Choose STEM Toys!
STEM toys have the advantage that they can deliver insights about the physical world to your children. Kids who play with STEM toys may be more likely to be curious about how things work in the world around them and pursue studying STEM subjects. Having a strong foundation in STEM can give kids a great launch pad for future success in this ever-growing, tech-savvy world.
Below are my recommendations for toys that I believe will provide great learning, and some will provide hours of fun. I am creating a few short lists in a few different categories, as every toy may not be the perfect toy for every child. This Part 1 post contains my picks for best STEM toys, tech toys and STEAM toys. (I am providing these lists to help you narrow down your toy searches. These are my own opinions based on my own experience or research. I have never been paid for a review. Please make sure you look at the manufacturers recommendations and review the products before purchasing.)
The best toys for a child will vary by their age and their interests. And just when you think you know a child, they just might surprise you. You really never know what kind of toy a child will play with until the child is given the opportunity and non-biased input. Remember, some STEM toys lend themselves very well to self-exploration, but depending on the kids, some may need more encouragement by an enthusiastic adult or other participant to get them started.
Having access to building-toys or materials that stimulate creativity and imagination are great no matter what age or child. Building-toys can provide hours and hours of entertainment in solo play or can be used in design challenges or competitions with others. Don’t be limited by the design plans that come with the sets. It is even more engaging to come up with your unique models. As with any building toys, the more pieces you have, the more can be done and the more fun can be had. Building toys are becoming more and more common in maker spaces in schools and libraries from elementary through high school, as they can aid in the process of visualization and engineering. For these reasons, building toys are at the top of my STEM toys list and I believe that they should be part of every child's tool chest while growing up.
Keep your building toys on hand as your children grow and continue to provide challenges for new projects. Keep encouraging your children to play, imagine, and dream. Challenge them to come up with solutions. By kindling their creativity, who knows what great inventions or ideas they may come up with!
5 Best STEM Toys for Building
#1 Snap Circuits (8-15 years)
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Though snap circuits are not your typical block building set, these electrical circuit sets have pieces that easily snap together and can build upon each other for great lessons in how electricity works. I wish these were available when I was young! While there are quite a few Snap Circuit sets to pick from, this new Snap Circuits Lights Electronics Discovery Kit is my personal favorite due to so many neat things you can do with it. With 175 project ideas with this set alone, it should provide endless hours of fun and learning in electrical engineering and physics. This product has great ratings and just hasn't caught up to the number of reviews of the other sets, as it is a newer release.
The original classic sets are great as well. The Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 Electronics Discovery Kit (cheaper with less pieces) has been a long-time best seller on Amazon and is rated as 5-stars with over 3000 reviews! Snap Circuits SC-300 Electronics Discovery Kit has three times as many pieces as the Jr. and is also rated as 5-stars (out of 5) with over 2000 reviews. It’s no wonder that Snap Circuits has expanded their offerings with new versions focused on light, motion, sound, and even an arcade! (All the different sets are complementary and can build onto each other).
#2 Magnetic Building Tiles (3 years and up)
Magnatiles (3 and up) are great for building all sorts of colorful structures quickly and with ease. Magnatiles get the best reviews for younger kids as their magnets are not as strong as Magformers (6 and up). (Since Magformers have stronger magnets, these sets are better for older kids who have the strength to pull them apart. the stronger magnets also allow for picking up structures.) These sets are great for learning about engineering, but kids will also learn about magnetic properties as they play with the pieces while building.
I know several people who got the 32 piece Magnatiles set and loved it, but only wished they had bought the Magna-Tiles® Clear Colors 100 Piece Set instead. As I mentioned, earlier, having a large number of pieces allows for much more fruitful building.
#3 Legos (4 years and up)
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LEGOs are always a great choice of building blocks for engineering and have so much versatility. They are great tools that can help the imagination to to run wild. They are definitely a favorite of mine! (They were a favorite as a child, and I see so much more potential with them as an educator.) Many times kids are tempted by the themed sets with characters, which are great for not only building but imaginative play with the figures. However, if kids grow tired of playing with a particular set, remember to encourage them to disassemble their creations and work outside of the box's assembly directions. Many times kids become too focused on the intended play scheme from the manufacturer that they don't think about the cool things they could create from their own mind's eye. This is why I would encourage the classic sets. Combining pieces from multiple sets can provide a haven of creativity. There are great books with design ideas as well. LEGOs has many motorized and robotic options as well, such as the new Mindstorms.
