Full STEAM Ahead: Activity Books Encourage Hands-On Learning Surge

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Activity books are encouraging a hands-on learning surge

In a most unusual year shaped by the pandemic, as educators and their students faced a variety of school-day scenarios that included virtual learning, there was one constant: the need for engaging, hands-on lessons tackling STEM and STEAM concepts. Thankfully, a number of publishers were ready to help meet that demand with an array of STEM- and STEAM-centric activity books.

“We’ve seen a marked change since last March, the month lockdowns began, in demand for these types of books,” says Jim Harbison, creative director for Little Grasshopper Books. “Our retail partners have even approached us about creating more content around home experiments and science activities, because they see firsthand the demand from customers. Even before the pandemic, there was a desire on the part of parents to introduce more educational activities, but during this extended time at home, the numbers have really jumped.”

Joy Aquilino, editorial director for Quarry Books and Rockport Publishers, reports a similar experience: “While our STEM/STEAM activity titles had solid sales prior to the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a significant increase over the past year,” she says. “We’ve consulted with our authors, and with our colleagues and friends who are parents of school-age kids, and the consensus is that these books give kids a much-needed break from screens and a chance to engage with a subject hands-on—something they can’t really do over Zoom—and they allow parents and other family members to take part in the fun, too.”

Printers Row Publishing Group, home to imprints Silver Dolphin Books and Studio Fun International, has seen a 50% increase in sales of children’s craft and activity titles year over year, according to publicity and social media coordinator Mallory Corrigan. As a result, she says, Printers Row has increased its educational and interactive title output and bolstered its publishing line tied to the Discovery brand, which spotlights books and hands-on learning kits inspired by Discovery Channel programming.

At DK Children’s, publishing manager Francesca Young believes that more demand for these education-based activity books is the result of two phenomena. “Obviously the pandemic has played a role there,” she notes. “But children are wanting to learn about these topics more and more. Hands-on learning is always a lot more fun, and teaching sometimes quite difficult subjects is made so much easier when you are learning with projects. Subjects that were previously seen as maybe more boring are now reaching a whole new audience of children who are going to be our next bridge builders and vaccine makers.”

In a similar vein, Allison Adler, senior editor at Andrews McMeel, suggests that the circumstances surrounding the pandemic have boosted a swell in popularity that was already underway. “There was definitely a hunger for screen-free activity books before 2020, but the pandemic has certainly shone a big bright spotlight on the need for this kind of creative, hands-on play,” she says. “I think the need for real-world, parent-kid connection time, away from Zoom and virtual school, is more important than ever.”

What it takes

When it comes to perfecting the formula for making an effective STEM/STEAM activity book, publishers consistently mentioned several key ingredients, including accessibility, a curiosity factor, and fun. “A good STEM activity book is one that really engages a child in STEM topics almost without them knowing,” says Andrew Macintyre, publisher of DK Knowledge Lab 9+ in the U.K., the umbrella for such titles as Math Maker Lab. “They are having fun, being creative, discovering things, and feeding their curiosity while absorbing and seeing STEM principles in action. As far as possible, everything you need to do the activities should be available in the home, or cheaply online, so no specific supply trips are needed and kids can get started whenever they feel like it. It also helps build a sense of achievement if completing the activity leaves the reader with something they can use, play with, or display.”

Kenzie Quist, editor at Gibbs-Smith, agrees, noting that she strives for an activity book that simultaneously teaches and entertains. “What better way for kids to learn than by doing hands-on activities that relate what they’re doing to real life?” she asks.

And in Aquilino’s view, a great STEM/STEAM title “offers hands-on experiences that demystify a potentially challenging topic, make it clear and accessible, and motivate kids to establish an interest that inspires them to explore further.”

In addition to providing a strong foundation in core concepts, features like “simple and easy to understand, step-by-step and clear visual instructions are definitely a must,” says Janine Deschenes, an editor at Crabtree. “Activities should also be age-appropriate, with safety considered at all times. Projects should be collaborative in nature and integrate different STEM/STEAM topics seamlessly and encourage inquiry, collaboration, and problem-solving.”

