It was a bitter winter afternoon when Kristin Arneson and Andreea Harrington decided to take their kids out of the house for some afternoon entertainment.
As they ambled along the snowy streets of downtown Northville, Michigan, they were discouraged by the range of activities offered for young children. They wanted somewhere their kids could put their brains to use, not just their muscles. With the stark realization that there were no viable options, Kristin and Andreea decided to create their own.
“We wanted to think of something to bring to the downtown that let students play with toys in mass quantity,” said co-owner Kristin Arneson. What hatched from this idea is Stemville, an interactive, open play experience. Located in the Detroit suburb of Northville, Michigan, Stemville encourages kids to play with materials geared towards the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The first step in creating Stemville was acquiring the playroom. “We knew we wanted to be in downtown Northville,” said Kristin. The area is a hotspot for families because of the many parks, businesses, and restaurants. The pair rented two businesses on the second floor of a retail building and renovated to create a loft-style space. With room to run, build, and play, this open-concept plan was the perfect choice.
Next, they reached out to Michigan-based company Magformers, a leading manufacturer of children’s magnetic toys. By using unique cylindrical neodymium magnets, these pieces can connect no matter the shape. Kids are encouraged to utilize their architecture skills to create whatever they can come up with. Together with similar toys like Clicformers and Everblocks, Stemville acquired over 33,000 pieces for children to build with.
On June 19th, 2019, the Northville Chamber of Commerce helped them celebrate their grand opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony. Stemville officially opened its doors a few days later on June 24th with a staff of high school and college students present to welcome children into the playroom.
While open play is the basis of Stemville, it’s not the sole feature. Each month, a specialized activity is designed for children to complete. Once finished, the child receives a patch to sew onto their very own Stemville lab coat. In the month of July, kids can make Lava Lamps using everyday ingredients like vegetable oil and food dye. Stemville also hosts frequent workshops on topics like bridge building and robotics coding, offered for ages 3-12.
Kristin and Andreea wanted to make the space inviting for a wide age-group. “We have activities for children as young as 18 months up to about 13 years,” she says.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Stemville is a kids-only destination. A cozy seating area and freshly brewed Great Lakes Roasting Company coffee makes a fun place for parents to get some work done while the children exercise their creativity. A new website means parents can reserve playtime online, or simply drop in as the mood strikes. Discounted monthly memberships are available for kids who visit on a regular basis.
Bridging STE Learning Subjects
Many children love this type of play, but unfortunately similar opportunities for open exploration are grossly underdeveloped. STEM subjects are increasingly important in modern education, with the growing need for STEM professionals rising and not enough students graduating with the corresponding prerequisites. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17%, which is nearly double that of other professions. At this rate, nearly 80% of careers will come to expect STEM qualifications. So why is this topic being swept under the rug?
One reason is that often parents don’t recognize the importance of play as an outlet for creative exploration in these subjects. There is a host of untapped resources for STEM engagement, which helps children learn by putting their knowledge to the test during real-world application.
“Kids want to take things apart, they want to see something new and build something different,” says Arneson. “Sometimes they don’t even realize that what they’re doing is STEM.” Kristin and Andreea aimed to create a visible, accessible and accommodating STEM playroom, and that’s exactly what they did.
Since it’s opening in July 2019, Stemville is still adjusting to the needs and wants of children and parents who visit the location. In the long run, Kristin would eventually like to see Stemville host school field trips; she’s been in touch with educators in the Northville area to gauge how to structure group visits. “The best part of being local is that we can shape programming to meet whatever needs are necessary; open play to structured building,” she says.
Searching for STEM Field-Based Learning
Innovative STEM experiences such as this are beginning to pop up all over the country on both the local and national scale. As educators recognize the importance of STEM engagement, communities are responding with more STEM-centered opportunities such as specialized day camps, workshops, and hands-on activities. On a large scale, companies such as Target, Amazon and Facebook are also beginning to shift their attention to awareness and support of STEM education by pledging funds to STEM learning programs.
There’s still a long way to go. In the upcoming back-to-school edition, Student Travel Planning Guide (STPG) will feature hundreds of travel-based opportunities that feature immersive learning for school-aged children. STPG aims to boost awareness of STEM field-based opportunities across the country, emphasizing the benefits of travel as a way to enhance the learning experience.
In the meantime, the children of Northville will be diving into STEM, one Magformer at a time.