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Feature - Science & Nature

Developing expertise

The Science and Nature category is booming as the thirst for knowledge about the world we live in continues. Sam Giltrow investigates how learning can be made fun.

The demand for toys that mix fun with educational benefits has shot up in recent times and nowhere was this more evident than at the recent London Toy Fair, where there was a huge focus on the STEM category, including science and nature related toys. And rightly so, as you only have to look at the viewing figures that Sir David Attenborough amasses as he delves into our oceans and rainforests for his fascinating TV programmes, to realise that people love to know why things are and what make things work.

It is this quest for knowledge, combined with a sense of fun, that has sparked something of a surge in the STEM category. Predicted to have increased by more than $914.37m from 2019 to 2023, according to global research company Technavio, much of this growth has happened in the last two years, particularly among girls. And it was great to see such a wide offering at Toy Fair, with STEM toys featuring in the Fair’s list of 23 Hero Toys for 2022, as selected by industry experts.

Many parents and relatives buying toys, it seems, want more than just something that will keep children amused for a while. They want an educational aspect too, as Katharine Spence, owner of Wigwam Toy Shop in West Dulwich, London tells Toy World. “There has been noticeably more demand for STEM toys since the start of the pandemic,” she says. “They are becoming especially popular for gifts; parents and grandparents like to buy something that is educational but fun at the same time. There’s such a variety on offer now that we can stock a really good selection across a wide range of price points.”

The pandemic has certainly acted as a catalyst for innovation in educational toys, not only due to the long periods of time away from school, but also with the slow start in re-implementing practical science lessons due to Covid restrictions.

“Children learn best by doing and during lockdowns and school closures, they missed out on the experiential learning and play they would normally have engaged in at school,” says Simon Tomlinson, head of marketing EMEA at educational toy company Learning Resources. “Many STEM concepts are abstract and tricky for young children to grasp. Our hands-on STEM toys encourage traditional play and discovery, helping families bring the concepts children were learning through on screen lessons to life in practical ways at home.”

Learning Resources offers a huge range of science-related toys, and one of the areas which has seen the biggest demand is coding. Despite the UK making significant progress in establishing coding as part of the curriculum, the teaching of coding in primary schools was significantly reduced during the pandemic. “Our STEM product category has been boosted by the introduction of the current computing curriculum in primary schools, which now sees children as young as five learning the basics of computer science and coding. The resulting growth has raised the profile of Learning Resources as a brand and our STEM toy sales increase year on year,” says Simon.

In particular, Learning Resources has experienced demand for its range of interactive coding robots, which offer the ideal combination of toys that teach while being fun and engaging to play with – a vital mix in any STEM toy. With the exception of the range’s new Artie Max, all of the interactive coding robots are 100% screen-free and designed for learning through traditional hands-on play. “It’s been a strong category since launch, however there’s been a distinct increase in consumer interest over the last two years as families looked for ways for children to learn through play at home,” Simon says. “This is important to parents with children of all ages, however the best response has been from parents of younger children who are looking for toys that teach STEAM and coding but are concerned about an increase in their children’s screen time.”

Robots also feature in the science range from Great Gizmos, with its KidzRobotix line following the national curriculum. The company has seen huge growth in its other, newer ranges including STEAM Powered Kids and Green Science, which has recently benefited from a huge packaging overhaul. Its concept of teaching kids about renewable energy is a hot topic, says sales director Sarah Dayus. “We are always keeping an eye out for new trends and keep up to date with the national curriculum. Our whole ethos is about learning whilst having lots of fun, whether that be in science, technology, engineering, art or maths,” says Sarah. “This is what our range has always been about, and we feel we do it really well. Each of our kits is carefully designed so children can make something which they can be really proud of, while learning along the way.”

She emphasises the need to balance the fun and educational side of science-based toys, something which Great Gizmos has been doing for 25 years now. Since the start of the pandemic, the company has seen huge growth in its science kit ranges, including its KidzLabs range. New to the range is the KidzLabs Colour Mixer, which includes 18 scientific projects and is all about water science and experimenting with colours and lights to create cool effects, while the KidzLabs Giant Magnetic Compass encourages children to discover the magnetic power of the earth and involves building a 30cm compass, making it perfect for science projects at home or at school.