One of the goals for this kind of activity book at Little Grasshopper is to “engage children’s natural curiosity,” Harbison says. “We hope to share an attitude of wonder: ‘Something cool will happen if you do this. Try it and see!’ The books familiarize kids with the concepts of paying attention to the world around them, learning how to take steps to solve problems, and trying things out.”

And Adler at Andrews McMeel posits that a winning title “can be lots of different things—there’s no single right way to explore these topics,” adding, “I think a good STEM/STEAM book both encourages analytical thinking and sparks creativity. Maybe it’s through engaging activity ideas; maybe it’s inspiring stories about real people in these fields. I think the best books combine both the practical and the inspirational.”

Many editors go the extra mile when working on STEM/STEAM activity books, which often means literally getting their hands dirty. But there’s typically a pretty high fun factor, too. “It was a blast!” Adler says of her experience editing The Girl’s Guide to Building a Fort. “As for project testers, that would be the author, and me and my daughter,” she adds. “The inspiration for this book was vintage scouting guides, and as a former Girl Scout I really loved revisiting and introducing my daughter to some of the classic skills I haven’t used in a while, and learning lots of new things, too.”

Harbison says, “We have fun as we work on the book—it’s just plain cool to see eggshells disappear and baking soda stalactites grow! Our experiment books include step-by-step photographs, so we’re doing the experiments ourselves, sometimes with a team member’s child. We have certainly discovered that the first way we try to do things isn’t always the best way, leading us to refine our instructions.”

Harbison also pointed out some of the considerations for format and design of activity books. For a new series of Brain Games STEM titles including Kitchen Science Experiments and Engineering Science Experiments, he notes, “A special feature is that these books are spiral bound, allowing them to lie flat, which we think is essential for making experiments easy to perform. We didn’t want kids struggling to keep the book open—we wanted them to concentrate on the experiments!” And in the box kit S.T.E.M. Outdoors: 20+ Hands-On Activities and Experiments, due out in May, an observation journal is included.

Aquilino says, “I love researching a new topic or revisiting one I literally haven’t thought about in years, and then through the editing process experiencing it from the point of view of our readers—the kids and families who’ll be turning to our books for learning and inspiration.” Testing and vetting the projects involves an in-house process of reviewing and editing the various elements—instructions, step-by-step images, sidebars, and so on—to make sure they all work in tandem to support and enhance the concept featured in each activity, she notes. “Our authors draw on their extensive experience working directly with kids to develop projects that are age-appropriate, accessible, and above all fun.”

At Abrams, senior editor Erica Finkel describes the in-house approach: “The author submits the text, and we go through several rounds of edits, looking most carefully at whether the instructions are clear and specific, and whether the activities are as fun and hands-on as possible. For example, in one activity [in Sofia Valdez’s Big Project Book for Awesome Activists] the kids aren’t just imagining and planning a new community—they’re making one in outer space! The activities are vetted by the editor, copy editor, and proofreader.”

In the case of The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World (Philomel, Apr.), author and autism activist Temple Grandin designed the activities in the book guided by recollections of her favorite childhood pastimes and by her experience as a professor of animal behavior. “The whole point of the book is to get kids outside and get them observing,” she says. Its 40 activities include things to do and observe at the beach, in the woods, and in a city neighborhood or suburban backyard. “Some of them are things I used to do as a kid,” she notes. “We used to look at the stars and pick out the Big Dipper. We would collect rocks and crack them open to see what they looked like. And we did an awful lot of playing in the woods. We made pine cone animals and tents out of old bedsheets. In the book, kids can see how to build a kite, or make a bird feeder out of a milk carton.” The Outdoor Scientist additionally profiles famous scientists like Jacques Cousteau and introduces such principles as the aerodynamics of skipping stones on the water.

Publishers are in tune with parents and educators’ criteria for an effective STEM/STEAM activity book. “Stay-at-home families are looking for constructive activities that don’t require special equipment or complicated scenarios,” Harbison says. “Most experiments in our books can be done in 10–20 minutes, making them ideal for kids and parents.”

Grandin agrees, saying, “These are simple, not expensive things that families can do.” She emphasizes that it’s important for young people to “actually do things and get out and see real stuff. I’m very concerned that many kids and young adults today are completely removed from the practical. I have young students in my class who have never measured anything with a ruler! They get out of school without ever having done a hands-on thing. When people ask me what we can do to improve the schools, I say put back in art, sewing, cooking, woodworking, and for the older kids, welding and auto mechanics.”

