6 Ways to Combat STEM Stereotypes Through Play
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- Our Vision: STEM experiences are as diverse as the world we live in.
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What do children think of when they hear “scientist” or “engineer”? Many children – and even adults – have a stereotyped image of a scientist who is male, eccentric, socially awkward, and working alone in a white lab coat. Beginning at an early age, exposure to common stereotypes like these can influence children’s interest, confidence, and identification with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Whether they believe a stereotype to be true or not, simply being exposed to them can have a lasting and powerful impact.
Stereotypes are thought to be one of the many reasons why women and other historically marginalized groups remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce. Stereotyped beliefs begin to form earlier than you may think. Research has shown that basic stereotypes begin to develop in children around 2 to 3 years of age. When it comes to STEM, we have seen that stereotypes about girls’ interest in computer science and engineering are formed as early as age 6, or around first grade (see: Master, Meltzoff, & Cheryan, 2021).
The good news is there are plenty of ways for parents and caregivers to help combat (and better yet, prevent) stereotypes with young children… and play is the perfect place to start!
Here are six ways to break STEM stereotypes through play:
- Offer Toys that Break Stereotypes: Toys have a long history of being gendered. Pink, cuddly, and cutesy toys have historically been marketed to girls while blue cars, trucks, and construction toys have been marketed to boys. Science and engineering toys are no exception and have a long history of being marketed to boys. Research conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media last year indicated that parents still more frequently encouraged sons to do STEM activities, including using STEM-themed toys, than daughters. Parents and caregivers should remember that children can miss out on important learning experiences if their play is limited to only “some” types of toys, materials, and opportunities. Parents have the power to dispel STEM stereotypes by equally encouraging STEM toys like building block kits, chemistry sets, and robots to children of all gender identities. (And while you’re at it, why not make sure all children are encouraged to explore doll play and dress up too!)
- Foster Hands-On STEM Play: Children learn best through hands-on play and exploration, especially when it comes to STEM. Some research has shown, however, that boys are provided with more opportunities for building and tinkering in their childhoods than girls. Try to be conscious about reaching all young children with hands-on opportunities to explore, engineer, experiment, build, and create to pique their curiosity about STEM from an early age. The best part is this does not necessarily have to involve buying special toys or products! Encourage tinkering play with cardboard, recycled materials, pipe cleaners, paper, and other household items. Activities like folding and re-folding the best paper airplane, fort building, taping boxes together to create a cardboard sculpture, and opening up old toys and gadgets to see how they work are all great ways for young children to practice tinkering.
- Integrate the Arts: Going from STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) means meaningfully integrating the arts into STEM play. This includes the whole spectrum of the liberal arts: music, dance, culture, drawing, literature and more! By integrating the arts, more children can find a connection and interest in the sciences - not just the kids who already identify with STEM. Not sure where to start? Check out the Genius of Play’s STEAM Playbook for lots of play ideas and inspiration!
- Encourage “Hard Fun”: Play is all about having fun, but not all fun is “easy fun.” Seymour Papert coined the term “hard fun” to refer to activities that are both challenging and enjoyable. Hard fun is particularly relevant when it comes to STEM play and projects, which need to have the right amount of challenge to hold kids’ interest (but can easily end up feeling “too hard” without the right support). While kids can be quick to give up when they don’t succeed at a goal right away, adults can provide support and encouragement to help kids stick it through. This will help children build important skills like perseverance and problem solving, which are relevant within and beyond STEM.
- Address Stereotypes that Emerge: Young children use play, especially pretend play, to explore their ideas about societal roles, expectations, and even gender relations. When stereotypes come up in children’s play, it can be easy to ignore them and move on instead of having a potentially difficult conversation. In these moments it is important to remember that silence is the same as reinforcement. Children make sense of the world around them by putting things into neat little categories - and it is our job as adults to expand on these categories before they grow into ingrained (and often stereotyped) beliefs. Take a moment to talk to children about what you observe in their play and help to expand their views with books, facts, and real-world examples that contrast any stereotypes they are forming.
- Share in the Enjoyment of STEM Play!: Last but certainly not least, think about ways that you can connect with your child and enjoy STEM together. Sit down on the floor to build a tower together, get your hands dirty with sensory science play making slime, or talk about measurement and counting while baking cookies together. Not only will this set kids up for success in STEM, but they will form lasting positive and playful memories in the process!