STEM Teaching Reflections : Girls and Boys with Toys

stem teachingThere’s been a recent buzz about girls with toys, boys with toys and the proportional disequilibrium of women as compared to men in scientific fields. What began as an off-handed remark, snowballed into a virtual conversation that has many educators asking how they can build a foundation for STEM subjects and adequately support scientific inquiry and investigation for both sexes. At Kodo, we think one of the key ingredients toward this end is linked to environment. The physical spaces and concrete materials within them that we offer to children send messages about who can use them, why to use them, and how they might be used.  I have a personal affinity for helping today’s educators and child care providers design spaces that inspire exploration and inspire STEM teaching. This is, in many ways, due to the experiences I had as a child.

*Pictured – Kodo Kids Pump Works

At a very young age, I was fortunate to have had many experiences with real tools, hardware, electrical circuits, and wood scraps. Our garage was filled with my father’s gear which he used in his job as an electrical and building contractor. He made a little workbench for me and my sisters at which we were encouraged to play and experiment. We were welcome in that environment, had our father’s trust using grown-up equipment, and when we had struggles, he helped to steer us us in new directions. This was a normal part of our play (and, yes, we also told stories, played kick ball, dressed up, and pretended to run a grocery store, too.) Both girls and boys came over to tinker and build with us and my father treated us all equally. I’m certain he wasn’t purposely trying to create an anti-biased environment, though I could be wrong. I do know that the space and materials we had at hand kept us occupied, intrigued, and inspired us to think and create the most wonderful contraptions, models, and magical machines.

One of my sisters ended out in scientific research and I found a love for education, and now have the pleasure of working closely with our design and engineering department here at Kodo. My personal belief is that those early experiences gave my sisters and I time and space to develop problem-solving strategies, learn technical vocabulary, play with concrete mathematical materials and concepts, and feel comfortable and adept using tools. That’s exactly the kind of environment I have set up over the last twenty years in my classrooms. I have, in particular, come to know that neutral spaces and gender-free materials offer all children, no matter their gender, opportunities to experience a wide range of subject matter. Time for same-gender and mixed-gender small learning groups was also essential for me to discern interests among my students and introduce content they may have not been naturally drawn toward. That included construction opportunities for girls and dramatic play scenarios for boys. Looking back, it is interesting to note that the areas of all of my classrooms that consistently saw the most action were those that had the feeling of that little workbench space my father built. They left room for my young friends to have and build on their own ideas. It’s natural that I am committed, along with all the other members of the Kodo Team, to develop materials and toys for children that leave space for them to tinker, ideate, invent, and problem-solve. The gender-neutral loose parts, simple machines, and open-ended materials we design and build invite both girls and boys to play and investigate equally.

“As an ECE teacher, you want to celebrate diversity and promote equality in your classroom. One way to do that is to choose loose parts that reflect and honor diversity and that don’t stereotype.” (Lisa Daly, Miriam Bleglosvsky 2015) For more insight on play with loose parts check out Loose Parts, Inspiring Play in Young Children, Redleaf Press.

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