School Literacy & Culture’s 2018 Gift Guide: Our Top 25 STEAM Picks

Gifts to inspire Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math learning in young children

Welcome to the 2018 SLC Holiday Gift Guide! We hope this post finds you gearing up for the holiday season, planning big meals for family and friends and enjoying this cooler weather that, we hope, is here to stay. Thanksgiving marks the kick-off of the holiday shopping season and our gift guide is here for you just in time! This year, we’re focusing on STEAM gifts. Traditionally, we hear STEM referred to more often than STEAM, with STEM being an integrated approach to teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to children. In recent years, however, there has been an emphasis on adding the arts into the STEM studies, creating a more comprehensive approach to these competencies. The addition of “Art” to STEM (STEAM) doesn’t refer to just painting and drawing, but to the liberal arts as a whole. It refers to the importance of incorporating open-ended opportunities for innovative design and creative thinking, even including other content areas like music, the humanities and writing. Marrying Art with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics demonstrates that “the arts” and STEM are not at all at odds, but instead they work cooperatively to build up well-rounded young learners. Integrating these competencies in meaningful ways rather than isolating them leads to a treasure of learning opportunities for young children.

Last year we shared with you a new text that the SLC staff and mentor teachers read called Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us about Raising Successful Children by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff. Originally written for parents, we’ve used the text in a variety of settings as we share with others the importance of fostering the “6C’s” of 21st century learning in young children. The 6C’s are:

  • collaboration
  • communication
  • content (deep knowledge of an academic subject area)
  • critical thinking
  • creative innovation
  • confidence

The 6C’s provide a “suite of skills that will help children to be socially adept, flexible thinkers who take joy in a lifetime of learning” (p.6). These 6C’s, the authors suggest, are the key to our future. We must nurture children who are willing to ask hard questions and come up with creative solutions. We must cultivate imagination and collaboration between children, because the problems of today are likely not the problems of tomorrow. Without an intense focus on these competencies in our homes and in our classrooms, we risk teaching our children to “know” but not to think about what they know and, perhaps most importantly, use their knowledge in positive and productive ways. Knowledge itself will only take a learner so far; creatively using the knowledge they have to come up with new ideas, solve problems in innovative ways, or ask novel questions about old theories are the skills children need for the future.

In this year’s gift guide, we’ve made an effort to share STEAM inspired items with you that also foster the 6C’s.  The items you see listed in our gift guide this year are most appropriate for children in preschool through first grade, though with parent assistance some could be used for children a little older or younger. We’ve scoured our own children’s playrooms, closets, and holiday wish lists to share with you our top 25 STEAM picks. The range of gifts is wide—you’ll see science lab kits to board games, paper-making sets to Stomp Rockets, telescopes to Tinker Toys. We’ve also included a book list for you at the end of the guide with a few of our favorite STEAM books for children. We hope this list inspires you and the children in your life, and makes your endless holiday shopping to-do list a little bit easier to master.

On a final note, as you greet your Amazon boxes at the door and your wrapping paper rolls are emptied as you tie up pretty packages, remember to save them! As excited as the young children in your life will be to play with their new STEAM gifts, you’ll also give them the gift of using their imaginations with these recycled materials. Children will take their STEAM learning to new heights as they build structures and inventions from empty boxes, paper rolls and everyday household materials like a roll of tape, a pack of markers and some play-dough.

Happy holidays to all of you! We wish you a joyful season full of play, creativity and togetherness.

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School Literacy & Culture’s 2017 Gift Guide: Gifts for Play Around the Home

Play Around the Home: Gifts for Where Children Spend Their Time

Welcome to the 2017 SLC Holiday Gift Guide! We hope this post finds you embracing the holiday season with Thanksgiving just around the corner and the promise of precious time spent with family and friends near. With Thanksgiving, of course, comes the opening of the holiday shopping season and our gift guide is here for you just in time! This year, we’re focusing on “Play Around the Home.” The gifts you see on this list are organized by place in the home and are most appropriate for children aged three to six years old, though some of the materials can be used for children a little older and a little younger.

At SLC, we’ve recently read a book titled, Becoming Brilliant by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff. This text walks readers through what they call the “6C’s” of 21st century learning: collaboration, communication, content (deep knowledge of an academic subject area), critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. These 6C’s, the authors suggest, are what children need to become “knowledge transformers” rather than “knowledge digesters” (p5); to become the productive thinkers and dreamers of our tomorrows. Our futures quite literally depend on the creative thinkers we are growing and building up in our homes and classrooms! The gifts we’ve selected for this year’s gift guide encourage these 6C’s in young children as they play with friends, siblings and perhaps most importantly, cherished adults in their lives.

You’ll notice these gift picks do not include any technology, and only two items in the whole gift guide even require batteries. The materials are uncomplicated and focus on children engaging with the materials in authentic ways. There are opportunities for building, making music and art, fostering early literacy skills and pretend play options in this gift guide; the sort of play materials young children need most. Don’t get us wrong, there is a time and place for those hot toy items, too (Hatchimals in 2016 or Fingerlings in 2017, anyone?), but we want to be sure that toys like those are balanced with play opportunities that provide numerous occasions to foster children’s oral language development and budding imaginations. So, anticipate seeing a lot of “tried and true” and classic toys on our gift guide this year because some things are just so good they never go out of style!

