The buzzword STEM has been popping up here and there lately, relating to education or increasing number of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Now it is time to think of its term in a playful way – literally.

Modern parents understand pretty well that their child’s development and success is achieved thorough diligent school studying. Parents, who want their children to evolve as future scientists and engineers are certain, though – for constant and far-reaching educational development and future academic competitiveness, it is vital for the kid to learn both at and outside of the school.

As researches show, in the early ages of life a child’s brain acts like a sponge and has a fascinating ability to continuously develop, being influenced by child’s relationships, experiences, environment and some other factors. The ‘natural’ supporters for development in science and math related areas are the STEM toys, which act as a cross-disciplinary approach to learning that determines the thriving of healthy innovation economy.

The number of career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math fields is gradually increasing, and parent realize the importance of raising their child’s interest in those spheres from a very early age. Manufacturers can’t help but notice this significantly risen desire in parents, and use it for their own good: the variety of educational toys on the market right now is almost 50’000, having both large and small companies producing and innovating more and more of them, says Toy Association.

According to NPD Group, from last year the toy industry grew 5% and reached $20.4 billion, however the toys market share accounts for only 2-3% of it. Although toy industry trends and reports are actively arguing about future growth of the sector, it is still obvious that STEM toys will not ever likely be a mass market. Still, this does not stop concerned parents to express purchase interest in those toys.

Meanwhile, many retailers have introduced new STEM-dedicated sections to their websites and retail stores. Among them are large companies as Toy “R” US, The Entertainer, a UK-based toy store, Walmart and even National Geographic, which launched its own STEM toys line. The coolest of the toy solutions comes from Amazon – a program called “STEM Club”, which offers hand-packed quality STEM toys delivered right to the door for $19.99 a month. Amazon not just delivers a random pack of toys – it provides children with age-appropriate products within three categories: 3-4, 5-7 and 8-13 years old. This is not the first time for the company to launch something like this – in 2015, Amazon created a STEM Toys&Games Store targeting conscious parents and letting them shop STEM toys by age, by bestsellers and by store featured toys.

“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,” – Juli Lennett, toy industry analyst for NPD Group. Indeed, the good thing about STEM toys is that a kid does not actually realize the underlying educational purpose of the toy. This fact allows a child to enjoy his playing time and to not sacrifice his fun to learning something new. Kids can have good time practising coding with Code-a-Pillar, for example – a toy, which created a great impression at Toy Fair 2016. It tasks kids with learning basic “if/then” combinations and figure out the right segment order of a caterpillar that changes its lights and sounds based on the code, as it moves through the room.

The number of various science, technology, engineering and math toys is truly huge – coming to a STEM section at a retailer store, you are highly likely to have an embarrassment of riches. Boolean Box for building your own computer, Cubelets for making mini-robotic combinations, a kit of ten natural volcanic rocks and crystals by National Geographic… As Target reports, STEM toy sales have seen a double-digit growth in the last year. “We’re definitely seeing a lot more players from a product perspective,” – said Lee Henderson, director of communications at Target.

 

However bright the picture looks, there is still an issue of gender stereotypes when producing and packing the STEM toys. Some manufacturers are still thinking in “blue for boys” and “pink for girls” way. Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found out that STEM toys are three times as likely to be targeted at boys than girls. This fact can further prevent girls from developing themselves in science-related fields and becoming successful engineers, mathematicians and IT-specialists. “The marketing of toys for girls is a great place to start to change perceptions of the opportunities within engineering. The toy options for girls should go beyond dolls and dress-up so we can cultivate their enthusiasm and inspire them to grow up to become engineers,” – explained Mamta Singhal, a toy engineer and IET spokeswoman.

Despite that, many retailers have got on the path of dropping the gender labels – IET’s new research reports a considerable decrease in online gender navigation options. The whole idea of creating different toys for boys and girls can easily be transcribed into every other aspect of life, and especially career world, where women are vastly underrepresented. As a result of various publications, researches and campaigns, more gender-neutral toys has started to enter the market, however there is still a lot to do to help transform the interest girls have at STEM into a future profession choice.

Simon Ragoonanan, who writes for Man Vs. Pink blog, gives a more parental and customer-related point of view: “People often opt for what they think is a safe option which is how gender stereotypes come into play, As a father to a four-year-old daughter who loves sci-fi and superheroes, I feel strongly that little girls should aspire to be more than just princesses and that all toys are gender neutral.”

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