While the subjects that comprise the acronym STEM aren’t new, grouping these subjects of study — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — into a pedagogical approach didn’t become a trend in educational circles in the early 2000s. Today, as the movement has gained momentum across the globe, more parents are taking action when faced with traditional curricula that don’t offer their children the kind of content and pedagogy that will best prepare them for a career of innovation and problem-solving. Some families are advocating for better courses or enrolling their children in extracurricular STEM programs, while others have turned to the marketplace to find the answer they seek.
That’s right: STEM toys. STEM toys have actually been around for several years now. As the New Yorker reported back in 2013, the industry was already welcoming an increase in STEM-related toys for almost a decade. According to data from a research firm on the toy industry, “Sales of building sets rose 22% from 2011 to 2012, from $1.63 billion to $1.99 billion; sales of scientific toys and educational toys, while a tiny fraction of overall toy sales, grew as well, by 17% and 25%, respectively.”
STEM Toys Can Help All Students, But Are All STEM Toys Helpful?
One trend that clearly stands out in the toy market: subscription services. Amazon’s STEM Toy Club, which launched in 2017, is perhaps the most visible major company to offer such an option, but the e-commerce juggernaut is not the only retailer that’s gotten involved with STEM toys. A recent piece in Retail Dive makes clear that several other large companies, including Walmart and Target, also offer STEM subscription services. The idea is simple: Parents pay a flat rate per month, and their children receive a different STEM toy or kit each month.
Subscriptions services are a great way to build curiosity and interest in STEM for kids who might not otherwise be interested. After all, who among us under age 12 would refuse a new toy in the mail each month? But as a product editor quoted in the RD article makes clear, it can be hard to tell if retailers are offering truly educational, engaging STEM toys or just trying to capitalize on the trend of STEM: “Amazon is actually late to the game,” Jennifer Stein said. “STEM has become a fabulous term for marketers to use because parents buy into it, but it has been around. For it to be effective, it needs to be used correctly.”
One can assume that most seasoned STEM educators couldn’t agree more.
What To Look For When Making A Selection
So, how can parents — and educators — determine which of the new crop of STEM toys are actually beneficial and which are just getting in on the trend of STEM? Tech firm Technavio, which released a report forecasting the growth predicted in the STEM toy industry, breaks down educational toys into three categories: academic, cognitive thinking and motor skills.
Solid academic toys include math and science kits, as well as language learning toys, and these toys should actively engage children in skill acquisition or application. In other words, children should not be passive observers — a good academic toy should require them to think, interact with and/or manipulate concepts and ideas.
Cognitive thinking toys for younger children can include puzzles and construction sets that require children to think logically and apply reason. Cognitive skill-building toys for older students include classics like the Rubik’s Cube, as well as more advanced construction sets from companies like LEGO, which require older students to apply concepts of both geometry and engineering.
Motor skill-building toys are a growing subset of STEM toys and primarily apply to the youngest of learners. Toddlers and preschoolers can benefit from workbench sets or even simple, well-designed building blocks, which allow young learners to develop the physical skills they need to move and manipulate objects.
For parents who want to give their children additional opportunities to learn and practice STEM skills, quality STEM toys can be a great option. A growing market means that retailers are looking to capitalize on the opportunity, so it’s important to do your research and look for toys that offer dynamic, hands-on learning as opposed to just encouraging students to pretend to “do science.” While imagining a world in which they can grow up to be an engineer or a web designer is valuable, it’s most important that children actually get real-world experience by engaging in problem-solving as opposed to playing with something fun that just makes them look the part. After all, hard work can definitely feel like play, especially in the STEM fields, so look for toys that offer that sweet spot of rigor and joy, and watch your child’s interest in STEM take flight.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on May 29th, 2018.