Our Favorite STEM Toys (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

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Mike and I were both math majors in college – that’s actually how we first met.  I spent my pre-baby career as an engineer working on missile warning systems (Mike worked on similar programs – include the Hubble Space Telescope which was so freaking cool), and I bring this up to make this one very important point:

Science + Math = really cool shit

As you might imagine, it’s important to Mike and I that our kids know their way around the solar system, the periodic table, a Random Forest, of course.  But what you might not realize (based on the number of times people say, ‘you don’t seem like an engineer’) is that science and technology fields actually require a good deal of creative thinking.  And that the best engineers are often rule breakers, innovators, totally out-of-the-box thinkers.   They are people who question, who puzzle, who figure things out.  There’s a reason IBM’s motto is simply, THINK.

What I love about kids is that they do all of this naturally.  Kids are the ultimate out-of-the-box thinkers.  And when we adults can clear their schedules, give them the time and the space….kids tinker, they puzzle, they turn things around and around….they think.

 

Ultimately, kids don’t need much in terms of toys to do all of this good work.  Carving out time and space in their day is much more important.  However, there are a few toys (and books) that Mike and I have really been impressed with over the years.  Some are totally engaging and open-ended and promote curiosity like no other.  Others help build critical thinking skills, and a few books so beautifully illustrate complex mathematical concepts it almost brings tears to my eyes.

So.  Keep reading for a list of our favorite STEM toys. (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

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1. Beka Wooden Blocks – Deluxe Set – $173 (on sale)

This set is pricey, but my hands-down favorite one.  It’s made in the US, and has a ton of the really big blocks – which is sometimes rare in a unit block set.  I covered this set a few years ago in our Fav Blocks / Building Sets article, but they’re so good, and still in such rotation that I had to include them again (and check out our article for more amazing block sets).

Also, I love Childhood 101’s article on encouraging block play.

2. Hape Quadrilla The Challenger  Marble Run – $170

This is the set that Santa brought last year for the kids (along with the music marble run).  It’s tricky – to put it together like the image on the box, parents must be involved.  But I love getting the kids started and then seeing where they go with it.  Another one of those toys that they come back to again and again.  I also love that Hape sells individual components, so upgrading your set (or replacing lost pieces) is a cinch.

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3. Lauri Tall-Stacker Pegs Building Set – $28 (on sale)

This is a great one for toddlers.  Although, Pax (5) and Raines (7) still pull it out and build – their buildings have just become more complex.   R loves to see how crazy he can make things before the pegs can no longer hold anything up.

4. ZOOB 250 Piece Building Set – $48 (on sale)

The number of different ways that you can fit these pieces together is amazing!  A truly well-engineered product. The company is also expanding into robotics, too, so if your kid gets really into building with these, there’s a bunch of add-ons.

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5. Mega Magz 89 Piece Magnetic Construction Set – $29

These shockingly strong magnets are seriously fun to build with.  You can create really sturdy towers and unusual structures that blocks alone (or even Magna Tiles) cannot.  You just have to be sure that your child is past swallowing age.  These little balls would be a disaster.  (NOTE – the company has increased the size of the rods to meet ASTM standards.  The yellow set that Pax is playing with (below) is very old – those tiny rods no longer come with the set.)

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6.  Magna Tiles – $129 for a 100 piece set

Buy the biggest possible set.  These things are amazing.  My boys build rocket ships, planes, all manner of towers…we use them on the light table, we use them outside, we USE THEM.  Almost daily, for years.

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1. & 2. FoxMind Equilibrio and Architecto, $25 each

These two games are shockingly good, for all ages.  (The actual “game” is timed, but we’ve never used the timer.)

Equilibrio – ultimately, this game is about balancing.  There’s a set of blocks, a booklet with pictures, and you try and re-create the 2-D drawings with the orange blocks.  However,  you are translating two-dimensional drawings into a 3-dimensional tower, so it’s easy enough for really young kids (Pax was three when we first got this game).

Architecto – Same idea (and blocks) as Equilibrio, but I find this one much more challenging.  The drawings are in 3-D, which means you really have to think spatially (and get clever) to re-create the buildings.  Raines (my 7 year old) loves this one, but gets frusterated from time-to-time.  Thankfully, both games start out easy and get harder with each challenge, so there’s always some they can do successfully.  (And yes – some have stumped me.)