I love these new Light Up Building Bricks (2x3) with On/Off and Dim Ability (Set of 8) - Tight Fit with Lego, which are totally compatible with LEGOs.
I additionally love that LEGO is expanding women science figures into their STEM product lines.
It is fascinating to me that scientists use LEGOs in labs to set up all sorts of experiments and to create custom-sized containers.
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K’NEX are another great building platform with more of an airy, spacious feel. K’NEX are a little more geared in general for building things that move and for more complicated engineering. They have many specialty sets to build large structures like ferris wheels, coasters, and simple machines.They tend to be better for older kids because snapping (or unsnapping) pieces can be difficult for little hands. Since some pieces are larger in dimension, it is easier to build much larger structures with not as many pieces than the brick building sets. So keep that in mind. If you would like your child to have a large collection of these, be sure to have enough space for the creations to persist for a while. It defeats the constructive attitude if a child is made to clean up and put away creations not long after being built.
Once again, the more pieces you have the more you can do, so my recommendation is to get the most pieces you can that you budget will allow, versus buying a fancy, specialty-themed set. Although, if the specialty set is one that your child adores, he or she will get good use of the set regardless.
For genetics enthusiasts, check out their new DNA Education - DNA, Replications and Transcription Set!
#5 Chemistry Model Building Sets (12 years and up)
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These sets are definitely best for those who already have an interest in chemistry or those who are learning chemistry. Having models to work with can really help in the visualization of molecules and the understanding of atoms bonding. I have included these more so for high school students and up. These contain very small pieces that are not suitable for young children. Molymod MMS-008 Organic Chemistry Molecular Model, Student Set (50 atom parts) is rated highly among the chemistry model sets and is a best seller.
Best Tech Toys
#1 Quadcopter with Camera (14 years and up)
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This remote control quadcopter, the UDI U818A 2.4GHz 4 CH 6 Axis Gyro RC Quadcopter with Camera RTF Mode 2 is described as the perfect camera drone for beginners. It is ready to fly right out of the box, and does come with a battery. This model has protective rims around the propellers to prevent injuries to itself and others, and is listed as a best seller with great reviews. It has the capability to perform flips, snap photos, and take videos.
I list this cool tech toy with some hesitancy, as it is really important that any drone be operated responsibly with respect for laws, people, and wildlife. These toys have the potential for learning if used appropriately, but often times they are misused and can cause harm and get the operator into trouble.
#2 Zoomer Dino, Jester Interactive Dinosaur (5 years and up)
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This Zoomer Dino is really fun to watch and interact with. I had the opportunity to see it in action and the kids loved it. It is really interesting to see how he roams around and balances on two wheels. This Jester model is interactive and designed to make you laugh. His nose is full of sensors that can detect movement. Jester has personality as he can get angry, spin around, chomp and roar! Kids can tame him, hypnotize him, and teach him tricks by using their hands.
Jester gets charged up by USB cable. It requires 3 AAA batteries for the remote control (batteries not included).
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Calling all Star Wars fans! This Sphero BB-8 App-Enabled Droid is so very cool! It is amazing how it rolls around upright on the bottom ball and keeps its head on top through magnetic technology. It is designed to be guided using a smart phone or tablet, and to interact with you as it listens and responds to your voice. It is supposed to have an autonomous personality that is said to evolve as you interact with it. There is a different model of Sphero BB-8 with a remote control device, if using a smart phone or tablet is not an option.
According to reviews, it seems to sometimes have some quirks and has room for improvement. Nonetheless, die-hard Star War fans will still be pleased to have this in their collection.
#4 Meccano MeccaNoid G15 KS (10 and up)
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This is Meccano's ultimate, build-it-yourself robot, the Meccanoid G15 KS Personal Robot. This robot is quite educational, as it is a hefty engineering project to assemble with 1,223 pieces. It is a great introduction to robotics. Once built, it will stand almost 4 feet tall!
It uses advanced technology and 10 motors to control the realistic movement of its arms, head, and legs. It is said to have voice recognition and respond using a free app, however, reviews indicate that there is room for improvement here. This model might be a great family project due to its large scope and time to assemble, or could be suitable for more advanced builders.
