14 Unifying Characteristics of STEM/STEAM Toys

1. Explores an Aspect of STEAM
2. Fun
3. Open Ended Play
4. Relates to the Real World
5. Allows for Trial & Error
6. Hands On
7. Child-Led
8. Problem Solving
9. Includes Curriculum
10. Gender Neutral
11. Supports Parents
12. Builds Confidence
13. Encourages Creativity
14. Social and Emotional Skills

     MANDATORY CHARACTERISTICS

    Research resulted in determining two mandatory must-haves for the product. The first defining characteristic is self-evident in that the product promotes an aspect of STEM.

    A product should lead a child into exploring an area of science, technology, engineering or math, or engage in the scientific method. The scientific method involves investigation through experimentation and observation to acquire new knowledge, solve problems, and answer questions.

    The second mandatory must-have is that the product needs to be fun. Does this toy engage the child, captivate interest, fuel exploration, and entertain?

    A good STEM/STEAM toy triggers both sides of the brain. The left-side, logical and reasoning part of the brain, is activated when the toy or play experience gets kids thinking about aspects of science, technology, engineering or math. The right side of the brain that deals with emotions is triggered when the play experience creates a fun feeling. A good STEM/STEAM Toy is a whole brain experience.

    STRENGTHENING CHARACTERISTICS

    After establishing the two mandatory requirements, 12 characteristics were identified that strengthen STEM/STEAM skills and contribute to defining a good STEM/STEAM toy.

    OPEN-ENDED. This refers to a toy that encourages the child to find his or her own individual way to play. After the mandatory characteristics, this was the most predominant attribute mentioned for a good STEM/STEAM toy – the ability for a product to be used in multiple manners where there is no one right way to play. This includes toys that offer various pathways to solving a problem, building a structure, creating a design or accomplishing a task.

    RELATES TO THE REAL WORLD. Toy industry experts pointed to the need to help children and/or parents understand how a play experience with a toy relates to STEM and the surrounding environment. An example mentioned was that pushing a toy truck is teaching a child physics; but this mere act does not lead to a child ending up in an Advanced Placement Physics class in school. A good STEM/STEAM toy needs to make that association. STEM and STEAM skills should be looked at as similar to literacy and connect kids to things that are relevant to them. Children can then understand that science, technology, engineering, and math have an impact on their world and their lives, regardless of whether they pursue a STEM career or not.

    ALLOWS FOR TRIAL AND ERROR. Failing is part of the pure scientific model of testing. Experimenting presumes that kids will go through a series of trial and errors that will lead to a payoff of discovery and beyond. Being free to fail is one of the most significant differences between formal learning in school, where risk is seldom rewarded, and informal learning outside of the classroom where taking a chance adds to the excitement. The ability for a child to learn to acknowledge and accept failure is paradoxically a key to success. Eliminating the fear of failure through toys and play allows the child to have the freedom to playfully bump up against obstacles and then try out new solutions never before explored.

    HANDS-ON. This characteristic was identified again and again, along with the science behind it, emphasizing that there is a link between kids using their hands and developing their brains. We remember experiences more if we use our hands – toys are the perfect example of hands-on learning. The tactile, tangible input kids get from working with their hands is particularly relevant today where the frequency of screen time leaves less and less physical feedback flowing into a child’s life. This means that some kids’ brains are literally starved for tactile sensory experiences that three-dimensional toys can provide.

    CHILD-LED. This characteristic is about building intrinsic motivation and fostering self-determination. To be a good STEM/STEAM toy, it needs to deliver on the toy part of that concept and that means the child needs to lead the play experience. Autonomy is a basic human drive and one that children crave in their often over-scheduled, over-controlled lives. Play is the place where kids can lead and when they do, they can tangentially learn not only about STEM subjects, but about themselves as well.

    PROBLEM-SOLVING is a key element taught through toys and play. Giving children a play challenge allows them to think and figure things out for themselves. It can take the form of the product itself presenting the problem to be solved or allowing the child to choose their own problem to tackle. This encourages kids to invent and design solutions to problems they want to figure out. Problem solving is a highly transferable thinking skill that can be applied to other parts of a child’s life. Computational thinking (thinking in ways a computer could understand), is an important aspect of problem-solving – a gateway to coding – and toys are an effective way to teach this and other mental skills.

    INCLUDES CURRICULUM. There was discussion about the necessity for curriculum to accompany and even legitimize a good STEM/STEAM toy along with the need to be age appropriate. For example, the toy should not be for a four-year-old and the curriculum more appropriate for a master’s degree in physics. There was also input on the need for curriculum to be parent friendly. This can then serve two purposes. In one it allows a parent or teacher to have the confidence and competence to guide the play experience of the child toward STEM learning objectives. In the other, it answers the presumed question, “Why is this a good STEM/STEAM toy?”