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3. Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Magnetic Pattern Blocks Set, $20

Both of my guys are now too old for this one, but it was one of our top toys from ages 2-4.  Fun, engaging, and just challenging enough.  We also loved that it was so portable – a great toy to bring to Nana’s house, or even a restaurant.

4. Leisure Learning Products Magnetic SuperMind, $25

This is the older-kid version of the pattern blocks set.  It’s more challenging, and even more portable.  The entire set fits in a smallish metal box, and you use the lid as the gameboard (the pieces are magnetic).  This set has been one of our go-tos for restaurants, planes or car travel. There’s also a basic version (same travel size) for younger kids – Magnetic MightyMind.

5.Melissa & Doug Suspend, $15

This game rocks my world.  So much critical thinking going on here, so many opportunities for hypothesis-making and real-world testing, and it’s exciting!  Good, good stuff.  (Best for ages 4 and up, but Pax did play – at a very basic, make-this-one-thing-balance level – at age 3.)

6. ThinkFun Solitaire Chess, $20

This is one of our favs.  Mike and I both love a good game of Chess, and Raines now loves it too.  Raines started playing chess when he was 5, spurred on by his love of all thing war.   There are a ton of benefits to getting kids interested in chess (here’s a great article from Johns Hopkins), but critical thinking and reasoning skills, as well as grit and learning how to focus (something that will benefit all industries) seem to top the list.  Besides, it’s fun!  This Solitaire Chess set is one of the best ways to learn the rules of the game – and it’s challenging, too!

 

 

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1 & 2 – littleBits Electronics Gizmos & Gadgets Kit – $198 and Getting Started with littleBits book – $15

Ok, this is, hands-down, the most exciting gift.  littleBits is a kit containing electronic circuits, sensors, microcontrollers, and cloud connectivity pieces that just snap together.  With these kits, you can make simple electronic circuits, build robots out of anything (playdough, legos, etc) and…well.  The possibilities are literally endless.  But what amazes me is how intuitive and user-friendly these pieces are.  We bought the base kit for Raines a couple of years ago – just to test it out – and were shocked by how interested little brother Pax was (he was only 3 at the time).  With a bit of guidance from us, his chubby little hands were able to build a simple circuit to turn on a light.

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If your electronics is, um, rusty (yeah, that’s it)….get the book, too.  It’ll take you all the way up to the Arduino Coding kit which Mike is REALLY excited about.  You can get more project ideas and see all of the available kits at the littleBits website.  (The gadgets and gizmos seems like a pretty great place to start – it’s what R is getting for his birthday in Jan.)

3. Makey Makey An Invention Kit for Everyone – $69 (on sale for $49)

In a similar vein to littleBits is the Makey Makey kit.  The difference is that this kit has one basic purpose:  to turn everyday objects into touchpads.  What does this mean?  That you can line up a bunch of, say, bananas, attach clips to each one, set up a circuit with this kit, and use the bananas play twinkle twinkle little star.  Obviously, you’ll have to download a virtual piano (or something) to interface with your touchpad, but like littleBits, there’s a ton of ideas and “recipe books” (so to speak) online.

4. & 5. Snap Circuits Lights Electronics Discovery Kit – $70

We have the basic Snap Circuits kit, but the light-up one is waaay more fun.  These are great kits for sparking curiosity about electronics, and learning how to build circuits.  My only frustration is that Raines would get really into it and ask all of these great questions and I’d find myself at a loss.  So.  I’m also ordering Basic Electronics for Tomorrow’s Inventors: A Thames and Kosmos Book.  I mean seriously.

6. 7TECH 3D Printing Pen – $299 (on sale for $89)

This “pen” basically allows you to draw in 3-D using heated plastic.  Think….accessories for legomen, make-your-own-jewelry, create an entire town.  It’s amazingly fun.   We originally bought the 3Doodler (a similar product) but didn’t love it.  Our pen jammed easily, and was hard to use.  Based on the reviews, this would’ve been a better choice.  BUT.  The concept is thrilling, actually.  Our kids’ little minds were blown at the concept of 3-D drawing.

NOTE from 11/25/16:  3Doodler recently released a new version of the pen that looks even better.

