Learning can be fun even with educational toys
I recently came across an article on www.fastcompany.com that had to deal with the influx of learning toys so prevalent today and how and where to find them. Since I maintain an Excel spreadsheet to remind me of nieces, nephews and children of close friends’ birthdays, complete with the year of birth and date so that “Auntie Peg” doesn’t forget their special day, this was a huge help when I’m stumped, and an Amazon gift card seems so impersonal.
Not only do I want to make sure my gifts are timely with what’s happening in the toy industry, but an extra bonus would also be to give an educational gift, yet one that is fun. My worst fear is that the gift recipient would marvel more at the gift wrap than the gift itself and mutter to himself or herself, “Boy, Aunt Peg sure missed the mark with this one.”
Seemingly overnight, and almost by necessity, toys have become teachers and the article clued me in on the fact that kids actually love educational toys. The educational toy market has exploded in recent years, with some researchers estimating more than $100 billion in sales globally by 2028 (according to www.fortunebusinessinsights.com, their prediction is even greater and that the global educational toy market will grow to $132.62 billion in 2028).
The uptick is partly thanks to an acronym STEM — for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — which has become an easy way to distinguish toys with an educational side from toys that are just meant to be fun. During the pandemic, STEM toys (and their artsy cousins, STEAM — science, tech, engineering, arts, and math — toys) became must-haves for families across the country.
“With COVID and the lockdowns and everything there was a huge surge in interest and demand for these toys,” says Kristin Morency, senior adviser at the Toy Association, a trade group representing the toy manufacturers and retailers that make up a $40 billion market in the U.S. “The toy industry really did respond to that demand.”
STEM toys have a growing presence in toy stores and online, and scientific toys, a subset of the STEM category, have grown 28% over the past three years to about $281 million in annual sales. The growth is even bigger for STEM-adjacent building sets like Lego, which have grown 51% in that time, to more than $2 billion in annual sales.
From code-teaching caterpillars to colorful chemistry kits, manufacturers and retailers alike are eager to cash in on STEM. Retailers are taking different approaches: Target, Best Buy, and Walmart are amping up their store aisles, while Toys “R” Us and National Geographic are producing their own line of STEM products.
Amazon’s toy experts partner with key vendors and various STEM organizations, as well as parents and kids to ensure age-appropriate products. There are three age groups (3-4, 5-7, and 8-13) and if you key in “STEM” on the Amazon site, you will see a multitude of products to choose from, i.e., toys like Kids First Automobile Engineer Kit and the Young Scientist Club: The Magic School Bus Engineering Lab, which teaches everything from crystal making to physics.
It was supposed to be an easy fix, but with more and more toys labeled as offering STEM benefits, toymakers and toy buyers alike are starting to wonder where the line is drawn. Is a set of racing cars or building blocks educational, or are parents and kids being taken in by a widespread case of something they call “STEM-washing?”
Although the era of the pandemic helped establish the STEM niche in the toy industry, it also muddied the waters with toys inaccurately touting their educational merits. “There were so many toys every year that were claiming to be STEM or STEAM and not all of them could explain clearly what makes this toy STEM or STEAM,” says Anna Yudina, director of marketing initiatives at the Toy Association. “And even those that could explained it in different ways.”
From building blocks to toy car ramps to stomp-fired air rockets, a wide range of marginally educational toys were suddenly being sold as STEM products. Whether STEM-washing or inconsistent marketing is to blame, the confusion has led the toy industry to try to get precise about what a STEM toy is.
In response, the Toy Association created an accreditation program for STEAM toys, partnering with the Good Play Guide, a U.K.-based reviewer of children’s products founded by a child development specialist. Together they developed an assessment framework for determining whether a toy offers the educational merits suggested by a STEAM label.
To qualify, a toy must support learning goals in at least two of the STEAM categories while also having attributes like real-world relevance, active involvement, and free exploration. The program, which launched in August 2021, has accredited more than 200 toys from 60 manufacturers worldwide. Accredited toys include a Super Smile Dentist Kit Play Set, Lady Bug Land, and a Build-Your-Own Glowing LED FM Radio.
Some, like the Hot Wheels Flight Path Challenge — a looped ramp for launching toy cars through rings—may seem a bit off base in terms of its educational takeaways, but Yudina says the accreditation program’s first criteria is that the toy is something a kid wants to play with. “If a toy is not fun or engaging, it doesn’t matter how much science, technology, or math you pack into it,” she says. “It’s not homework. Toys should be fun.”
My take on all this: sure, educational toys are super, but us baby boomers grew up with Silly Putty and Slinky and we turned out okay.
Peg DeMarco is a Morganton resident who writes a weekly features column for The News Herald. Contact her at [email protected].
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