Grandin’s editor, Jill Santopolo, v-p and associate publisher of Philomel, adds, “We were lucky enough to get to work with Dr. Grandin on her first book for young readers, Calling All Minds, and got such wonderful feedback from readers about the projects she included in the book and her message of empowerment.” As a result, Santopolo says, “The Outdoor Scientist contains even more activities young readers can do in many different areas, from science to art to engineering—and focuses on being outdoors and appreciating the world around you. It helps give readers—and their families—the confidence to explore and create.”

Spreading the word

Just as the pandemic has contributed to an increased interest in hands-on STEM/STEAM books, it has also affected the way those books have been marketed. Last spring, when publishers across the board pivoted to address the needs of educators and at-home learners, they quickly made materials—like the activities in these books—available via at-home learning hubs and websites.

“The Quarto Kids marketing team launched Quarto Classroom, a free video library of Quarto’s creators using their books as teaching tools in educational spaces or at home,” says Hannah Moushabeck, marketing manager for children’s books and toys. “Each video focuses on STEAM subjects ranging from engineering to social sciences to arts and crafts, with Quarto creators guiding students through self-led discussions and projects that make the subjects tangible, practical, and fun.”

Quarto Kids also has a marketing program called the #QuartoSTEAMClub, which includes a Quarto STEAM Club Champions affiliate program that recruits bloggers, influencers, educators, and media with relevant audiences to showcase new STEAM books and toys in a bimonthly box.

Kristen Pozzuoli, senior manager of education and library marketing at DK, shared a similar experience. Following the company’s launch of its home learning hub last spring, “we made a lot of the content from our STEM and STEAM activity books freely available on the hub, and we were glad that we were able to provide that resource during an incredibly challenging time,” she says.

The home learning hub is now a permanent feature on the website, according to Pozzuoli, who notes, “We’re excited to continue to make these resources available to foster children’s curiosity about these subjects. We also promote this freely available content in social media posts and in our newsletters that are regularly sent out to educators, librarians, and consumers, as well as in every book buzz, webinar, and virtual conference we participate in.”

Hillary Brady, digital marketing manager for DK U.S., has observed how various hands-on books and other materials are being used—and talked about—online. Social media has played an important role as publishers, educators, and families have posted about their experiences using materials found at home, as well as offering tips, tricks, and encouragement.

“We’ve seen families sharing a lot of their home learning activities with us on social media—from downloading activity packs from our website, to doing hurricane bottle experiments from our Maker Lab series, or even trying recipes from our kids’ cooking titles,” Brady says. “One interesting trend we’ve seen is parents using our books to guide their kids in art or outdoor exploration in ways we didn’t anticipate. So, instead of doing an activity straight from the book, they’ll have kids create art based on the scientific illustrations or photographs—or they’ll do close reading of a STEM title, then go outside to identify the trees and plant life in their backyard or park. It’s been amazing to see the ways our STEAM titles can be used to connect cross-generationally and get kids active and excited about science.”

Jenny Choy, associate director of school and library marketing at Abrams, says, “We were fortunate to already have a handful of excerpted activities from the Questioneers Big Project Books on our dedicated Questioneers website before the start of the pandemic. We had already been directing folks to these assets via social media, and we ended up evolving it into the #QuestioneersChallenge last April and May, in which we challenged young readers to explore the world around them through an assortment of prompts.”

Most of the publishers we spoke with believe that beyond the current boost in popularity, STEM/STEAM activity books will continue to appeal to educators and families. Aquilino is among those who see a long game. “We anticipate that interest in activity-based STEM/STEAM books will stay strong for the foreseeable future, regardless of when kids resume in-person instruction,” she says. “To offset kids’ struggle to remain focused and engaged while dealing with remote learning, parents and families will continue to look to resources for hands-on learning to keep kids motivated and engaged so they don’t fall behind, or to make up for lost momentum.”

And it appears there will be no shortage of hands-on activity books to aid the effort. For a list of some new and forthcoming STEM/STEAM activity books, visit publishersweekly.com/kidsSTEAM2021.

A version of this article appeared in the 03/29/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Full STEAM Ahead

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