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