STEAM powered

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

June 5th 2017 at 11:14AM
UPDATED June 5th 2017 at 12:54PM
STEAM powered

Undefined, barely scratching the surface of its potential, and yet with a projected value of $30bn by 2019, demand for STEAM and STEAM-inspired toys has never been greater. Robert Hutchins explores the evolution of the educational toys category and looks at what its future may hold.

It would seem that, once again, the toy industry has got its claws into another playground craze, this time in the form of a small, yet highly engaging cube. Fidget toys are the latest buzzwords on the lips of media outlets, retailers and, of course, children, not only up and down the country, but across the globe.

The ‘Fidget toy movement’ soared to popularity when a crowdfunding campaign launched by Antsy Labs went viral earlier this year, smashing its Kickstarter goal of $15,000 to total $6.4m.

Simple in its concept, the product – a six-sided desk toy – is designed for restless hands and includes clicker buttons, switches and a joystick, encouraging focus among kids and benefitting those with autism and ADHD.

Such is the popularity of the cube that a number of copycat designs have since found their way into the marketplace. While global distributor, Zuru plans to flush these out of the market, debate continues among educational and industry experts over the actual benefits of the cube to children with autism and ADHD. Despite this, the movement does hint at a key signifier in the continuing evolution of the educational toy space.

We are bullish on AR being the next big medium in educational information consumption, bringing new tech to the classroom. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the continued surge of STEAM toys, and while The NPD Group is still working on an official definition for STEAM and STEAM- inspired toys, the sector has been valued at 2.4 per cent of total UK sales, growing at three times the speed of the overall toy market.

On a global scale, sources suggest that the sector reached a total of $28.6 billion in 2015, and, with the evolution of technology such as VR and a growing emphasis on the importance of teaching coding to children, it is only expected to increase.

It’s little wonder, considering the shifting tides of curriculums and the changing face of education.

“For too long our education system has been based on specific ‘skills’ acquired through memorisation, taking the lowest common denominator as a benchmark for grading,” Filippo Yacob, founder of Primo Toys and creator of the coding toy, Cubetto, tells ToyNews.

“We should instead try and provide experiences that challenge children’s thinking. Computational thinking does just that. It’s actually an endlessly creative endeavour once you take a second to understand its core principles.”

It’s Yacob’s reason d’etre to promote this shift in thinking about educational toys in a move to ‘challenge the status quo.’

“By stripping back learning to a tool without screens, our aim is to help children understand that technology is something they can use to create and manipulate the world around them, and not simply for entertainment.”

Cubetto has already been met with positive reception across the globe and is now used in more than 20,000 homes and schools across 96 countries around the world. Playing with Cubetto aims to teach youngsters collaboration skills as they help the wooden robot complete challenges.

The success of the toy offers a secondary insight into the conviction in STEAM learning, with the majority of the work occurring at grass roots level. Maker spaces, code clubs and home schooling are each on the rise, and it is projected that through this work, with STEAM toy campaigns launching across Kickstarter and Indiegogo almost daily, the STEAM toy sector will be worth over $30bn by 2019.

Edtech toys is growing fast as a new subsection of the industry to sit alongside education and toys, and the demand is there. 

On top of this, the grass roots level also provides new testing ground for bringing tech into the educational toy sector before hitting the mainstream. Vivek Goyal is the creator of Orboot, a modern twist on the traditional globe that utilises Augmented Reality to allow children to engage not only with new technology but learning about the world around them in a new, impactful way.

It is just one example of the numerous advances being made in the incorporation of AR and VR technology into STEAM toys and learning, and while Mattel’s partnership with Google on the rebooted ViewFinder marks its most mainstream use, Goyal believes current products are only scratching the surface.

“We are bullish on AR being the next big medium of educational information consumption. Starting with mobile and later evolving to head mounted displays as hardware matures, AR will become a must in any classroom, learning centre or play room,” he explains.

“The medium of information dissipation has evolved from text to images and videos over the years. Now is the time for 3D content to take over and let kids explore from all angles in a way that does not obstruct their real world view.”

While STEAM inspired toys continue to roll out at a significant rate – some such as GoldieBlox have even taken steps to progress beyond toys to become a STEAM- learning multi-media brand through printed titles and more – the STEAM-scape is still very much unchartered territory.

“Toymakers don’t need to tick all of the boxes of STREAM to make a difference in schools,” Damien Murtagh, founder of Arckit, tells ToyNews. “It’s about designing an experience that encourages hands-on and imaginative play.”

NPD may be working on a definition, but it’s certain that demand has never been greater.

“The edtech toy space is growing fast as a new subsection of the industry to sit alongside the education and toy industry,

“Its channels are yet to be defined, but the customer is there, and the timing has never been better,” Yacob concludes.