In addition to introducing children to basic coding concepts, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) toys help kids develop a wide range of skills from critical thinking and problem-solving to the basics of engineering and the scientific method. According to Laura Phillips, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, the best STEM toys do this in a hands-on, fun, and engaging way. Both Phillips and Christian Francis, an elementary-school science teacher at the Buckley School, agree that playing with STEM toys also helps kids strengthen their frustration tolerance and promote perseverance, two skills that will help them later in life, no matter what field they go into. We asked Phillips, Francis, and two other experts for their recommendations on the best STEM toys to encourage educational fun at home right now.
Though we hear about STEM much more than we hear about STEAM, many educators consider art an honorary branch of the STEM tree. And many STEM toys, like this colorful set of pattern blocks from Melissa & Doug, combine aspects of art and math. Karen Blumberg, a math teacher at the Brearley School, recommends this and other pattern block sets like it for young children. Sometimes referred to as Tangrams, this type of dissection puzzle dates back to as early as the 1200s in China and the early-19th century in Europe. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a set growing up, Blumberg says. Each set comes with an assortment of thin wooden shapes like triangles, squares, and hexagons plus a handful of cards showing animals or other objects made up of smaller shapes. Children work to figure out how to arrange their blocks to match and build the picture showing on their card. Playing with Tangrams encourages spatial awareness, basic concepts of geometry, and hand-eye coordination.
All of the experts we spoke to say that regular wooden blocks are a great introduction to STEM because they’re open-ended and encourage children’s problem-solving and creative-thinking skills. Plus they get kids excited about building pretend towers, bridges, and cities, while testing the integrity of the structures they build. Child psychologist Sarah Roseberry Lytle says that research shows “building blocks are a really good way to promote early STEM and math skills.” Steven John, a Strategist contributor, tech writer, and father of two, says these blocks are a hit with his kids. For parents looking to encourage STEM thinking in young children, Lyte suggests using words like bigger, smaller, shorter, taller when playing with your kids and blocks. Once you get good enough to build a bridge with blocks (something made easier by the built-in magnets in these blocks), you can start talking about concepts like stability.
Primo Toys’ Cubetto may look like one of your kid’s wooden blocks, but it’s actually a programmable robot that introduces kids to coding without any apps, screens, or even reading. Children plug different blocks into a board to determine Cubetto’s movements. John says it’s a great introductory coding toy for little kids who can’t yet read or write.
Snap circuits are a favorite among parents and teachers, including John, whose son started playing with them at age 4, even though the packaging says for ages 8 to 10. John likes that the toy doesn’t require an app or separate smart device, making it something kids can enjoy entirely independently. Phillips recommends them, saying “they relate to things in the real world, encourage following directions, patience, and persistence.” Because they come with lot of small parts, however, they would not be appropriate for infants and toddlers.
Before switching to remote learning, Francis was leading his students in a unit of study about forces in motion, which is basically an introduction to physics. “We were trying a lot of Rube Goldberg–type projects where we would set up a marble track that led into dominoes which led into a zip-line-type thing,” says Francis, who suggests kids try doing something similar at home by incorporating everyday objects they find around the house. Phillips also recommends marble runs and tracks as a fun, hands-on way of teaching children about engineering and physics. For kids who have graduated from basic marble runs, the Gravitrax starter set is a step up that offers a ton of different combinations to make marbles flip, launch, and jump through the track.
Like basic wooden blocks, Legos were praised over and over again by our panel of experts for there open-ended ability to engage kids in STEM concepts. Blumberg uses Legos in her classroom to teach math, because the bumps on each brick easily lend themselves to counting. “There are a few websites about this if you look up Lego math,” she says, adding, “You can use the different bricks to represent fractions.” Blumberg even has friend who uses them to teach children about notes, half notes, and quarter notes in music. But if you want to add robotics to the mix, John recommends this Lego kit that lets kids build and control five different robot models including robot cat, a guitar, and a vehicle, among others. “Once the robot’s built, kids can use an easy, icon-based, drag-and-drop app to make it move, light up, and make sounds,” he says.
For older children, Phillips says, “You can maximize their engagement by appealing to their areas of interest.” Phillips uses the example of talking to a baseball-loving teen about the physics of a fastball, the geometry of the baseball field, and the math and science behind a the angle of player’s swing. This kit from Kiwi Co, a company Blumberg highly recommends, lets basketball-loving kids build their own ball-shooting catapult, complete with a stadium and real string net.
For kids who like to draw, Blumberg recommends DoodleMatic, which lets you turn your drawings into a video game using an app on your phone or iPad. Each color marker makes your drawing do something different. For example, whatever you draw in purple moves, and whatever is black stays still. “Depending on what you draw, the game builds itself via color code,” says Blumberg, who explains that this kind of play teaches kids about algorithms.
The Makey Makey is a coding kit that turns everyday objects like bananas or avocados into touchpads. “Instead of playing a video game using your computer keyboard, with the Makey Makey, anything that’s conductive can act as your input, a.k.a. your controller,” Blumberg says. According to her, the first thing people always do with the Makey Makey is to build a banana keyboard. But other ideas include using it to trigger your laptop’s photo booth whenever your cat drinks from its bowl, or using conductive Play-Doh to build a video-game controller.