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Are STEM Toys Effective or Are They Only A Marketing Gimmick?

8 minute read

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STEM’s popularity is tremendously growing as the world shifts to the age where computers and gadgets thrive.  

We’ve witnessed government legislation double-down on STEM in educational curriculums in an attempt to teach STEM to every student while the country competes in the global market. 

Along with the surge came the rise of STEM toys. These are toys said to be equipped to impart STEM concepts to children. Most likely, you've come across these toys in the past, but one question that might’ve lingered your thoughts is:

Are STEM toys effective?

Can a toy transform an unsuspecting young child into a STEM-loving kid? Can a microscope toy set kids up for high-paying STEM careers, or are they all just a big marketing placebo?

Join me as we explore the legitimacy of STEM toys and their claims here!


RELATED: The Ultimate STEM Toys Buying Guide | A Guide for Parents


A Look Back to STEM Toy’s Conception


In Andrew B. Raupp’s Forbes article “The Rise of the STEM Toy,” he said that STEM subjects aren’t novel concepts. Science, technology, engineering, and math are known to everybody. But combining them all into one pedagogical approach — STEM — became a trend in the early 2000s.

Now, most parents believe that STEM should be a priority in the US. And some have turned to marketplaces to find STEM-promoting toys that can give their kids a cognitive headstart on this continuously rising industry.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before toy companies caught wind of the trend and manufactured their interpretation of the STEM toy.

According to one of PCMag’s STEM toy exposition, the company Fisher-Price believes that they pioneered the STEM toy when they first released a child-friendly computer in 1994 — this was more than a decade before STEM toys were even relevant.

Countless companies followed suit from that point. And STEM toy, as we know it, became a multi-billion industry from its conception.

And according to Technavio’s STEM toy forecast 2021-2025, the market share of STEM toys is expected to increase by USD 28.40 billion with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14%.

Data reveals how influential STEM toys are across the globe. And STEM toys are pretty popular among parents nowadays.


Infographic on Parents’ Perception of STEM Toys

Infographic on Parents' STEM Perception

The information above reveals that STEM toys indeed corner the market in toys. A majority of parents believe that STEM toys are instrumental in their child’s quest for success. 

But there seems to be a problem. 

Any manufacturing company can stamp a “STEM toy” branding on their product, market it as one, and create a false sense of security.

So how can parents tell if a toy’s STEM-promoting claim is legitimate? What are the exact parameters that make a STEM toy?


What Makes a STEM toy?


Some companies sell STEM toys at costly price points. But without fully grasping the elements that make a STEM toy, some parents might waste resources from buying into false advertising.

The Toy Association is the primary organization paying close attention to STEM toys. Because there were no established criteria on what makes a STEM toy, companies could use the term on any toy they made. But this organization spearheaded the creation of unifying characteristics to describe a STEM toy. 

According to The Toy Association’s study, “STEM/STEAM Formula for Success,” there are 14 unifying characteristics to define a STEM toy. Two of which are mandatory characteristics, while the remaining 12 are peripheral or strengthening elements.

The mandatory characteristics are:

  1. The toy should promote a facet of STEM

  2. The toy should be fun to play with

A toy is already considered STEM when it qualifies in both criteria. But it’s more encouraged if the toy also boasts some, if not all, of the 12 strengthening characteristics, which are as follows: 

  1. Open-ended

  2. Relates to the real world

  3. Allows for trial-and-error

  4. Hands-on

  5. Child-led

  6. Problem-solving

  7. Includes curriculum

  8. Gender-neutral and inclusive

  9. Supports parents

  10. Builds confidence

  11. Encourages creativity

  12. Builds social and emotional skills

We discussed all the 14 characteristics in detail in the article linked below. Feel free to visit it to learn more.


RELATED: What Makes A Good STEM Toy for Children?


The Problem with STEM Toys


It’s no wonder companies exploit parents in buying into their STEM toy adverts. After all, what parent doesn’t want to give their child the competitive edge in science and technology?

But STEM toys might not be as prestigious as companies make them out to be.

Here are some of the problems with STEM toys:


1. STEM is a big sell for marketing

Schools and companies alike use the STEM card to convince parents that they’re capable of preparing their children for scientific jobs in the future. Unfortunately, unsuspecting results-oriented parents who want their children to “learn as they play” can be victimized to buying into toy companies’ STEM gimmicks, despite the apparent lack of STEM in the product.

STEM toy branding has become a marketing gimmick rather than a legitimate benefit. 

Primarily because STEM-oriented products are sold at more premium prices than regular toys, companies charge extra for that specialization. 


2. The research on STEM toys is still ongoing

Some STEM toymakers claim that their toys can speed up a child’s math literacy. Other brands say that they can help kids learn about coding.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with producing toys geared towards helping reinforce essential STEM skills. The problem is that there is little to no existing high-quality and comprehensive literature that could offer credence to these over-the-top claims by STEM toy companies. Big claims also require ample evidence.

Parents must beware until there is peer-reviewed and experimentally sound research on these toys. We’re not concluding STEM toys as ineffective. We’re only pointing out companies that promise enormous merits for their toys.


3. The career card is often exploited

The Toy Association's survey on parents’ STEM perceptions shows that 91% of parents believe that STEM skills are essential to children. And 76% desire their kids to pursue STEM careers in the future. However, one of the most troubling data they found is that parents want their kids to start building on their career path as early as 5.

This reality overlooks the point that toys are meant to be a fun and enjoyable activity. Not a career-developing tool. Plus, the likelihood that links toys to future career trajectories is low — not impossible, but low.

The “fun” aspect of STEM toys is often disregarded, and this can be problematic as children might feel objectified. As a result, we can’t help but think STEM toys are made for parents, not for children.

However, it doesn’t mean that STEM toys don’t impart something valuable to kids. But tying the toy-to-career-path connection is a bit of a long shot.


So Are STEM Toys Effective?


With all, that’s said and done, and despite the negative connotation of STEM toys, one thing remains true: STEM toys are effective.

According to Ken Seiter, an educational psychologist, some kids appreciate chemistry sets, and others are more fond of the box it comes in. Either way, both kids try to play and explore the world in their own little ways. STEM toys can be part of healthy childhood development, but these toys should only be a part.

For parents buying these toys, we highly discourage purchasing STEM toys aimlessly. Companies will do their best to sell toys with huge promises, but reading other parents’ product reviews can help shed light on this act of hope. Try to see how the toy aims to teach your child. 

Since STEM toys are meant to be challenging, you will have roles to fulfill as your child plays with STEM toys:

  1. Be prepared to play with your child

  2. Motivate them despite the difficulty

  3. Only offer the necessary assistance

  4. Ask leading questions; and 

  5. Let them take the lead

STEM toys are effective and helpful, but your parental support is a must. 


Final Words

A boy fascinated with the STEMscope

Einstein developed his love for science at 6 when his father gave him a compass. But it’s not the device that guaranteed his genius. Instead, the environment he grew up in and the guidance of his parents played a significant role.

The point is, you’re child can be another Einstein if cognitively stimulated with the right tool, as you consistently guide their learning!

If you’re looking for a STEM toy, we have one your kids might like, and we won’t make any absurd promises. Our STEMscope kids' microscope is a helpful device to support your child’s outdoorsy and explorative nature. 

Feel free to visit our product page, and you may also check our other science gadgets for kids.

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