- The Toy Association™'s STEAM Toy Framework is available to download here.
- Click here for a guide to using The Toy Association™’s STEAM Toy Framework.
Do you find the whole STEM/STEAM/STREAM debate confusing?
Whenever I have been to education fairs in the past, I find myself surrounded by the words STEM, STEAM, and STREAM. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths - sometimes with Arts and/or Robotics thrown in too - seem to be everywhere.
And with good reason. STEM jobs are one of the fastest growing fields in America and have grown by a quarter in the last 10 years. So of course, parents are keen to give their children a head start.
As a result, the STEM toy market is booming. Globally, the market size is expected to reach $9.5 billion in the next five years, an increase of seven per cent. Remote learning in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in some countries has only boosted the educational toy sector further.
The problem with STEM/STEAM
Demand is high and so is competition. One of the biggest challenges is the sheer number of products that claim to be STEM toys, with nothing to back up the assertion.
“Many toys are labelled as "STEM toys," with claims that they teach kids science, technology, engineering and math,” says science news website Live Science. “But very few toys that hold these claims are actually studied. Some may be fun but not particularly educational; others focus on STEM topics but may not hold kids’ attention for long.”
The risk is that toys that genuinely have benefit to children in the STEM subjects get lost in amongst the ones that don’t, and parents slowly lose trust in the label itself.
The Toy Association™’s STEAM Toy Framework (2021)
Last year, The Toy Association™ enlisted the help of the Good Play Guide™ to develop a new framework to provide the toy industry with a single, consistent definition of STEAM. The purpose of this was to ensure we are all working from the same page so that together, we can make the STEAM category as meaningful and valuable to parents as it should be.
The new framework was built around The Toy Association™'s previous reports, Decoding STEM/STEAM and STEM/STEAM Formula for Success. These involved interviews with over 100 experts in STEM and over 2,000 parents, along with secondary research, ensuring that an evidence-based approach was used.
How the Framework can support product development
- Generate fresh ideas - Use the specific STEM categories to discover topics you haven’t considered before, or review a range of products to identify gaps you could fill (e.g. you might have lots of maths toys, but not much engineering)
- Develop stronger products - Create new designs with the STEAM toy criteria at their heart
- Make evidence-based decisions - Review a range of designs objectively, to help you choose the best one to launch when opinions are divided
How the Framework can support marketing and advertising
- Substantiate your claims - Use a framework developed by industry and STEM experts to back up your claims that your product is a STEAM toy. This is a requirement for Advertising Standards Agency compliance in the UK (3.7 & 3.8).
- Identify and highlight your product’s strengths - Use the criteria to develop skill icons for your packaging, or quote the specific learning standards your toy supports, to increase confidence in the educational value of your product.
- Improve consumer trust in your brand - Stand out in a crowded market with an independent source of approval, while building consumer confidence with claims which are consistent with other toys on the market.
The Toy Association™’s STEAM Toy Framework has been designed to create a consistent definition of the STEAM category in the toy industry, help toy companies develop and market better STEAM toys, and encourage greater consumer confidence in the category.
When you use this assessment for your own products, you can gain credibility from an independent, evidence-based approach and stand out in a crowded market. But you will also give more parents access to quality STEAM toys and help the toy industry as a whole benefit from the growing STEM/STEAM market worth billions.
If your question isn’t answered below, please email Anna Taylor, a co-author of the framework, who will be happy to help you.
- How long does the approval process take?
The Framework has been designed to be used as a self-assessment tool. So the process can take less than a week, depending on how your team decides to carry out the assessment. If done individually, this allows you to sense check your answers with one another and can be more reliable, because if more than one of you makes the same choice you know it’s more likely to be accurate. You can then discuss your thoughts as a team to make the final decision. If you decide to test your toy(s) as part of the process to ensure your assessment is as objective as possible, this may take longer (testing through the Good Toy Guide, for example, takes three to four weeks).
- What does it mean if a toy passes?
If your toy passes the assessment it means you can confidently market it as a STEAM toy, and use the report to substantiate your claims. Now when someone asks why it’s a STEAM toy, you can say it’s passed The Toy Association™'s requirements, and talk about all of the criteria it meets as part of that.
- What does it mean if a toy fails?
This means that, at the moment, the toy doesn’t have all of the qualities to be considered a STEAM toy. If you still want to be able to make this claim, you can look through the criteria it has failed on and use this information to develop the toy further. This could be as simple as including a guidebook in the box, to help children get the most out of the product. You can re-assess the toy as many times as you need to until it passes.
- How important is context? For example, could a stick be a STEAM toy if it ticked off everything on the list?
We suggest that you complete the self-assessment based on how children are most likely to use the toy. Using the stick example; if it’s highly likely that children will break it into quarters, then use it as a construction toy, then it might pass. We would suggest it’s more likely that children will throw the stick or use it to dig in the ground. This is where watching children play with your toy is so important, because it shows you what they actually do with it - and it’s not always what you’d expect.
- Do any of the specific STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) overlap better than others?
The idea of STEM is that there is lots of overlap between all of those subjects, so any of them can be included in a toy together. For example, maths is often needed for measuring in all three of the other subjects; and engineering and technology rely on the principles of science.
- What do engineering and coding look like for younger children, particularly two to three year-olds?
At this age, learning is about really early introductions to STEM. For example, they will be learning about engineering by playing with blocks, or role playing as builders. Coding at this age is mostly about learning patterns and sequences, such as shapes or colours, as this can help them learn programming language later in life.
- In terms of being gender neutral, is it okay to target specific children with the product packaging?
The main requirement for a toy to be gender neutral is that any child can walk into the store, take the toy off the shelf, and not feel like they aren’t meant to play with it. It’s fine to have pink and blue boxes, robots or perfume factories, as long as no child feels excluded by that.
- STEM/STEAM has been around for years, why is the framework only coming out now?
This framework is just the latest of several reports by The Toy Association™. As our understanding of STEM/STEAM has changed, the team has developed new guidance for the toy industry. This latest framework focuses on clearing up the confusion between STEM/STEAM so the industry can have one unifying definition, but it too will continue evolving as STEAM changes.