Parents worried about their children’s development—whether because educational experts indicate that U.S. children have relatively weaker science and math skills than their counterparts in other countries, because other parents have bragged about their own kids’ achievements, or because they are unsure about their ability to explain complex scientific concepts to their homeschooled children during the coronavirus—love the idea of educational toys. If kids can play willingly with a new gadget that also imparts technological, mathematical, engineering, or scientific concepts to them, it seems like an ideal solution.

Marketers are well aware of these desires and demands by consumers, prompting vast growth in the market for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) toys and games. Especially as more children engage in virtual learning from their homes during the coronavirus lockdown, sales of this category of toys grew dramatically, up 66 percent compared with the previous year. These sales span a range of product lines; for example, KiwiCo, a subscription box service that sends STEM toys each month, increased its sales by 150 percent.

But in promoting their products as educational and devoted to STEM topics, some marketers might be promising more than they can deliver. No regulations exist regarding what defines a toy as educational. There are no tests to prove whether a marketing promise—that a toy will help children learn how code, understand the chemical properties of slime, or gain familiarity with plant life cycles—actually is true or if the toy provides those outcomes. If a child builds a race track with a big drop, does that imply learning about gravity? And how can parents assess whether their children have really learned anything about sophisticated scientific theories through their play?

One trade group, the Toy Association in the United States, issued some voluntary guidelines for toy marketers, suggesting that to qualify as a STEM toy, the product should encourage sensory and tactile experiences, as well as offer open-ended play opportunities. They also should support children’s individual play, rather than requiring assistance from parents. But even this trade group lacks any set standards for demonstrating what makes one toy educational, while another one is less so.

Still, some of the marketing claims seem to move clearly beyond bold claims and into unbelievable and unrealistic promises. A music box in the shape of an octopus, listed as being for children under 2 years, is unlikely to teach them addition and subtraction, as its box asserts. That is not to say the toy lacks any benefits; playing is inherently critical to children’s brain development and learning, and various features (bright colors, music) enhance those contributions. But whether all toys should be specified with a STEM label remains questionable.

According to educational specialists, the best toys for teaching science and math skills also might already have been in existence for years. Lincoln Logs, LEGO bricks, and Tinkertoys all encourage children to learn their shapes, then move on to consider basic engineering principles. A magnifying glass might be the optimal way to encourage an interest in the detailed analyses required of any scientist.

In a sense, there is nothing wrong with any of these toys. Playing is good and healthy. The concern instead is that marketers make claims for their products that they cannot support, encouraging parents to believe that setting their children up with a simple robotic toy will give them insights and expertise into coding and robotic engineering. It likely won’t. But it may give them hours of fun, which likely should be the primary purchase criterion in the first place.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is current marketing of STEM toys ethical? Is it puffery, legally acceptable exaggeration, or something else?
  2. What is the target market of toy brands that assign STEM labels to their products, whether they really encourage STEM learning or now?

Source: Chavie Lieber, “No, My Toddler Doesn’t Need to Learn to Code,” The New York Times, July 21, 2020