    GENDER-NEUTRAL & INCLUSIVE. There was recognition that STEM opportunities and participation in STEM careers should be more inclusive. This included the need for gender-neutral products, toys that served children with special needs, and brands that embraced cultural differences. This inclusiveness is critically important to harness a diversity of perspectives needed to solve the complex problems of the 21st century and engage segments of the population previously under-represented in STEM fields.

    SUPPORTS PARENTS. Parents are the gatekeepers of toys, especially for young children. Supportive materials should be delivered in different ways such as videos, etc. for parents to help them feel comfortable with STEM subjects, add value to the product, and encourage parental involvement.

    BUILDS CONFIDENCE. Kids tend to label themselves just like products get labeled and that belief can be a limiting one if a child is intimidated or feels unprepared to learn STEM. STEM/ STEAM toys can create confidence in exploring these subjects and that confidence is then transferable to other subjects and segments of a child’s life.

    ENCOURAGES CREATIVITY. Art, creativity, and the humanities all came up in the interviews as it relates to STEM and STEAM. The need to apply the “A” to STEM to create STEAM was touched on in the context of teaching kids to think outside of the box or to color without needing lines. Most creative people will attest to the fact that creativity demands practice and courage, and toys can deliver on both those fronts.

    SOCIAL/EMOTIONAL SKILLS. Emotional IQ, Social/ Emotional Learning (SEL), and Emotional Intelligence are all terms that refer to skills that kids are struggling with today. In relation to STEM/STEAM, these social skills converge with both the career aspirations and the need for collaboration to successfully solve problems.

    Parents recognize STEM/STEAM skills as advantageous for their kids’ future.

    Here’s what they disclosed.

    • 9 out of 10 said it’s important to foster & encourage the development of STEM/STEAM skills in their kids
    • 50% cite competition with screens as primary challenge in encouraging these skills
    • 5 1⁄2 the ideal age to get kids started on their future career path
    • More than half have a specific career in mind for their child
    • Kids average 3 1⁄2 hours of screen time per day
    • 82% look for ways to encourage their child’s learning through play
    • 42% of a child’s play should be dedicated to education and learning
    • 72% take steps to limit their child’s screen time
    • 76% want their child to end up in a STEM-related career or field. Top jobs: engineer, doctor, web developer, or scientist

    PARENTS GET THAT STEM/STEAM IS IMPORTANT with an impressive 91% recognizing the value of encouraging the development of science, technology, engineering, art, and math skills in their kids.

    That’s why a whopping 88% either have encouraged or plan to encourage the development of these skills in their children. A majority of parents, 76% want their child to end up in a STEM-related career.

    Parents want to support their kids learning STEM/STEAM skills and provide the tools they need to succeed.

    Here’s what parents feel is required in preparing their child for the 21st century.

    GET ‘EM WHEN THEY’RE LITTLE – Parents believe it’s better to introduce the concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math at an early age – with the ideal age between four and five years old.

    TOYS AS TEACHING TOOLS - It makes sense that the younger the child, the more effective toys can be as learning tools. The majority of parents (67%) believe STEM/STEAM-focused toys are the primary way to encourage development of science, technology, engineering, and math in their child, followed by at-home experiences (57%).

    TOP 3 SKILLS - Three specific skills topped parents’ lists of what kids should master and were pretty evenly rated. They include written and oral communication (60%), tech/computer literacy (58%), and mathematics (57%).

    FOR THE MAJORITY, PLAY IS A PRIORITY - 79% of parents agreed STEM/STEAM-focused toys played an important role in skill development - with 82% acknowledging that they look for ways to encourage their child’s learning through play.

    HALF OF PLAYTIME DEDICATED TO LEARNING - Most parents believed between 41-50% of their child’s playtime should be dedicated to learning.

    GET CREATIVE - 94% of parents encouraged or hope to encourage their child in creative endeavors such as music, drawing, painting, sculpting, etc. The majority think children should begin to express themselves creatively between two and five years old.

    EARLY CODERS - Coding is a skill set parents would like their kids to acquire with 85% having encouraged or plan to encourage their child to learn to code. The majority feel the ideal age to begin developing these skills is between six and seven years old.

    LOOKING FOR STEM/STEAM - 85% of parents have specifically looked for STEM/STEAM toys when purchasing new toys for their child, which makes sense because 82% agree that playing with STEM/STEAM toys will lead their child to develop an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math subjects.

    CREATIVITY, PROBLEM-SOLVING, FUN, AND CONFIDENCE – Parents considered the most important characteristic of a STEM/STEAM toy be encouraging CREATIVITY. This was followed by fostering problem-solving, being fun, engaging, and finally building a child’s confidence.