Industry Outlook

Decoding STEM/STEAM: The Role of Toys and Play in Building STEM/STEAM Skills

By Laurie Chartorynsky, The Toy Association

By now most know that the STEM/STEAM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and math (with a recent addition of “a” for arts), but questions remain about how toys and play can enhance STEM/STEAM learning.

In the first of what will be a series of publications, The Toy Association has put together an in-depth report, Decoding STEM/STEAM, to explore the history and evolution of public perception about STEM/STEAM, tackle common misconceptions, address how to encourage kids to take more interest in science- and math-related subjects and careers, and suggest how toys and play can further STEM/STEAM learning. The report was assembled and reviewed by The Toy Association’s STEM/STEAM Strategic Leadership Committee.

“As parents look for ways to expose their kids to science- and math-based subjects and encourage learning agility, toymakers are in a unique position to help them,” says Ken Seiter, executive vice-president of marketing communications at The Toy Association. “Our goal in creating the report was to first provide the fundamentals of STEM/STEAM concepts. Our next task is to provide concrete information to help the toy industry create educational, fun, and engaging playthings for kids that will support their learning.”

The Meaning Behind STEM & STEAM
STEM education is an approach to learning that combines science- and math-based academic concepts with real-life lessons to help students connect the subjects they learn to examples in the community and the world around them. Building STEM literacy in children will enable them to compete in an economy that is fueled by the global society’s ever-expanding appetite for technology that is better, faster, and smarter than a minute ago.

Experts have posited that STEM learning cannot exist without allowing children to tap into their creative and imaginative skills to facilitate innovative thinking – leading the “A” (for arts) to make its way into the STEM acronym and cultural conversation. The “A” in STEAM represents the artistic and creative right side of the brain.

Breaking Down Barriers
STEM/STEAM is commonly misunderstood, leading to a myriad of “myths” and stereotypes about the subjects that prevent kids from becoming interested in the subjects at school. The report discredits many of those misunderstandings such as:

Society has come to believe that you are either born with math skills or not. A misconception likely fueled by a few children who are math savants when born and then are labeled as “gifted.” Fact: No one is born with a math brain, and no one is born without one. Learning math is also ageless and we can wrap our minds around it at any age.
Kids need to be highly proficient in math to explore other areas of science, engineering, or technology. Fact: Students can still make sound contributions to science and technology without being a math expert.
STEM/STEAM should be taught on tracks. Our current educational system is built on tracks that do not allow for parallel growth in such fields as chemistry, physics, and biology.

And yet all these disciplines converge in the real-world workplace. Fact: These subjects should be taught in an integrated manner.

In addition, a lack of diverse role models in STEM/STEAM careers, little exposure to professionals and different types of careers related to the subjects, and parental anxieties about math, among other topics, can deter children from wanting to explore science and math. These and other key points in the report are highlighted as hurdles that must be addressed in order to get more kids interested in STEM/STEAM-related careers.

The Important Role of Toys in STEAM

Toys can directly and indirectly develop skills and competencies based on the STEM/STEAM curriculum, including motivating kids to get excited about science-related subjects, allowing them to make mistakes, and facilitating collaboration among their peers. Toys can also teach kids to take healthy risks in a playful environment, practice problem-solving, and to think critically.

“Toys can greatly influence children by opening up the world of what’s possible when it comes to STEM/STEAM, inspiring young minds, and encouraging hands-on experimentation,” Seiter said. “By teaching the skills in a fun and relatable way, toys can ultimately foster a new generation of students interested in pursuing science and technology careers or any careers of their choosing.”

In the coming months, the committee will identify unifying characteristics to help guide manufacturers to develop products that foster STEM/STEAM discovery and learning. For more STEM/STEAM facts, download the full report at ToyAssociation.org/ReadingRoom.