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Friday, 15 November 2013 00:00

Supporting Families: Let’s Imagine Toys and Experiences that Reimagine Futures

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A holiday toy catalog arrived with Sunday's paper. I eagerly checked out the offerings for this season. I have three nieces, ages 3-9, and am looking for holiday gifts that will inspire them—toys that are educational and lots of fun. I was disappointed but not surprised by how gender stereotyped the toys are. Do all girls like pink, princesses and fairies, and dolls to accessorize? You might think so from the selection offered. While there were lots of construction toys for boys, the offerings for them were not all together positive. Many of the "boy toys" looked like weapons and were modeled by boys in combative stances.

I am going to pass on the holiday Barbie and the princess klip klop stable and get my nieces some cool science and tinkering toys. I've seen how toys like these can turn a kid on to a new interest and possibly a lifelong passion that leads to a career in science or engineering. My son suggests that he was "brainwashed" into becoming an engineer by the toys we got him. In fact, he is an engineer. I think he like what he does, although you'll have to ask him. I hope my son was kidding about the brainwashing; but I confess that we did provide many opportunities for him to explore engineering from an early age with buckets and buckets of LEGOs, visits to museums, and unconditional support for his tinkering endeavors.

Last week I visited one of our after-school programs at a middle school in Oakland. The girls were creating circuits and making lights flash and alarms sound. When it was time to put away the Snap Circuit kits one of the girls asked where she could get them. She had a learning disability, which did not get in the way of her enjoyment and success. The activity involved open-ended exploration with a partner and allowed time to work through challenges at one's own pace. While science during the school day may offer fewer of these opportunities, in after school she is encouraged to manage her own exploration. I hope that this girl gets her own set of Snap Circuits.

How can we increase the likelihood that our students will get the encouragement to continue to pursue the interests that get sparked after school? While some students continue the conversations about what they learn after school over the dinner table, many don't. We learned from our families that they are eager for updates on activities offered in after school programs and on what's to come. They want ideas that they can follow up on. When parents know more about the projects in which their kids are engaged in after school, they can talk about and follow up with activities that build upon their child's interest.

Do families wait outside your after-school program at pickup time? We can make families feel welcome and encourage them to come in. When there's a special activity planned, invite families to drop by early and participate. One afternoon when an alumna visited one of our after-school programs she brought a model of a motor she had built when she was in high school. While all our girls were interested in the project, the person in the room who was most fascinated was a mother! Check out the Harvard Family Research Project for more ideas to support family involvement.

With winter break coming up shortly, it's the perfect time to share ideas that families can engage in. Parents can make a difference in their child's future through the toys and activities they provide. Do you have a newsletter for families? We are sending home ideas for holiday gifts like Snap Circuits to support engagement in science and engineering.

Suggestions don't need to be only about toys but can also include experiences for families to engage in. There are lots of opportunities to explore science at science and tech museums. From interactive exhibits to hands-on projects, museums offer families a day to connect and share a common experience. Look in your community for events coming up and for opportunities that are free or low cost. Many museums offer special days where families can visit for free.

Here are additional ideas to help families jumpstart their engagement with science and engineering. They can generate fun at home and may help spark a child's interest in becoming a product engineer, computer scientist, or CEO of a tech startup.

  • Snap Circuits are a simple and safe introduction to how circuits work. This kit includes everything you need—speakers, snap wires, LEDs, lamp sockets, and motor—to make fun projects.
  • Building sets including traditional favorites like LEGOS and erector sets along with new offerings like Roominate and GoldieBlox promote imagination.
  • With so much technology in our lives, it's great to sit back and spend time reading books together as a family. Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty introduce girls and boys to the idea that engineering and architecture are fun pursuits.

My breakfast got a boost this morning because I shared it with a member of the Techbridge team. We enjoyed French toast, eggs, and hash browns. Our breakfast came with a fist bump from the owner—a unique welcome. It was nice to connect on a personal level away from the office and share thoughts and feelings beyond work. I am hoping to do this regularly with staff.

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Linda Kekelis

Executive Director
Oakland, CA


Linda Kekelis is Executive Director of Techbridge, a program that inspires girls in science, technology, and engineering.  With over 20 years’ experience designing and leading girls’ programs, Linda participates in advisory boards, collaborates with girl-serving organizations, and works with professional groups and corporate partners to promote females’ participation in science, technology, and engineering.  She conducts research, participates in national conferences, and writes, translating research into practical applications for educators, professionals, and parents. She has a doctorate in special education from the University of California, Berkeley.



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