already powerful imagination was unleashed and directed to think in new ways.

The many benefits of STEM go beyond learning to counting, measuring density, solving math problems, or coding the latest tech. Kids immersed in STEM-based activities are also boosting their innovation, creativity, problem-solving, observation, resilience, and communication skills. Once I saw its effects firsthand, it became my mission to get this process out to help other parents and children. That's why I co-founded Playgineering, a hands-on, at-home, project-based STEM robotics program for children ages 3 and up.

Even if your child doesn't show interest in STEM, you can help them develop the fundamentals of these skills in easy and fun ways. Here's how.

Bring Stories to Life

A big part of STEM is taking theoretical, hypothetical, or imaginary things and making them real. If your kid loves stories, they can use STEM-based processes to bring things from their favorite stories to life.

In Judy Blume's Fudge book series, for example, the protagonist Peter complains about his friend Jimmy eating sardine and onion sandwiches—a detail that has nothing to do with the plot but really intrigued my kids. The thought of these sandwiches was so gross and funny, we had to "engineer" them for ourselves.

We got all of the independent parts to make the sandwiches: bread, sardines, onions, and mustard. We laid out all of the ingredients on the table and walked through the process of making these sandwiches, step-by-step. Once we were done creating the sandwiches, the kids saw a book's detail become a tangible object in their space that they could experience.

The activity of bringing something off the page of a book into the three-dimensional space is a powerful way for kids to learn that ideas become things—a fundamental building block in developing STEM skills that work in the real world.

Put On a Show

A surprising activity that's filled with STEM lessons is putting on a show right at home. This is great for kids who like performing and for those who like creating scenes with dolls or action figures. My children became pros at putting on their own shows for us.

In addition to creating great memories, my kids made decisions about every detail. This included figuring out the story, what the set would look like, and writing dialogue for the characters. They drew, colored, and cut out the tickets, designed flyers, and sometimes even built a box office for purchasing tickets.

This activity taught my kids how to think through a problem and execute all the steps to get to the desired outcome. This also helped build their confidence since they learned they could do complex things. And when kids believe in themselves, they become less intimidated when needing to tackle more difficult, complex problems later in life.

Use Blocks and Modular Toys

Blocks and modular toys are great for helping kids build the fundamentals of the construction aspect of robotics. As kids mature their STEM skills, they can think through how to get the outcome they're looking for in increasingly layered and complicated ways.

For example, the kids in our program all build a windmill, but the way they build it is different depending on their age. Our 3-year-olds focus on construction. They study the different parts and learn how they relate to each other as they assemble the model. They also get the windmill to produce wind by getting the blades to move. Our high schoolers build windmills and then create a computer system inside of the windmill (programming) that makes it work to produce wind.

Maybe you won't be making windmills at home, but blocks and modular toys can offer your child independent play while also providing them with the STEM skills they need to get more out of the programming process when they grow into it (and it'll make it more fun for them, too).

Emphasize 'If-then' Logic

In advanced robotics, after the physical parts are built, a robot has to be programmed to make it do something. Coding is a set of instructions that the programmer "writes" to make the robot move. To "write" those instructions, one must have an understanding of if-then logic, a powerful STEM-based principle.

Physical games, even simple ones like Simon Says, are a great starter activity for young kids learning about if-then logic. Card games like Go Fish and board games like Connect 4 also highlight how if-then logic works. Players must consider how to use their turn ("then") based on how other players move in the game ("if"). For example, if you're playing checkers with your child, and you have to make a choice between which way you're going to move your piece, you may have the following choices:

  • If I move to the right, I will get jumped in their next move
  • If I move to the left, they could double-jump me if they see it
  • If I move my back piece, then I may let their piece through, but I would have the chance at getting my piece kinged

This is if-then logic in real-time.

As a parent, seize the opportunity to have your child note the if-then conditions during the game. It helps them build those processes in their brain to make if-then logic second nature and pick up some more STEM skills that will help them in adulthood.

The Bottom Line

Participation in STEM helps boost important skills that will benefit children now and in the long-run. Even if your kid doesn't show interest in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, these activities can incorporate STEM into their lives in fun and easy ways as they open their minds up too.

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