Keeping learning fun is something which is vital for any educational science toy agrees Brainstorm, which takes science into homes with its niche range of STEM plus room décor. “In our opinion, fun has to come first. If an item is not fun, then 99% of the time you will have lost the child already, along with any educational objectives you might have wanted to realise,” says sales and marketing director Nick Saunders. “We are extremely lucky to have a great product development team behind our home brands. When it comes to progressing ideas, the selection process is ruthless and only the most exciting items that represent excellent consumer value make it through.”

Brainstorm offers a wide range of products that help children learn about different aspects of science and nature and one of its new products for 2022 is My Very Own Cloud, a relaxing and enchanting cloud nightlight that appears to float on a clear stand and teaches children about the forces of nature. The product features three settings with colour changings lights and the sounds of gentle rain and thrilling thunder, while there is also a secret code which unlocks fascinating information about clouds on the Brainstorm website.

Brainstorm’s nature theme is extended with its Outdoor Adventure sub brand, an area which has seen a surge in popularity. The products are great for kids on the go, and include a Bug Viewer, Compass, Binoculars and Camping Projector. “Parents yearn for screen down-time and this product set encourages and enhances the fun that children can experience by exploring the world around us,” adds Nick.

Brainstorm also piques children’s interest in the outdoor and nature with its hugely successful range of Eugy buildable card animals. Fun and educational facts are printed on the cards from which the pieces are pressed out to build the animals, so nothing is wasted. By the end of 2022, Brainstorm expects that all of the stock will be made with FSC sourced papers for the product and the packaging, with the aim of having a fully sustainable product.

Another Brainstorm product which teaches children about nature is Aqua Dragons: real live aquatic creatures that kids can hatch and grow to learn about life cycles. The educational kit comes with food, eggs and instructions that allow children to see Aqua Dragons form in as little as 2-3 days.

As with science-based toys, there has been an increasing focus on nature, with manufacturers recognising children’s thirst for knowledge about the topic. “We have noticed this trend and have reacted with some new products focused on animals, nature and the planet,” said Great Gizmos’ Sarah Dayus.

New for 2022 is the KidzLabs Creepy Crawly Digging Kit, which allows kids to dig through plaster ‘rock’ to unearth a bunch of creepy crawly bugs which can then be mounted onto the included specimen cards, so children can learn cool facts about them. Also new to the STEAM Powered Kids range is Earth Science, with which children can learn about the natural power of the earth and experience the fun of geological science, creating a volcano, mining for crystals and creating their own unique crystal collections.

As much as being fun, learning about and spending time in nature is also vital for children’s development and wellbeing, according to Learning Resources’ Simon Tomlinson, and we were reminded of the importance of this during the lockdowns. “I am certain kids are yearning to get outside and play, discover more about what is around them and return to just the basics of exploring and getting their hands and knees dirty with their families and friends,” he says.

To help families learn at home during this time, Learning Resources set up a home learning hub on its website with free resources and activity sheets, which included a section on outdoor learning and play. “This remains some of the most popular content accessed on our website and is still available free of charge to families and teachers to add value to our product offering,” explains Simon.

Innovating to keep children interested is also key, he says, and each year Learning Resources launches up to 100 new educational toys, games and teaching resources across multiple categories including Science and Nature. “The ongoing innovation in product development means our company is in tune with changing consumer demands and is well poised to adapt to changes in the market,” he adds.

There’s a whole raft of science and nature products scheduled for launch this year to excite and educate children. Bandai’s National Geographic sets offer children aged 8+ the opportunity to engage and experiment with real-life specimens while learning through hands-on edutainment, while a core focus for Clementoni in 2022 is its Junior range, aimed at children 5+, which includes Science Apprentices: a multi-experiential kit containing experiments for playing with colours, weights and sizes.

Younger children also have the chance to transform their homes into fun-filled laboratories with Galt Toys’ Giant Science Lab, a bumper science set featuring 30 fascinating experiments, while a key focus for Vivid Goliath’s Science4you is the growth of its Eco-Science range, which puts the environment, sustainability and learning to the fore.

There really is something for all ages – check out our Science and Nature round-up over the next few pages to see what lies in store for the year ahead.