When Dan Shapiro was looking for a game that could educate his 4-year-old twins about computers without keeping them glued to a digital screen, he turned to turtles. His Kickstarter-backed game, Robot Turtles, features no actual electronic reptiles–instead, preschool-age players issue commands to their parents to move cardboard-cutout turtles across a game board. The play style mimics the basics of computer programming, in which software code is written line by line. “We know that our children are going to grow up in a world surrounded by computers,” Shapiro says. “What I want for my kids is to be able to speak the language.”
Shapiro doesn’t seem to be alone in feeling that way: Robot Turtles has brought in more than $600,000 in Kickstarter backing and sold more than 100,000 units. Parents are increasingly interested in buying toys that will prepare their kids for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. “They’re more attuned to what parents think their kids need to know for the future,” says Matt Hudak, a toy-and-game analyst for Euromonitor.
As a result, STEM toys are projected to generate $26 billion in sales globally in 2015, according to Euromonitor. That includes everything from Robot Turtles to more traditional toys like Legos. And while kids are still using microscopes and chemistry sets, toymakers are getting more adept at creating dynamic play experiences that teach new skills like programming and electrical engineering.
LittleBits, for example, are electronic blocks that children can snap together to assemble devices like an alarm clock or a machine that automatically blows bubbles. The toys have been a hit with parents as well as educators and are now being used in more than 2,000 U.S. schools, says littleBits CEO Ayah Bdeir. “If you say the word STEM, it’s not necessarily a word or a field that kids are going to get excited about. You have to speak with technology and responsiveness and programmability and things that are exciting to them.”
More STEM toys are also beginning to focus on groups underrepresented in science and engineering fields. Last year the toymaker GoldieBlox earned acclaim for its construction toys aimed at girls. This fall, the company unveiled Ruby Rails, its first black action figure.
Exactly how much STEM jobs will be in demand in the future is a point of debate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. will have added 1 million STEM jobs from 2012 to 2022, for a total of 9 million. But the agency also notes that in some areas, like academic research, there’s actually a surplus of STEM workers. Still, Shapiro notes, the skills these toys teach can be applied to virtually any occupation.
This appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of TIME.