Fields covered by STEM, an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, are predicted to hold the highest growth areas in the coming decade. As such, it only makes sense to expose kids to as much of it as possible. While STEM subjects already receive prominent attention in schools, you have to admit, getting kids excited about what’s going on at class isn’t always that easy. Truth be told, it’s far easier to get them excited about toys and that’s why STEM toys can play such a prominent part in their early education.
In this list, mostly based on the feedback we received from parents and teachers visiting our site, we look at some of the best STEM-related toys you can grab off the shelf this holiday season.
1. littleBits Rule Your Room Kit
When you’re a kid, booby-trapping your room against sibling intruders just seems like the coolest thing ever. While that can be done with common household items, this kit lets kids put those booby traps together with help from modern electronics, allowing them to reinforce their traps with sensors, alarms, and relatively harmless defense systems. It comes with step-by-step instructions for eight suggested projects to get them started and a challenge project to harness their problem-solving skills, although its true value is the ability to inspire kids to conceive and realize their own projects, whether for booby-trapping their room or creating annoying monstrosities that blink and bleep nonstop to their parents’ chagrin.
2. Snap Circuits Sound Electronics Discovery Kit
Making lots of noise? Fun for kids. Learning to build circuits? Not so much. What about a toy that teaches kids to build circuits that produce a glorious amount of cacophonic sound? Yeah, definitely fun, especially when the circuits consist of modules that can simply snap on a board, allowing them to build, test, and rebuild their noise machines many times over with very little work. Designed for budding engineers, this kit includes 40 snap-on sound circuit modules, a keypad module with an optical theremin, and a guide book with 185 projects kids can build using the bundled parts. It can even hook up to a smartphone, where an app will analyze the sounds and show how it moves across each circuit you build.
3. Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-A-Pillar
First off, we love the name Code-A-Pillar. Only thing is, there’s no actual coding involved in the toy, which is a good thing since this is aimed at preschoolers. Instead, it’s a motorized caterpillar with a modular nine-piece body that you can put together in any order. That orde in which the segments are arranged will determine the caterpillar’s movements (it can go forward, turn left, turn right, wiggle, dance, and even pause briefly), so kids need to figure out the right sequence in order to make it take the exact path that they want – a great way to instill basic logic and problem-solving skills. And, yes, it’s an absolutely adorable caterpillar with lights, sounds, and blinking eyes, so it will engage their attention well before they get hooked on the problem-solving challenges it presents.
4. Magformers Hi-Tech Walking Robot Set
To the unfamiliar, the Magformers are construction toys made up of two-dimensional tiles that snap together using built-in magnets. It’s an excellent toy for training spatial development in younger kids. Available in a variety of shapes, they allow construction of a whole host of objects, from buildings and towers to vehicles and a whole host of other structures. For this particular set, they pair those tiles with a motor block, a walking block, and half a dozen robot-specific parts for putting together a mobile, two-legged automaton. The set comes with 45 total parts and is, of course, compatible with other Magformers tiles and blocks, so your kids can integrate the robot parts into larger creations.
5. My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope
Is there a geekier gift you can give to a school-age kid than a microscope? Probably not. With its ability to magnify everything from random specimens to creepy insects to a whole host of tiny objects around the house, however, this geeky thing will make for serious loads of fun, whether your kids are really into science or they simply enjoy inspecting what a mosquito’s legs actually look like when zoomed in up close. And, yes, this is a laboratory-grade biological microscope with an impact-resistant body, dual LED illumination, and optical glass lenses that enable up to 400x magnification, so this should shrug off the unavoidable rough handling it will likely experience from time to time.
6. K’NEX 100 Model Building Set
Unlike LEGOs, the K’NEX construction kit can be used to build not just static structures, but dynamic models with actual moving parts. As such, you’re not restricted to producing buildings, bridges, and other impressive structures, but actual mechanical contraptions like amusement park rides, helicopters with spinning propellers, and robots with articulated body parts. This kit comes with 863 pieces of rods and connectors that can snap together to build any of the 100 included projects, which include vehicles, animals, and scale models of famous buildings, as well as assemble into your own original creations.
7. Osmo Numbers
Yes, there are countless math games available on the iPad that your kids can use to train basic arithmetic skills. The Osmo Numbers, however, adds a physical component that keeps kids just as engaged in the real world. In the game, kids solve math challenges by laying down number tiles in front of the tablet, allowing them to explore math creatively, unconstrained by strict rules and guidelines. Each correct answer pops a bubble in the game’s underwater virtual world, enough of which will free up a new batch of sea creatures to populate the game’s sprawling marine life. Each set contains a tablet stand (compatible with iPad 2 and newer), a mirror that slides over the tablet’s camera, and 40 different tiles.
8. Piper Computer Kit
Designed to teach basic electronic concepts, Piper is a kit that contains all the parts required to build a Raspberry Pi computer. It comes with full-scale blueprint instructions, too, ensuring your kids won’t need to do much trial and error in putting together their very first PC. More than a DIY kit for PC assembly, however, it contains a copy of Minecraft with a custom adventure level that teaches increasingly advanced electronics and programming concepts, complete with physical projects that will have kids building switches, sensors, and other components they can integrate into the machine. Simply put, if your school-age kid is showing a propensity for tinkering with gadgets, this thing will make for an engaging toy that will keep them busy for many, many hours.
9. BOSEbuild Speaker Cube
If your kid wants a Bluetooth speaker for his room, might as well get him one that he will have to build from scratch. We’re guessing that’s the idea behind this DIY speaker kit, which guides kids into building their own Bluetooth speaker with the help of an accompanying iOS app. Animated instructions on the app ensure children understand every step clearly, while a variety of hands-on experiments teach them the science behind individual speaker components and how they work together to produce sound. And, yes, the finished product is a real Bose speaker, so it should deliver a quality listening experience.
