The Best STEM/STEAM Toys Teach Kids, Reach Parents, & Are Inclusive to All

By: Ken Seiter, Executive Vice President Marketing Communications for The Toy Association

0With all of the polarizing parenting issues out there today, it’s safe to say that millennial moms and dads can agree on one thing: STEM/STEAM skills are a key component of their children’s future success. Research shows that well over half of parents (67 percent) also believe that toys are the primary way to encourage learning these skills.

When you think of a STEM or STEAM toy, you might picture a kids’ tablet that teaches numbers and math, a science experiment kit, or an electronic building toy. But did you know that dolls, action figures, collectibles, plush, outdoor toys, and a myriad of other children’s toys have the potential to encourage STEM/STEAM learning? It’s really about figuring out how to thoughtfully include the concepts into toys – for kids of all ages – so that the learning starts early, mirrors real life, and is all a part of the fun.

At The Toy Association, our goal is to help our members and others in the industry create quality, safe toys that spark kids’ creativity and foster a lifelong love of play. We also believe these toys should appeal to parents and have immense play value.

Our new report, “STEM/STEAM Formula for Success,” identifies 14 unifying characteristics of a good STEM/STEAM toy to help manufacturers understand how to best create such toys, and to guide parents in selecting appropriate educational products for their kids.

Some of the most interesting findings include:

  • 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 (dealing with emotions) is triggered when the play experience creates a fun feeling. With half (50 percent) of parents citing competition from screens as a major challenge in exposing their children to STEM subjects, creating a toy that is fun and engaging – on top of being educational – is more important than ever.

  • Open-ended play is crucial for learning! Toys that encourage a child to find his or her own individual way to play are the most effective. There shouldn’t be a “right” way to play – toys should instead be used in multiple manners and offer various pathways to solving a problem, building a structure, creating a design, or accomplishing a task.

  • Gender neutral and inclusive toys are a must. Products should be gender neutral, serve children with special needs, and embrace cultural differences. We want to create a future workforce that engages segments of the population previously under-represented in STEM fields and includes a diversity of perspectives – all of which are needed to solve the complex problems of the world.

  • Parents need to be engaged. Nearly half (48 percent) of the parents surveyed said that they might shy away from STEM/STEAM toys because they feel intimidated by the subject matter. This fear can be contagious – parents could unknowingly pass their fear of STEM subjects on to their children. Because parents are the gatekeepers of toys, toys should include supportive materials (videos, etc.) for parents to help them feel comfortable with STEM subjects, add value to the product, and encourage involvement.

Our full report includes: the 14 unifying characteristics of STEM/STEAM toys based on in-depth interviews with toy experts, insights from a survey of 2,000 parents, examples of enriching toys, and a worksheet to evaluate toys and games.

STEM/STEAM Formula for Success,” is free of charge and now available online. You can also check out the first phase of this research, “Decoding STEM/STEAM,” which provides a comprehensive introduction to the topic.


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