We were thrilled to be asked to help judge the inaugural Science Toy Award – science writer, physicist and campaigner Laurie Winkless reports back on the tough job… and the shortlist of great toys that spark science learning.
Saturday 7th May has to go down as one of the most fun ‘work days’ I’ve ever had. Holed up in a meeting room at Imperial College London, fully caffeinated and surrounded by three awesome women, I donned my Let Toys Be Toys hat, and played with… I mean, very seriously assessed… a huge pile of toys!
Along with Sandra Perez Garrido (Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK), Jessica Rowson (Institute of Physics) and Ling Lee (Science Museum), I was there to judge the inaugural Science Toy Award. I’ll let Andrea Alenda Gonzalez, founder of the Award, describe her motivation: “I believe that science should be accessible to everyone. Scientific toys enable a child to learn about the world around them through play. They encourage exploration, trigger curiosity, expand imagination and help thinking. Creating an award to recognize these toys is, in my opinion, the best way of promoting the interest in science in children.”
I like to think of it as stealth science – exposing children to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and maths) without them realising it!
I’ve already explored the importance of childhood toys and play in the lives of female scientists, so you can imagine how happy I was to get my hands on some of today’s science toys! The interest from toy manufacturers had been huge – they’d been sending boxes to Andrea for weeks, so we had a lot to get through. And while we were judging upstairs, hundreds of children and their parents were playing with the same toys outside, as part of the Imperial Festival.
For the most part, I was very impressed by how inclusive the submitted toys were… excluding the one that had a red-and-blue ‘cars’ version and a purple-and-pink ‘cake’ version (grrrr). The toys also represented a very broad range of interests, and there was at least one toy suitable for every broad age group in primary school. After lots of play and much debate, we made a unanimous decision on our Top 3 Science Toys! They were (in no particular order):
This is a logic game, where the player has to find the quickest route between two points, dealing with obstacles on the way, and picking up tokens, all while following a series of rules. It is essentially an attempt to turn computer programming into something physical. For me, this is perfect for the Minecraft generation – and the aesthetic is definitely inspired by it. Because the ‘board’ is a booklet of puzzles, each task gets progressively more challenging. The first few are there to teach you the basics, but it rapidly gets more challenging, forcing the player to learn new skills … just like ‘real-life’ coding! Big thumbs up from me.
The idea behind this is deceptively simple. It’s a pack of cards that displays numbers in four different ways: as a digit (e.g. 6), a series of dots, a sum (2+2+2) or a product (2×3). The game itself can be played in lots of different ways – we chose snap – and it proved to be lots of fun.
I have always loved doing mental maths, so this game is right up my street. But I’ve since played it with others who wouldn’t identify themselves as “maths people”, and it proved to be just as popular. It is very much suited for all the family, and as it’s no larger than a standard deck of cards, it’s very portable.
My fellow judge Jessica described this toy as being “…like a Mr Potato Head for engineers”, which a pretty perfect description! You need to rummage around in the recycling for a box or a plastic bottle, and then combine it with the gears, propellers, winches and wheels provided, to create everything from a crane to a race car. This toy encouraged learning-through-exploration, and it included a booklet of engineering tips to give just enough information to get your imagination flowing. The packaging had a pleasing retro feel to it and lacked any gender labelling. I loved it.
These three finalists are currently under serious scrutiny by the world’s toughest judges – primary school children! 300 kids across London are testing them as I type, in order to choose the overall winner of the Science Toy Award 2016.
Results are due in in September, so watch this space!
PS: We also had a couple of special mentions: Plui cloud, which is a hollow plastic cloud that ‘rains’ when the hole on the top is uncovered. To stop the rain, just cover the hole with your finger. As well as being a brilliant way to introduce the concept of air pressure to bathtime, it’s also beautifully designed – perfect for little hands and easy-to-clean. Suitable for all ages, but I suspect, best for pre-schoolers.
Our second special mention was Kibi Texture Memory, a sensory game based on ten circular pots with a textured surface hidden inside and a series of cards. There were multiple ways to play Kibi, and we felt it would be particularly suited to groups of children with a range of different needs. Again, this was beautifully made, and presented in a really inclusive way. Our only gripe was that we imagined the textured surfaces would get grimy before too long, and we couldn’t see how to clean it.