Beware of STEM-Washing: How Parents Can Shop Confidently for Educational Toys

by ParentCo. August 02, 2017

As I walked the three-story labyrinth of more than 1,100 exhibitors at the Toy Industry Association’s 2017 Toy Fair in New York City, I got the feeling that every vendor there was trying to tap into the demand for creative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) toys. Some were clearly on the right track. Perennial STEM stalwarts like , Educational Insights, and Snap Circuits® maker Elenco, as well as upstarts like Osmo and Circuit Cubes maker Tenka Labs all jump to mind. Others, like the company who presented a bag of sand as a legitimate STEM offering, seemed to toss the term casually onto product packaging simply for the trendy marketing boost. The “STEM pretenders” have only served to cheapen the term’s credibility, much like the overused and abused “all natural” and “organic.”

Can’t blame a savvy toymaker for trying

There are big incentives for manufacturers to hop on the STEM toy bandwagon. The demand for toys that help(s) get kids excited about science, tech, and making has exploded over the past few years. So much, in fact, that retailers like Amazon, Target, and Toys R Us have established dedicated online and in-store areas just for STEM toys. Companies like MEL Science and Steve Spangler Science Club bring creative STEM project kits right to your doorstep with a monthly subscription. With the definition of STEM expanding to emphasize creativity with the Arts (STEAM) and specific “maker” disciplines like Robotics (STREAM), even more, manufacturers are sure to join the chorus of educational claims. Although the educational toy category only represents two to three percent of the toy market in the U.S., the fast-growing sector accounted for $20 billion in revenue over the past year. According to Euromonitor, the global market for child development toys is projected to reach nearly $40 billion by 2019, and STEM toys will account for more than three-quarters of that total.

Parents and buyers beware

An exploding market has proven parents are willing to invest in STEM products with steeper price tags if they know their kids are guaranteed a lasting learning experience and will have fun in the process. But, like most products, not all toys claiming STEM benefits are created equal. Jennifer Stein, youth and family product editor at New York Amsterdam News, told Retail Dive earlier this year, “STEM has become a fabulous term for marketers to use because parents buy into it. For it to be effective, it needs to be used correctly.” Just as some companies have falsely proclaimed their health products to be “all natural,” and others have “greenwashed” themselves to appear environmentally responsible, some toymakers stretch truth and credibility by attaching STEM labels to products that fail to deliver the promised educational benefits. How can parents sufficiently evaluate the true STEM value of a toy based solely on the legitimacy of a label? With more than 50,000 toys currently on the market, it can be overwhelming for time-strapped parents to evaluate and decide which toys actually fulfill their STEM promise and which suffer from “STEM-washing.”
circuit cubes Wheels kit will turn legos into STEM toy Circuit Cubes Whacky Wheels Kit + LEGO

What is a STEM toy, exactly?

Marissa DiBartolo, senior editor of The Toy Insider, told Fast Company that many items across various categories can be considered STEM-related. She said that while STEM is “extremely important” for a child’s early education, a toy doesn’t have to have the word “science” on the box to fit the category. In fact, when judging a toy’s STEM value, some toy industry experts have asked, “When the child does something, does the toy change in some way?” That may further blur the lines about what qualifies as a STEM toy. Can a picture puzzle be considered STEM-worthy? Or a 3D, handheld puzzle? How about a Stretch Armstrong action figure? My answer to that last question: Maybe, if you open him up to examine his insides. For a more serious academic evaluation of how a toy measures up to expected performance by grade level and in a given STEM discipline (Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, and Engineering Design), parents can check the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). But most parents I know prefer a more practical way to judge a toy’s STEM cred – one that looks beyond a toy’s label and takes into account their own kids’ wants, needs, and abilities.

Parent Co. partnered with Circuit Cubes because we know not all STEM toys are created equal.


The nerd dad way

At Raising Nerd, my dad-driven blog that supports other parents in their quest to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and innovators, we view STEM toys through the eyes of makers and creative problem solvers. From our perspective, a good STEM toy is one that:
Thankfully, for every ordinary bag of sand with a STEM label, there are many more Nancy B’s project kits, Ozobots, and Tenka Labs Circuit Cubes that will give parents true STEM bang for their buck.

Kids show off their circuit cubes robotics projects

Is that STEM toy right for your kid?

For the past year at Raising Nerd, we’ve reviewed a variety of STEM toys, kits, and books. Like true dad tinkerers who often learn through failure, we’ve formalized our review criteria through trial and error. Our ratings are based on practical, common-sense criteria:

Input from our kids

Is it age- and ability-appropriate for our kids? How do the kids relate to the product before, during, and after using it? If the product is beyond their skill level, can they still enjoy/learn from it if we assist them?

Offer true STEM/STEAM value?

Are kids learning something while using the product – a skill, a STEM principle, a creative way to solve a problem – that will benefit them now or down the road? Does the product/book stretch their imaginations? Does it inspire them to learn more about the subject/discipline? Does it deliver on its marketing promise? Does the product do what it’s supposed to do? Does the book leave kids wanting more? Are kids excited for the next chapter or book in the series?


Is the product/book engaging? Is it easy for kids to play right away or are there complex instructions/rules? Will they need help from parents to set up? Are kids having fun while learning? Will they return to play again and again or get bored easily? Can kids and parents enjoy together? Good for solo play? If a book, is it a page-turner that kids won’t put down or will repeatedly request to read/have read to them? And, perhaps the most critical question, at least for this dad:

Does it make a mess that a kid can clean up?

Especially if an experiment (chemistry lab, crystal growing set, etc.) or art/craft project, this is key information. Will parents mind keeping it around to display, or will it just add to household clutter?

For our money, who is getting STEM toys right?

Despite the inevitable STEM-washing that’s happened in the fast-growing marketplace for educational toys, there are many companies designing toys and games with high STEM value. Based on our own experience at Toy Fair, reading about and reviewing products for Raising Nerd, and through our kids’ hands-on play “testing” at home, here are five toymakers that will deliver a well-rounded and inspiring STEM experience for your kids: Circuit Cubes Bright Lights STEM toy robotics kit CIRCUIT CUBES – Designed by STEM educators and FIRST LEGO League coaches, these electronic building blocks bring kids’ creations to life. They were built from the ground up to fully integrate with LEGO®-style building blocks but can be used with any materials kids can imagine – from vintage toys to recycled milk cartons. Circuit Cubes teach the basic fundamentals of electronics. Their unique transparent design enables kids to literally see the connections they make when they light an LED, power a motor, or activate a switch. Circuit Cubes can also be used vertically, horizontally, and diagonally to accommodate any design. GOLDIBLOX – From their website: “Through the integration of storytelling and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) principles, GoldieBlox creates toys, books, apps, videos, animation, and merchandise; the tools that empower girls to build their confidence, dreams, and ultimately, their futures.” LEGO – As if LEGO wasn’t cool enough already, the brick giant plans to go “live” with its LEGO Boost 5-in-1 programmable robot set in August. The set will enable younger LEGO enthusiasts to learn to code and use any kind of LEGO bricks to build onto the starter kit. KIWI CRATE – This monthly STEAM kit subscription includes everything needed to satisfy your kid’s craving to make, invent, and experiment. The kits come in four age-appropriate versions with easy-to-understand instructions. Chibitronics makes electronic stickers, which let you create, craft, and code technology through arts and crafts.

Parent Co. partnered with Circuit Cubes because we know not all STEM toys are created equal.




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