7.The Extraordinaires Design Studio Deluxe Edition Game – $39

Ok – this game blew both Mike and I away.  It’s not really a game, rather it’s a product that teaches the entire Engineering process.  Literally, the exact same process Mike and I made a career of, is now being applied to the creation of design documents, for, say, a Vampire Ninja.  You choose a “Extraordinaries” card (Vampire Ninja, in this case), and draw several “Research” and “Design” cards.  Starting with the Research cards, you ponder things like, “What does this Extraordinarie find easy to do?  What might this Extraordinaire find difficult to do?”  or “What will this object [the one you are designing]allow the Extraordinaire to do that they could not do before?”.  Once you’ve settled on the object that you’ll design for your Extraordinarie, the design cards help to really flush our your design:  “How will your design be stored when not in use?  Does it need to change size, shape or color when it’s not needed?” or “How is your design powered? What possible energy sources could be used?”

I mean.  This game, you guys, is IT.  And best of all, it comes in a completely portable travel package.  We used it last winter on our Amtrak adventure.  It’s fun to see what the little guys come up with.  R’s last design was a light that would turn on and off when a ninja entered the room (off to provide darkness), and would shoot rainbows or something when no ninja was present.  SO awesome.

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1.  Infinity and Me, by Kate Hosford

The charming, beautifully illustrated book provides so many different ways to visualize the concept of Infinity that Raines now understands it better than many adults.  One of our very favorites.  You walk away with the most delicious sense of wonder.

2. Andrew Henry’s Meadow, by Doris Burn

I’m not sure what I like better:  the independent spirit of the kids in this book, the celebration of diversity of thought, or the amazing, almost Rube Goldberg-like drawings.  But one thing is certain:  this book is a gift.  I feel so lucky just to have read it.

3. Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty

Fans of Iggy Peck, Architect will adore this one.  I love that it focuses on failures being a natural (and necessary!!) part of the Engineering process.  Kids who take risks, kids who are not afraid to fail, these are the kids that will change the world.

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!” She handed a notebook to Rosie Revere, who smiled at her aunt as it all became clear. Life might have its failures, but this was not it. The only true failure can come if you quit.”

4. Young Frank, Architect, by Frank Viva

Not only is this book so fun for anyone who’s visited MOMA, but the detailed drawings of all of Young Frank’s various buildings always spark a burst of creativity in my own kids.  Another book about following your heart.

5. Less Than Zero, by Stuart Murphy

The entire MathStart Series, illustrating through story various abstract math concepts, is stellar.  This book in particular addresses the concept of negative numbers in a fun (and funny) way.  The poor penguin wants to save up for a scooter, but keeps spending his money….until he owes other people money and is left with “less than zero”.  It’s perfect.

6. Rube Goldberg Inventions 2017 Wall Calendar

These drawings are so much fun to pour over.  I love the idea of  monthly inspiration hanging on the wall of the playroom.  My little guys will be totally into it.

7. On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, by Jennifer Berne

This is the story of Albert Einstein.  Raines really appreciated hearing about his struggles in school, and the book underscores the importance of asking questions, and giving yourself plenty of time and space to think.

 

Cheers to Nerds.

xo,

S

ps.  Any STEM toys you swear by??  We’d LOVE to hear about them!

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About Author

Shana founded The Mom Edit in 2008. She lives with the love of her life (his name's Mike) and their two crazy boys in downtown Philadelphia. She loves a good styling challenge (her engineering side shows eventually), appreciates kindness, and usually picks scotch over wine, sneakers over stilettos, and denim-underwear, always.

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53 Comments

  1. High-five from another fashionable engineer! (I’m a software engineer, though. Don’t ask me to change the batteries in my smoke alarm. But I’ll gladly borrow from Mike’s Amazon wishlist for machine learning books.) I don’t have any kids and don’t plan to, but I’m still tempted by some of these toys for myself…

  2. This is brilliant, Shana, thank you! I added 90% of it to our wish list. But oh man, most of my family (and Santa) has already bought the kid’s presents. Hopefully a procrastinator or two will pick up some of this stuff! Cheers to nerds!

  3. Wonderful! I love everything about this post! We have several of these toys but adding some books to my collection, thank you!!! As a parent and kinder teacher STEM is my passion. I was a creative thinker I loved science hated math because it was not taught with any meaning. We do engineering challenges every week in my classroom and many of these toys are a weekly part of their exploration time! This is my whole philosophy of what school schools be thinking and time to think! Our education system is focused so much on instruction that we forget that learning only comes with application, doing!!! Thanks great post!!!!

