The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) movement is perhaps one of the most important trends in toys in decades. It tags the skills that kids will need, in theory, to stay relevant in today’s tech-centric world. From code-teaching caterpillars to colorful chemistry kits, manufacturers and retailers alike are eager to cash in on a growing toy sector that promises to deliver on science, technology, engineering, and math education.
Retailers like Target, Best Buy, and Walmart are amping up their store aisles with STEM products and Toys “R” Us and National Geographic are producing their own line of STEM products. STEM sales still only account for two to three percent of the toy market, but the sector is “growing fast,” says Juli Lennett, toy industry analyst for NPD Group.
Amazon is taking advantage of that growth in a way that aligns with how people shop today. Amazon recently launched a monthly STEM Club. For $19.99 a month, kids receive new toys that promise to develop their skills. STEM is not mass market and likely never will be, but its fans are committed parents who take education seriously. With STEM, parents are more inclined to spend money because they don’t necessarily view the purchases as “toys,” but rather as educational aids.
“The great marketing message for STEM is that it makes your kid smart and it’s educational and good for them, like eating an apple,” explains Lennett.
What constitutes a STEM toy?
There are more than 50,000 toys on the market and industry insiders are actively attempting to track which toys belong in the educational category. Some toys are more “soft STEM,” leaning more toward being toys, while others are more serious education products. And then there is the truly dubious: At the 2017 International Toy Fair, “I saw a bag of sand with STEM on it,” Lennett recalls.
For industry experts, STEM criteria includes: When the child does something, does the toy change in some way? In that sense, asks Lennett, does a Rubik’s Cube count as STEM? “These are all questions we’re asking ourselves.”
Marissa DiBartolo, senior editor of The Toy Insider, agrees that many items across various categories can be considered STEM-related. “If you break down the most basic concepts of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, you’re looking at things like sequencing, matching, building, planning, and more,” said DiBartolo. “More toys than you think are educational or at least have educational benefits.”
Proper labeling within the category is a top concern for Toys “R” Us. They identify STEM items throughout the store and have partnered with educators to produce their own private STEM brands, called Imaginarium and Edu Science.
With so many different definitions being established, there is an opportunity to have define standards that document requirement or characteristics of a STEM toy or game. This standard could guide retailers, manufacturers and parents as they assess the growing number of offerings.
ASTRA reached out to its membership to gather their perceptions of STEM product offerings and identify criteria or standards for STEM.