STEM Toys for the Holidays

November 27, 2017

The holiday season is upon us again. If you are thinking about a unique and educational gift idea for your child, consider a STEM toy! There are many great toys from which to choose and you are certain to find something that will engage and inspire your kids.

One great basic resource is an annual list put together by Purdue University called the Engineering Gift Guide. The items listed are mainly focused on engineering, but there are also gifts that highlight coding and creative thinking in general. They also include some great articles on fostering engineering learning, parents as influence in choosing a STEM career, and the humanistic side of engineering.

A list of links to top STEM toys lists can also be found at the end of this article.

Preschoolers and STEM

Engineer’s Playground is a local organization which provides resources and services to make STEM –particularly engineering and technology–accessible and fun. In a recent blog, they provide some ideas for engaging preschoolers in STEM. Check out the story here.

Engineer’s Playground helped Mindware develop a circuit exploration kit for younger children called Start Up Circuits. Kids click together easy-to -handle pieces, flip the switch, and have either a spinning fan, a glowing light or a whistling siren.

A great introduction to basic coding is Learning Resources’ Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set. Kids can build a maze, and then use the coding cards to create a step-by-step path for the programmable robot mouse. Create endless maze path possibilities, and then watch the mouse race to find the cheese.

New last year, Fischer Price offered a coding activity in the form of the Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar. Preschoolers learn sequencing and programming by arranging easy-to-connect segments in endless combinations to send Code-a-pillar on his path—forward, left, right, or pause. The segments can be configured so Code-a-pillar can reach the targets kids set up throughout the room.

Learning Resource’s Gears! Gears! Gears! Super Set allows kids to connect colored gears to build complex horizontal and vertical structures—and to see if they can keep the gears turning. Budding engineers get hands-on experience with the simple mechanics of gears. The kit also supports STEM by introducing children to sorting, grouping, counting, design, and construction, while boosting fine motor skills and promoting reasoning and problem solving

If you want to introduce some STEM into your evening reading session, consider the fun Goodnight Lab, a parody of the popular preschool classic, Goodnight Moon, but with a nod to the scientist. For the budding engineer, Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day, a story of a young Rube and his complicated, elaborate inventions to make his day easier.

Robots and Programming

Consistently popular and increasingly sophisticated, robots have moved beyond wind-up toys and now come in all shapes and sizes and can engage children of all ages. Also, new games and activities allow kids to explore broader aspects of coding and computers.

The Turing Tumble is a new type of game where players (ages 8+) build mechanical computers powered by marbles to solve logic puzzles. Developed locally by professor at the University of Minnesota and featured at the MHTA Foundation’s Bids & Bytes Benefit, The Turing Tumble lets kids see and feel how computers work. The logic isn’t hidden inside a computer chip –it’s all right there in front of them. It builds logic and critical thinking skills, fundamental coding concepts, and grounds their understanding of computers.

mBot lets kids build, customize, and program a robot, exploring mechanics, engineering, circuitry and coding. This is more of a build-your-own-robot than a ready-made toy. Kids first assemble mBot using the base kit and then customize it with add-on packs that have extra sensors, motors, and mechanical pieces that can extend its functions and capabilities.

Bloxels by Mattel is one of the coolest new toys of the year. Kids get to build their own basic video games by creating bloxels (think pixels) on a board, scanning it with their phone/tablet’s camera, and then seeing their ideas come to life in video game form. They’ll start with building their basic level design, then they’ll build a character, and then they’ll be able to play as that character using the companion app on their smartphone.

Robot Turtles is a board game you play with your 3-8 year olds. The game slyly teaches the fundamentals of programming. From a wildly successful five hour Kickstarter campaign, the founders created a game which doesn’t rely on a computer or even batteries to teach tots about basic programming.

Cozmo is an AI-powered robot that allows kids to play with a cute and efficiently designed machine, programming and teaching it. It is fully based on computer vision and machine learning, advancing in complexity as it discovers more and more about the world around it.

Kano Computer Kit Why settle for just software? Kano lets DIY fans and mini-makers start by building their own computers first, with a kit that doesn’t require an engineering PhD to master. Once it’s assembled, they can move on to move on to playing with code to operate it.

Electricity and Circuits

There are two great gifts for your child to safely explore electric circuits. The first is littleBits, a set of electronic modules that snap together like little magnets. This year, they have added a Droid Inventor Kit, which allows your child to build their own Star Wars-inspired Droid. Snap Circuits are another option similar to littleBits. They help children learn basic prototyping with easy to use pieces that snap together to make functional electrical circuits.

A new addition to the exploration of electricity is Minnesota’s own Squishy Circuits. Developed at the University of St. Thomas and offered through an online store by a MHTA STEM scholarship winner, Squishy Circuits kits use homemade play dough to teach the basics of electrical circuits to children.

Other Options

Magna-Tiles are a fun alternative to basic building blocks and a great way to teach kids basic geometry. Preschoolers, kindergarteners and even older kids aren’t able to keep their hands off the bright, geometric Magna-Tiles. The plastic tiles are durable for even the littlest of math explorers, who will love creating shape masterpieces in 2D and 3D.

Gravity’s Edge is a creative thinking game for two or more players. To play Gravity’s Edge, players do more than just follow the rules – they need to follow the laws of physics. Players take turns placing the weighted Tipping Points one by one. As each new Tipping Point is added, the tower’s balance becomes increasingly unstable. The goal is to try to bring the game into balance or push the limits to leave the opponents out on a limb.

For geologists-to-be, or kiddos who simply love pretty rocks and what might be inside, the Geode Explorer Science Kit allows young scientists to break open pint-sized “boulders.” There are beautiful and amazing crystal combinations inside. You can find a number of good Geode kits provided from various sources.

A classic, but often overlooked, option is an Erector Set. They have been around for over a hundred years, but can still help inspire new generations of engineers. In our modern, solid-state world, kids do not have the same opportunities to take stuff apart. Erector Sets give them that much needed chance to tinker and manipulate materials.

Buy local and support MHTA Members

If you would rather purchase a toy in person instead of ordering online, think about visiting the gift shop at MHTA members – The Works Museum or the Science Museum of Minnesota.

No matter what toy you choose, any of these STEM toys will not only provide your children with a fun, enjoyable time but will also help them develop and learn the basics of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Have a happy holiday season!

Check out this resources list of best STEM toys selections –


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