A shorter version 2 foot version, the Meccano MeccaNoid G15 (also for 10 and up) is another educational option, which is slightly less tedious to assemble, with just over 600 parts and 6 motors. (Batteries are not included.) I think either of these could be great projects, but be forewarned that they require time and patience in assembly. They are not toys that can be played with straight out of the box.
#5 3D Printer (15 years and up)
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Many people are buying 3D printers today.They are excellent tools for hobbyists, engineering enthusiasts, and for learning. However, they still are very pricey. Here is one that has gotten good reviews. Check it out for yourself: FlashForge 3d Printer Creator Pro, Metal Frame Structure, Acrylic Covers, Optimized Build Platform, Dual Extruder W/2 Spools, Works with ABS and PLA.
Best STEAM Toys
This list is geared a little more toward the arts slant. Please keep in mind that many toys from other categories could be placed here as well.
#1 3D Drawing Pen (8 years and up)
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Based on its good reviews and good price for the moment (comparatively), I would recommend the 7TECH® 3D Printing Pen with LCD Screen Ver.2015. This one is currently a best seller. While I haven't tried this product myself, I have been keeping my eyes on 3D pens for some time now, and this one is definitely on my wish list. This is definitely a great maker gift!
These 3D pens enable you to create 3 dimensional free form objects that can be used for fun art, decorations, gifts, and models. It can draw on a surface or in the air!
#2 littleBits Electronics Synth Kit (8 years and up)
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This is a cool toy for those who like music and like to tinker and explore. The littleBits Electronics Synth Kit is described as an "incredibly powerful, easy to use modular synthesizer that helps you unleash your inner rockstar!"
The modular pieces snap together with magnets to create circuits in seconds. Amazing sounds can be created right out of the box while learning the basics of the analog synthesis. It comes with a project booklet with step-by-step instructions for creating 10 projects, and it can connect to recording or live sound equipment. It allows you to make exciting new sounds and easily customize your analog modular instrument (with little to zero engineering or musical knowledge).
#3 Minecraft Stop-Motion Animation Studio (6-12 years)
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This Minecraft Stop-Motion Animation Studio got my vote for this list since Minecraft continues to create virtual games that are extemely educational, and kids seem to love it. Many teachers are using Minecraft in the classroom to engage their students and to bring in science and engineering principles. That being said, I would only advise this gift for a child that is already a Minecraft fan.
This particular kit enables users to create their own Minecraft animated films using 3 mini figure characters and stage environments. This Minecraft Animation Studio combines real-life objects with a mobile app so that kids can direct their own stories. The free app makes objects appear to move on their own. You will need to use your own mobile device camera, but a device holder is included.
#4 Spirograph Deluxe Design Set (8-15 years)
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While Spirograph may seem more like an art toy, the use of the interlocking gears and wheels makes this product overlap into the realms of geometry, mathematics, and engineering. I loved playing with Spirograph for hours when I was a child and I know it is very entertaining.
The Spirograph Deluxe Design Set has 45 pieces and includes 19 wheels, 2 rings, 1 rack, spiro-putty, 3 pens, 14-page guide book, design paper, and a carry-along storage case.
#5 Circuit Scribe Maker Kit: Draw Circuits Instantly (8 years and up)
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I fell in love with the Circuit Scribe from the moment I saw the video after it was funded on Kickstarter. While I have no personal experience with this product, it seems to have huge potential. I have listed the kit here so that you can see all the things that could come with it (11 magnetic modules to create functional circuits on paper). It generally has gotten good reviews, but I think the price is a bit high for what you get.
The Circuit Scribe Pen writes in non-toxic, silver conductive ink. It can be purchased for a fraction of the kit price, as well as the workbook. I love what you can do with this pen, but if I were making the purchase, I might just get the pen, perhaps the workbook, and then some smaller electrical accessories, like a Wired 9V Battery Clip Connector or small and the microtivity IL188 5mm Assorted Clear LED w/ Resistors (8 Colors, Pack of 80).
I am including the video promo below that I originally saw so that you can see its potential for yourself and get more ideas.
Please also be sure to check out STEM Toys Geared for Girls for a list primarily focused with girls in mind.