The following provides a guide to help you use The Toy Association™’s STEAM Toy Framework (2021).
Section 1: Characteristics of a Good Toy
There are three parts to the Framework, designed using a funnel approach. Starting broadly, the first section - ‘Characteristics of a Good Toy’ - looks at what makes a good toy, regardless of whether or not it is STEAM.
This is because if a child doesn’t want to play with the toy, or can’t because it is too difficult to use, they won’t gain any benefits from it. A toy can be heaving with educational stuff, but if it’s boring, it will just sit on the shelf gathering dust.
These characteristics are based on the Good Toy Guide’s rating system which has been developed over the last eight years to help review toys.
Section 2: Prime STEAM attributes
This then narrows down to the qualities a STEAM toy specifically should have. If we picture it like a cake, then the ‘Prime STEAM Attributes’ are the sponge, and the ‘Specific STEM Categories’ are the frosting that goes over the top.
These attributes are the foundation on which the STEM subjects are learned, so they’re really key to what makes the product a ‘STEAM toy’ rather than just something that teaches children maths.
STEAM is defined by the National Science Teachers Association as an interdisciplinary approach that couples academic concepts with real-world lessons. The ‘Prime STEAM Attributes’ dig down into this, looking at exactly what a toy needs to do to essentially bring these subjects to life for children.
This section also captures what a toy needs to do to create an engaging learning experience for children, such as letting them be actively involved in their learning and providing support that lets them gradually grow their knowledge.
Putting the “A” in “STEM”
As you’ll have noticed, the “STEM/STEAM” has just become “STEAM”. This is because both the previous evidence and the experts who worked on the framework strongly suggested that the arts are a key part of STEAM. This is because things like inventing and experimenting need innovation, so a good STEAM toy will inspire children to tap into their creative abilities.
We felt that, while the STEM subjects can overlap, Art needed to underlie all of them. So rather than being a “Specific STEM Category”, it was included in the “Prime STEAM Attributes”, which feed into the whole toy.
Section 3: Specific STEM categories
Finally, if the toy has passed the first and second sections, you will be asked to think about what specific skills it develops. The report provides a sort of glossary which includes many of the learning goals children are likely to be learning at different ages, based on what they will be learning in school.
The framework was designed primarily for the US but there is not one single US curriculum. Therefore, we have combined a range of US learning standards including The Common Core Standards Initiative standards for mathematics and Next Generation Science Standards, among others.
For ease of use, not every learning standard is included. If your toy links with a learning standard that is not listed, this can still be counted as part of your assessment. We hope to update this section every few years to keep it up-to-date with the most recent standards.
The previous reports didn’t take age into account, so this was a key area The Toy Association™ wanted to develop with the new Framework.
The STEM concepts that children are learning vary a lot by age. If a toy is targeted at children who are too young, they might struggle to learn the concept because they haven’t yet learned the stage before it. For example, children need the chance to explore how magnets stick together and come apart, before they start learning why that is.
If a toy is targeted at children who are too old, it’s likely that they already know the concept and won’t be learning anything new.
The target age is also really important when considering other parts of the toy’s design, such as what themes might interest children, how easy the toy needs to be to use, or if there’s a lot of reading involved.
How to use the rating system
The STEM/STEAM Formula for Success report had identified 14 unifying characteristics from STEM/STEAM toys. However, many of these overlapped and didn’t have a clear definition, which made it difficult to consistently rate toys against this checklist.
To build the new Framework, we refined these characteristics and created a step-by-step rating system. The first two sections, ‘Characteristics of a Good Toy’ and ‘Prime STEAM Attributes’, ask you to decide which statement best describes your product, resulting in an ‘excellent’, ‘good’, or ‘poor’ rating. An ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ for all of these criteria mean you can move onto the third section.
The third section, ‘Specific STEM Categories’, asks you to identify what age-appropriate learning goals your product supports.