  4. Oh. Oh oh oh. You have just changed my world. I (embarrassingly) had no idea half these things existed and never would have thought to look for them. My oldest (6yo) has a VERY sharp mind, this all would blow her away. I can see her and her siblings spending HOURS building and inventing! I am SO excited to get some of this for the kids for Christmas!!!! Thank you so much!!!! Now how to decide which to get….!

  5. Wow… I mean WOW. What a fun post! My son just entered his first science fair about a month ago. He electrocuted any and every food item he could find in our kitchen and got quite a charge out of it… Lol… 🙂 Ok sorry… But really, this is great! So many ideas… Thank you… <3

  6. I would add Lego. Not so much sets, as building from the pile of everything after the sets get taken apart. My six year old loves finding the interesting connecting pieces and building things that work.

  7. Noooooooooooooo! I literally just did all our Christmas shopping last night. And went seriously STEM for my 6-year-old. Maybe next year, I guess.

  8. My five year old asks me about infinity literally every day and I try to explain the concept literally EVERY day. It’s our morning ride to school discussion, on repeat. I almost lost my mind when I saw the book you recommended! Cannot wait to order it!

  9. I just looked at the Zoob set (dropped to $34.84 BTW). I read a few reviews and watched the video. My engineer husband watched the video over my shoulder and said “Get those, get two sets.” Decision made, they’re ordered. I have never made a gift decision for my boys so quickly.

    DH: should we get rid of one of our other building sets.
    Me: No lets get rid of all our other toys and just keep building sets. (i’m kinda kidding, kinda not)

    Thanks for making my life easier!

  10. Great ideas! We already have maple unit blocks (we got our from Barclay Blocks and have been really happy with them – they have open stock as well as sets!), but I’m taking notes on the rest. Have you heard of Robot Turtles? It’s a game that teaches programming principles. My son loves it and my software engineer husband likes playing it with him.

  11. These are great suggestions. I second robot turtle. Both my 4(boy) and 6 (girl) year olds also really enjoy roominate. They love thinking of new contraptions to make with the battery/spinner/light hookups and as budding artists they also love making and remaking things for the rooms as well.

  12. This post is just the best. It has inspired me to outfit my kids with some more creative toys. My husband and I are such nerds, we both have science PhDs (chemistry and biochemistry), why are our girls playing with dolls etc?! Not that we have bought many of their current toys for them, but still, why did we not think to get them something cooler!

  13. Love this post!! My little is nine and Ive been looking for something to add to his list that would brighten his little mind. Been online for the past 2 days looking for 3d pens for my 16yr old artist as well so this post is right on time. Couldn’t be better. Love it. Do you think most of these would work for the 9yr old group?? I have to admit so many of these would’ve been awesome for my oldest (he loved the mega magz when he was younger) but that little one is stuck on football football and more football. I was thrilled when he loved the STEM night his GT program hosted and would love to grab one of these!

    • My 9yo has many of these toys and would love the others. The only two that would be too young for my 9yo are the Tall Pegs and the Melissa and Doug Pattern Blocks. So, so much to love here! Thanks, Shana.

  14. Great list! I was an engineering major too (but then I decided on medical school so I’m now a physician). My husband is a math teacher, so we love STEM toys too. My kids love life science/nature stuff as well, like bug collecting kits, butterfly nursery, etc. My five year old wants a microscope this year.

  15. Allow me to put in a plug for Reptangles, made by Fat Brain Toys. My son is a math whiz and this toy (plus doing a lot of origami!) was how he first got into geometry at age 5. His fascination with it has only grown over the years. Reptangles are turtles that can be made into a number of incredibly complex polyhedra. They can be tricky to use at first, but once you get started with them, they are amazing! Wonderful post, Shana. I’m going to look up that 3D pen right now!

  16. This list rocks! And I’d like to add something free to the list: Scratch! I had the privilege of working with the inventors of the arduino and MakeyMakey at the MIT Media Lab, which also developed Scratch. It is an online coding program that has, to quote its developers: low floors (easy to learn), wide walls (very adaptable), and high ceilings (the sky’s the limit!). You can use arduinos and MakeyMakey’s to control games or stories that you wrote on screen (think: don’t play a video game, MAKE a video game!). And vice versa, once you add sensors and motors, you can make things happen with something you build yourself with light or sound sensors. But better than my description, check it out yourself: http://www.scratch.mit.edu. Oh- and there’s a free Scratch Jr app for tablets/iPadsnope the preschool set. Have fun!!

