Looking for a toy that can pry a kid away from a screen? I’m always on the hunt for products that can bring my kids back into the real world and keep them engaged and, dare I even say, get them to learn something. Below are some of my favorite gift ideas that fall squarely in that STEM space — that’s science, tech, engineering and math. Putting an educational twist on playtime doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Below are my suggestions for hands-on activities to get kids building, blending and exploring, to help light a spark within.
Thames & Kosmos
Thames & Kosmos make some of the best build-it-yourself engineering toys and they are often hard to find. (I’m looking at you, Candy Claw Machine and Mega Cyborg Hand.) But here’s one gem that I still see widely available: this wacky, waving, inflatable arm-failing tubeman… which has a blower that lets kids conduct experiments with air pressure, air flow and aerodynamics. Air basketball. Air cannon. Air tube man. Good for ages 8 and up, and we stress the “up” because obviously you want this for your desk. (No judgement here.)
Artie can also sense colors and follow lines, be remote controlled, and it has a “cliff sensor” to avoid falling off tables.
There’s a whole world of Lego for education, and you won’t find it in the toy aisle. The Lego Learning System has kits packed with hundreds of bricks and instructions to guide students along several lessons — each kit targeted to different age groups. These teaching kits are designed for the classroom, but anyone can buy this directly from Lego for hands-on learning at home. (And there are teacher guides to help parents, too.)
The newest addition is the Spike Essential learning kit for grades 1-5, which includes a few tech pieces like a light matrix, color sensor and motor. Kids also use an app to program their creations. With 449 bricks and 40 lessons, the kit teaches computational thinking, design engineering and physics — all told through a story of cute Lego figure characters. If you want something cheaper without the tech and programing parts, but still want to keep the physics and math lessons, check out the BricQ Motion Essential kit for $100.
Circuit Explorer is kind of like Lego, but it teaches the very basics of how a circuit works in programming. Kids learn that they need to connect the lines on the side to complete a circuit and make things light up or move. Choose from three different sets with rocket ships, Mars rovers and space stations or mix and match parts to invent your own monster machine. They can even connect with Lego bricks.
Thames & Kosmos
Making your own robot doesn’t need to require programming skills. This is the Kids First Robot Factory by Thames & Kosmos, and it’s good for introducing kids to basic engineering concepts. The manual is an illustrated storybook that guides youngsters through building eight different battery-powered motorized bots. Kids can also make their own contraptions, and as they go through the story they learn why each robot moves in its own way.
Here’s a different twist on the DIY robot. Kids can build anything they can imagine out of plastic with this 3D printing pen. The 3Doodler Start+ is an updated model for 2021, slightly slimmer and lighter than the original, making it easier for small hands to hold. With a 30-minute charge, this pen melts sticks of plastic so kids can draw them into any shape, but the nozzel and melted plastic are not hot — so it won’t burn little hands. (And I’ve tested it, you can put the tip to your skin and draw on your finger, I had no worries giving it to my kids.) Draw right on paper or a table and the plastic creation pops right off.
It comes with 72 filament strands and an activity guide with ten new projects. To take the learning up a notch, there’s a $13 Edu Stem Accessory Kit with more activities.
Want something more tasty? Draw it in the kitchen with chocolate with Skyrocket’s Chocolate Pen. A warming tray keeps chocolate gooey as your battery-powered pen sucks up the sweet stuff into the cartridge. Draw, eat, repeat. It comes in various colors and little hands will have an easy time filling up the molds. You can also draw whatever shape you want on wax paper and it’ll cool in 10 minutes. Sure, this activity is more of a creative art — but there are chemistry lessons you can teach with cooling confectionery. And that makes desserts science!
There are easy ways to get kids crafty even if you aren’t the crafty type. I subscribe to KiwiCo Crates, which are hands-on learning activities in a box. Packed with a few science and engineering lessons, they come in the mail and cater to different age groups. I’m a long-time subscriber for my kids, and I like the quality of items. But it’s not just for tiny tikes, there are boxes for all sorts of ages — even engineering boxes for adults.
If you’re stuck trying to find screen-free activity ideas, well, just look to the old-school screen. Lite Brite is back. The machine slimmed down a bit but it’s still got the pegs you loved to punch into holes. All that pixel art may just inspire tomorrow’s game programmer.
This cute robot for ages 6 and up teaches basic programming, has various challenges and is screen-free with no phone or tablet required. Botley can detect objects and move around them, follow looping commands, navigate obstacle courses and follow a black line your kid designs. And with an included 77-piece activity set, there’s plenty to keep kids busy.
Even the wee ones in your life as young as 18 months can learn STEM with these magnetic foam builders. Soft blocks connect effortlessly and rotate so you can build creatures with head, wings, elbows and other body parts. And don’t worry about the blocks getting dirty as they’re dishwasher safe and bath friendly.
My two-year-old hasn’t gotten tired of them after a year, and my five-year-old also still plays with these to make up all sorts of vehicles and creatures. It’s always a win to get a toy that has good shelf life, and you can expand with multiple set boxes.
I’m a fan of this geometric brain-training toy. There are many spins on the magnetic building-blocks trend, but I’ve personally taken a liking to Magformers in how it’s designed and the options available for different types of box sets, so it can expand easily for different age ranges. My advice: Get a starter set with wheels, so kids can give their creations some speed. Some models, like the Funny Wheel Set, can be controlled by remote.
The latest historical figure doll from American Girl is an ’80s gamer wiz named Courtney. Her storybook talks about her love of Pac-Man and how she wants to someday design a video game with a girl hero. And this character has the coolest doll accessory ever: a working Pac-Man video arcade cabinet. (Sorry parents, that’s an extra $150. Yeah, we know it’s really for you.)
Of course the doll won’t teach a child programming, but exposure at a young age to these concepts can help empower girls to not think about games or programming as a “boy” thing and inspire change within culture.