Botley is a small plastic robot that makes a big claim. According to toymaker Learning Resources, Botley can teach children as young as 5 how to program computer codes. In fact, “he’ll have kids coding in minutes,” the company promises on Amazon.
Using a remote control, children can “program” a path for the robot to navigate, like moving forward or turning around. In a way, kids create an algorithm, which is a building block for computer commands.
Can Botley, which retails for about $60, teach your kid how to execute step-by-step instructions? Sure. Will Botley turn your toddler into a mini Mark Zuckerberg by the time they march into first grade? Probably not.
Botley’s not alone in tapping into parental desires to get their children on the fast track to cognitive success. The market for STEM toys — or toys that promote science, technology, engineering and math — was projected to grow at a solid clip even before schools across the world began closing. The coronavirus has supercharged this trend.
Between March 15 and July 4, the sale of science-themed toys has skyrocketed 66 percent compared to the same time last year, according to market research firm NPD Group, with parents frantically ordering chemistry sets and robotics toys to occupy their kids at home. KiwiCo, a STEM toy subscription box that delivers monthly “Kiwi Crates,” has seen a 150 percent increase in year-over-year sales from March to June.
But when it comes to STEM learning, the line between marketing and reality gets a little blurry. Many toy manufacturers make bold claims, assuring parents STEM toys will teach their kids about engineering, chemistry, robotics and so on, and the industry has ballooned in recent years, but there is little evidence to support the hype. (A spokesperson for Learning Resources confirmed the company has never performed clinical trials to prove whether Botley can teach children how to code.)
“A lot of the toys we review come with all sorts of unscrupulous claims that are not backed by science,” said Amanda Gummer, a child development psychologist and founder of the Good Play Guide, a UK-based research organization which provides advice on play and development. “Everyone wants their kid to be a genius, and that’s part of the problem,” she said.
Whether it’s Fisher-Price’s musical octopus that helps children learn “adding, subtracting and patterning skills,” hand2mind’s slime kits for kids to “learn the science behind polymer chemistry,” or Learning Resources’ robot that teaches your kid to code, STEM toys can’t always deliver on the promises of their marketing copy. Parents hoping they will somehow supplement in-school learning should be skeptical.
“The brutal honest answer is that you don’t know if it works,” Dr. Gummer said. “A lot of it is P.R.”
Dr. Gummer recommends that parents look at STEM as a category and not an accreditation — the way parents buying arts and crafts supplies would expect them to expose kids to painting or coloring without the guarantee they’ll soon have pieces in MoMA.
“A STEM toy does not mean it will teach a child something more than a regular toy, it just means that it is engaging a child in those areas,” Dr. Gummer said.
STEM learning is hard to pin down.
Educational toys are as old as toys themselves, but the term STEM dates back to the early aughts, when research reports found that the technical skills of U.S. students were inferior to those of their international counterparts. Education advocates pushed the U.S. to take a more aggressive approach to STEM categories in school, like hiring more teachers fluent in the subjects.
National anxiety about American students losing out on jobs to international candidates eventually trickled down to the toy industry, and companies have rushed to slap STEM stickers onto their products. The STEM toy industry was valued at $3.6 billion last year, according to Technavio, a market research firm. But the industry isn’t regulated by an organization like the Food and Drug Administration, which requires companies to prove the efficacy of their products, and it’s not clear how accurate many companies’ claims are.
Ken Seiter, an executive who helps develop marketing and messaging guidelines for the Toy Association, the primary trade group for the U.S. toy industry, said he realized the market had a problem when he was walking through the aisles of an annual toy fair a few years ago. STEM toys were everywhere, “but any time I would ask what qualified them as such, I got 500 different definitions,” he said.
Last year, the association released a white paper that listed 14 guidelines for STEM toys, saying they should be “open-ended” or involve “tactile sensory experiences.” However, the recommendations are not mandatory, nor is there accountability for companies that use the STEM label in their marketing without following the guidelines. The Toy Association recommends various products, but does not offer any market data or scientific evidence to support their educational value.
In fact, few researchers have studied the impact of STEM toys long enough to give weight to their claims, and those who have say the science is murky. “We’ve been studying toys for 10 years, and the one thing we’ve found that’s consistent is that every child is different. And so I’d be skeptical of any product that makes big claims,” said Julia DeLapp, the director of the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Still, big claims are not hard to find, like Learning Resources’ car tracks that teach “key science concepts of gravity, inertia, friction, push/pull, and more”; Thames & Kosmos’ DNA kits for kids 10 and up to “learn about dominant and recessive genes, the makeup of cells, chromosomes and more”; and LeapFrog’s plastic garden toys that can allegedly teach a 9-month-old about “early science concepts” and “the plant life cycle.” (Fisher-Price and LeapFrog declined to comment for this story. Hand2Mind did not respond for comment. A spokesperson for Thames & Kosmos confirmed the company does not conduct trials or experiments with its toys.)
As great as this sounds, these companies don’t provide any evidence that babies will, say, crawl away with any horticultural knowledge after playing with their toys.
For real STEM toys, get back to basics.
Childhood experts say that although there’s much to be wary of, plenty of STEM toys are beneficial — so long as parents tailor their expectations.
DeLapp believes that for toddlers and preschoolers, the simplest toys are the most effective. For math, it’s toys that help children add and subtract, and for science it’s as simple as cause and effect. She recommends Tinkertoys, MagnaTile, Lego, Lincoln Logs and Plus Plus. For science, she points to a good old magnifying glass, allowing children to inspect insects and grass.
“Simple, building toys are STEM toys, because they teach the foundations; like shapes, why a building topples over when the biggest piece goes on top,” said DeLapp. “Some of the oldest toys are still around for a reason.”
Sandra Oh Lin, the founder of KiwiCo, which sends educational toys to kids once a month, said that her company tries to demystify STEM. A recent Kiwi Crate, for example, had children ages 3 to 4 dripping water through colorful tissue paper and onto a white tote bag, showing how bleeding dyes merged to make different colors.
“STEM has a tendency to use big words and concepts, but we want to make it as accessible as possible,” said Lin.
Some experts say kids gain more from toys when they play with them on their own rather than with adults. Tzvi Hametz, who runs the Makerspace room at a Los Angeles private school called the Gindi Maimonides Academy, has seen many toys claiming to boost kids’ skills in math, science and tech. However, most, he said, require an adult’s help.
“STEM toys should be able to be done by children alone,” Hametz said. “My 3-year-old cannot use that coding toy on his own.”
Hametz still believes there’s value in exposing young children to STEM through toys, so long as parents understand that children might just be playing with the toys, as opposed to learning from them.
“STEM toys do not and will not teach your kids coding and the like, but they will hopefully allow kids to play and discover interests,” he said.
Experts say STEM toys should get children thinking, which doesn’t require expensive or flashy tech. Activities as simple as planting seeds can be just as effective in teaching children about math and science.
“You want toys that get children interested in the world around them, that get them to ask questions about how things work and why,” said DeLapp.
Chavie Lieber is a journalist living in New York City, who covers fashion, business and technology.