With little ones in the home, you can bet parents spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. Someone is always hungry, and prepping meals and snacks takes time! These items are excellent additions to a child’s stash of toys that make for excellent play in the kitchen while a parent or caretaker is making a meal. Wondering why we included Play-Doh and tools rather than a pretend play food set? While the wooden or plastic pretend food is great, a banana will always be just a banana. But with Play-Doh and a set of plastic dough tools your child can create all kinds of imaginative dishes and not be limited to the items in the pretend food basket. Pine cone and pear soup, anyone? Magnets also make a great option for kitchen play as most dishwashers have a magnetic surface. Children can practice building words or creating scenes and play scenarios with the magnets suggested here!
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Listening for the Stories

Like hundreds of thousands of Houstonians, our team at Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture program returned to work this week for the first time after Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic weather event ravaged our city.  We came in jeans and tennis shoes because we couldn’t muster the energy to dress in professional attire and we gathered around the table.  There was work to do, but somehow we couldn’t do it until we’d shared our stories… stories of hunkering down, of four year olds who wore helmets and played in bathtubs through tornado warnings, of loved ones whose homes filled with water and lost everything.  We juggled the guilt of being the lucky ones who entered the homes of our neighbors and the sanctuaries of our churches and used sledgehammers to take out our frustration as we took down drywall.  We hadn’t lost everything, and in many cases we hadn’t lost any thing, yet our world had been shaken.  We were no longer asking “What day is it?”, yet we were still in search of our “new normal.”

Because we are early childhood educators, our conversation quickly turned to the children.  As adults, we had a compelling need to share our stories before we could re-enter the regular world.  “Children will need this opportunity to talk, too,” we said.  Then we asked ourselves, “How can we create these safe spaces for children to share their stories?”

This activity guide is our attempt to work with our colleagues across the city who are just beginning to welcome preschoolers and kindergarteners back into their classrooms.  None of us really know what we will find as the children return to us, but when we talk it through, we realize that our backgrounds as early childhood educators have prepared us to support them. Please share this document with your teaching team, your leadership teams and your fellow educators as we begin to help children recover from the traumatic experiences associated with Harvey.SLC Listening for the Stories-102017 Find the PDF version of “Listening for the Stories: Supporting Prekindergarten and Kindergarten Students as They Return to the Classroom” on our website.

Written by Karen Capo, Jordan Khadam-Hir, Debbie Paz and Vanessa Vierra of Rice University’s School Literacy & Culture
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Program Feature: Writing Across the Curriculum


While it is easy to think of writing as its own “subject,” in reality writing is crucial across disciplines and areas of life. When developed and harnessed effectively, the symbolic thinking skills, confidence, motor skills, inventiveness and more that children gain from creative writing can be translated into success in social studies, science, math and beyond–a true testament to writing’s ability to meet children’s needs in innovative ways. Further, while writing can be an intimidating and frustrating endeavor for many children, educators can utilize activities and techniques that make writing meaningful and exciting. Doing so sets children up with the tools and motivation they need for a life of learning.

Given the powerful promise and urgent necessity of developing children’s writing abilities across the curriculum, we invite you to participate in a three-day workshop this July that provides the opportunity to discover fresh, effective writing activities and techniques that span the genres. Expert School Literacy and Culture mentors and Creative Writing Camp teachers will share narrative, expository and poetry prompts that transfer directly to the classroom, specifically addressing English, science and social studies.

Participants will be divided into two sections. Pre-K through 1st grade teachers will discover techniques that are meaningful to emergent writers and develop expertise in evaluating a variety of strategies for teaching writing and developing voice in the early childhood classroom. Teachers of 2nd through 4th grade will focus on creative writing formats across genres that are meaningful to students, with an emphasis on strategies that make it possible for students to transfer skills learned in creative writing exercises to standardized writing prompts.

Learn more and register for Writing Across the Curriculum. We hope to see you there!



Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Rice University School Literacy & Culture Senior Intern


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Is There Such a Thing as Too Many Toys?

Minimalist Playroom

As teachers and parents, we spend a lot of time thinking about what kinds of toys we give to children. We want toys that will encourage spatial reasoning skills, facilitate motor development, inspire collaboration and spark imagination. But how often do we think about how many toys are in our bins?

In a recent blog post, minimalist Joshua Becker (author of “The More of Less”) argues compellingly that if we truly care about the values listed above, we should consider limiting the number of toys we provide in our classrooms and playrooms. Through a list of twelve benefits he demonstrates how having fewer toys will help stimulate children’s creativity and problem solving skills, executive function, and socioemotional skills.

For example, he cites a study conducted by German public health workers where all of the toys were removed from a kindergarten classroom. As a result, students were forced to be creative and invent their own games based only on what the classroom provided. This example reminds us that anything can become a toy, and giving children the opportunity and motivation to make their own toys helps spark their creativity and teaches them to solve complex problems. Having fewer traditional “toys” also inspires children to find toys in nature, to appreciate art, and to look for satisfaction outside of consumerism.

Fewer toys can also lead to improved executive function in young children. When children have too many toys to choose from, it makes it more difficult to focus on one, so having fewer options can lengthen children’s attention spans. It also encourages perseverance, because children cannot simply move on to another toy if a certain puzzle or type of play becomes too difficult. In this way, having fewer toys encourages children to develop plans, carry them out, and persist in the face of challenges.

Finally, limiting the number of toys children play with can facilitate socioemotional development. Fewer toys means children have to share, collaborate, communicate and have less objects to fight over. On the flipside, Becker argues having too many toys can lead to selfishness and in some cases even entitlement.

Plus, on a practical level, fewer toys makes for easier cleanup and motivation for children to take care of their things! Although many of the points Becker makes are compelling, implementation of his vision can be difficult. How many toys do you provide, and why? How do you manage the competing forces that might push that number one way or another? One thing is for sure: if we want to craft intentional play experiences in our classrooms and homes, we must be intentional not only about which toys we provide but how many.

Read Joshua Becker’s full article here.

Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Rice University Senior SLC Intern

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