  17. This is amazing!! I’m days away from having first baby and my Amazon wishlist is now loaded for when she’s bit older!! Thank you!!

  18. Great post. You covered more than most. From hands-on kits, puzzles, games, to books. I found that Zoob building set a few years ago and gave it to my grandson. We enjoyed it together a few times. I’m not sure it was a big hit with him. The same grandson got that Snap Circuit kit form me more recently. He and siblings enjoyed the spinning propeller the best. I’ve certainly enjoyed the experience of building something as an electrical engineer. The grandkids seem to like gadgets I’ve made from small motors. Although trying these educational things on kids is worth it, I find that often the child either doesn’t share your interest or the parents don’t encourage it enough. It’s still worth trying. It’s hard to compete with smartphones and tablets. I wish more of us were interesting in the details of why and how things work.

  19. Thanks for these reviews and ideas–so brilliant! One to add to the list – KEVA planks (we have the simple 200 piece Keva Structures)–they are simple, perfectly cut pine planks and what you are able to create with them is incredible.

  20. From one math nerd to another, check out The Number Devil, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and a set of wooden Cuisenaire rods. Rhapsody!

  21. Ok, so #11 should be Piper @ playpiper.com Piper is a cool successful Kickstarter project that incorporates the physical world back into the virtual all through minecraft play. The company is comprised of an ingenious team and devised Piper for the whole family…hours, days and years of fun!

  22. We have looked at Zoob so many times. This may be the review we needed to finally buy. Well, next year. This year we doubled down on magnatiles and basic legos.

    I also am in a STEM field and cried while reading Rosie Revere to my kids the first couple of times. Such a great book! (They ask for it a lot, so it’s not one of those that are just written for adults.)

    A huge ditto to a great wood block set. We like the extra large Haba set. Literally works for every age and interest, from infant to adult. We keep them next to the box of figurines for complementary play. One of the few toys that have never been out of rotation.

    We’re still a household with little siblings who aren’t safe with small pieces. Here are my recs.
    Tangos – Similar to pattern blocks but with added difficulty (age 6+). It’s all about problem solving and trying different approaches. A travel magnetic set is good for on-the-go and for keeping small pieces away from the littles, although I think it’s easier to be creative with a non-magnetic set.
    Joinks – I see room for improvement, but they get played with a lot at our house – even more than legos and magnetic tiles, which is saying a lot. (Note: some pieces are a choking risk but they are easier to keep track of than, say, marbles so I don’t PANIC when they are out).
    Battat Take-A-Part Airplane (etc) – SO great for the very young builder (~18m-4 years). If you have a kid under 3, just buy it. Seriously.
    Rollipop – Baby/toddler safe marble run. It’s not as exciting or customizable as the big runs (which are in storage, sigh), but still fun. My bigs like being able to set it up for the littles all by themselves.
    Pipes – We have a set similar to Lakeshore Pipe Builders and Tubation (except with funnel pieces) that’s a hit in the bathtub or outside on a hot day. The kids bring them out for dry play, too, as houses and horns and anything else.

  23. I’m a mama who works in a non-STEM career, but more than half of my husband’s immediate and extended family members are engineers. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  24. Shana, I loved this post. I also loved your blocks post a few years back (which inspired us to get Magnatiles and Zoob). And I can say, a few weeks after Christmas, that the items that we purchased from this post are still in heavy rotation. Suspend is our favourite as my 4 year old daughter can easily join in. Equilibrio is sometimes frustrating for my 7 year old but it is teaching him patience and perseverance (ahem…well, I hope it is, anyway!). Thank you so much. My kids are the same age as yours and so far our success rate with the toys you’ve written about is 100%! Giant thanks and hug to you and yours. We want to play with you!

  25. My 12 year old is almost too big for toys, but not really. I would love a fun, creative STEM thing for her. Do you have any older kid suggestions?

  26. Andrew Henry’s Meadow!!! That was my favorite book as a child!! My sister and I read it a million times. It went of print for many years (it didn’t even have an ISBN number- some obscure Canadian version), and I could never find a copy. I feel like my childhood has been returned to me!!

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