10. Qixels S3 3D Maker
A low-tech 3D printer of sorts, this toy lets you “fabricate” objects using tiny plastic blocks that you arrange on a grid and then stack one layer after another using a pressing tool. The result is sort of like a pixelated object in 3D that you can break apart if it’s not quite up to your liking. Once you’ve assembled an object you like, brush water along its sides to fuse the plastic blocks together and finalize the build. Each one comes with blocks of different colors, along with design templates to get kids started in fashioning their own creations.
11. Cubelets TWELVE
A robot-building toy, Cubelets consist of magnetic snap-on building blocks, each of which can perform either movement, sensing, or logic functions. The blocks can pass both power and data to each other, allowing you to assemble them in a way that the resulting creation will perform specific functions. For instance, you can connect a light sensor cube, an inverter logic cube, and a flashlight cube together, so that you’ll get a robot that turns its light on every time there’s zero illumination in the room. A Bluetooth module allows kids to send inputs to the robots via an accompanying app, while brick adapters allow them to be integrated into LEGO models.
12. K’NEX Education ‒ STEM Explorations: Swing Ride Building Set
This 486-piece building set can be assembled into three different types of amusement park attractions: a swing ride, a ferris wheel, and a boom ride. It’s motorized, too, so you can set up a tabletop amusement park that’s bustling with energy and life. More than a fun toy, it comes with instruction guides for three hands-on experiments that explore various engineering concepts based on the different rides, making it a highly-educational tool for middle school students.
13. Kids First Science Laboratory Kit
Mad scientists that change the world all need to start somewhere. This kit should be as good a start as any, giving pre-school kids toy versions of 24 familiar lab tools and equipment, such as test tubes, funnels, and racks to help them get a head start at developing hands-on empirical learning skills in preparation for more advanced science subjects once they enter school. It comes with a 16-page full-color manual showing parents how to present the toys to their children, as well as 10 cards providing detailed experiments for kids using illustrated instructions.
14. Thames and Kosmos Remote-Control Machines DLX
There’s no shortage of remote-control cars in the market. This toy, however, separates itself from the pack by coming with a configurable design that allows you to transform it into one of 20 different remote-control machines, including cars, airplanes, robots, and construction equipment. You can even combine it with other Thames & Kosmos construction kits to fashion entirely new creations. Three motors are included in the set, each of which can be controlled simultaneously from a single wireless remote for performing complex functions, with a 128-page full-color manual showing the step-by-assembly for each machine and detailing the tech concepts behind them.
15. 4M Salt Water Power Robot Kit
Unlike other motorized robots, this four-wheeled automaton doesn’t rely on batteries to get itself moving. Instead, the robot draws its power from the chemical reaction between salt water and charcoal, helping kids appreciate the value of alternative energy sources, apart from teaching them the various mechanical principles that allow robots to gain mobility. Do note, it requires a screwdriver to assemble, so you might want to help your kids out, in case they’re not yet familiar with using one.
16. 4M Tin Can Robot
Used soda cans have long made for fun makeshift toys. You can attach multiple cans together to assemble a cannon, attach wheels to build a car, or add wings to turn it into a plane (or a galactic fighter). This kit, on the other hand, lets you convert a humble soda can into a walking robot that can trudge its way around floors, tabletops, and other flat surfaces. It can be assembled in one of two ways, either with the soda can upright or laid down on its side, with both forms retaining the motorized walking function.
17. Meccano Micronoid Blue Basher
We’re big fans of Meccano’s Meccanoid robot, which gives you a robot sidekick you can train to do your bidding. Only problem is, the darn thing is huge, making it fine for playing with at home, but not quite convenient for bringing anywhere else. The Micronoid is a more portable version of that, giving kids a robot sidekick they can train to perform specific move sequences, while fitting conveniently in a backpack for showing off at school. It‘s designed to interact with other Micronoids when they’re in the vicinity, too, apart from busting into adorable dance moves any time it hears music playing.
18. SmartLab Toys Ultimate Secret Formula Lab
Chemistry kits have been around for a long time, allowing kids to perform science experiments from the comfort of their own bedrooms. The SmartLab Toys Ultimate Secret Formula Lab, however, is one of the few kits we’ve seen that look like a legit mad scientist setup, courtesy of the included experiment station that gives your tubes, valves, and vessels a badass-looking hub. It comes with a full set of chemicals that you can combine with various household ingredients to conduct any of the 40 different science experiments listed in the included book. And, yes, these are the types of experiments that produce fizz, change colors, crystallize, and generate other awesome effects, ensuring performing them will make for a whole load of fun.
19. Anki Cozmo
This charismatic robot toy comes with computer vision, AI, and other advanced robotics tech that allow it to express genuine emotions, display human-like self-awareness, and develop a personality that evolves over time. Simply put, this isn’t just a robot that performs random actions, as it’s designed to behave like the mischievous and fun-loving bots you’ll typically find in animated movies. Aside from behaving autonomously, the robot can also be driven via the app and play pre-programmed games, while an available SDK lets you write custom scripts to change Cozmo’s actions and behaviors.
20. Robot Turtles Game
Designed for preschoolers, this tabletop game sneakily teaches programming fundamentals by having kids race to reach a gem on a board using actions inspired by the Logo programming language. Up to five people can play in each round, with various available game levels, so once the kids get bored by the basic gameplay, they can move on to the higher levels, which add new obstacles and hurdles that will require more advanced strategies to overcome, ensuring it will remain highly-playable over time. There are also expansion packs from the company that you can use to expand the gameplay even further.