By Samantha Lindgren
By now you’ve heard that there is a demand for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) college graduates, yet there are fewer and fewer students choosing these majors. By middle school, a large percentage of girls and minority students have lost interest in STEM, and are almost running in the opposite direction. Whereas reading, writing, and arithmetic were prized in days of old (or like a decade ago), today’s Fortune 500 companies value creative problem-solving, innovation, and collaboration. These skills sound like they would be fun to develop, don’t they? And useful for all kids? These 21st century skills are at the heart of STEM classes.
If the gift you’re giving your child this holiday season isn’t meaningful in a sentimental way, why not make it meaningful to their education?
We’d be kidding ourselves if we thought a toy was going to magically turn our children into a rocket scientist or the next Steve Jobs. However, play can be a powerful teacher! Toys that encourage your children to develop their critical thinking skills and creatively solve problems, coupled with a supportive home and school experience, can increase your child’s confidence and spark interest in STEM.
As a mother and a STEM educator, I look for toys that are fun and high-quality, both in terms of durability and concept. My colleagues at MSTE (The Office for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in the College of Education at UIUC) and I put together a list of some of our favorite toys and kits that foster interest in STEM, provide an interesting learning experience, and above all, are fun. These are toys, after all!
Pop into Art Mart Toys on a Saturday and you’ll see kids crowded around the Hape Quadrilla marble maze that is set up by their door. Kids love to design multi-tiered tracks for marbles to run down, and there are many brands to choose from with a spread of prices. A classic engineering toy that’s perfect for passing those long, indoor, winter days.
Ages: 4 and up
Cost: Depends on the brand, $30-$120
STEM Concept: Science, Engineering
These magnetic building tiles allow your preschooler to build colorful geometric shapes in 3D, and have become a staple at preschools. They are very durable, have no sharp edges, and four year olds everywhere are addicted. They’re on the spendy side at $50 for a set of 30, but that’s plenty of pieces to build space stations, castles, and other imaginative structures. (Magformers are a similar building toy, and slightly less expensive.)
Ages: 2 and up
STEM Concept: Math, Engineering
Encourage your elementary-aged kiddo to investigate basic concepts in electricity with Snap Circuits. The basic Snap Circuits Jr. kits allows for safe explorations as well as 100 project ideas. You can buy additional kits and projects, including a green set to explore solar and wind power, as your child grows. This would also make a great gift for your child’s classroom!
Ages: 8 and up
STEM Concept: Science
Who doesn’t love LEGOs? These tiny little building blocks are the workhorses of our playtime and keep my kids occupied for hours. When it comes to LEGOs, I appreciate that they think about the girls (even if the girl LEGOs and the boy LEGOS are sold in separate aisles – you can’t have it all). I also appreciate that the LEGO movie encourages Master Builders! Following instructions is an important school and life skill, but to get the most from your LEGO session I suggest a big bucket of bricks and no instruction booklets.
Ages: 4 and up (LEGO Duplos for kids under 4, Nanoblocks for the big kids)
Cost: Starting at $5
STEM Concept: Engineering
If you’ve got an older child and cash to spare, LEGO MINDSTORMS is a great introduction to robotics and computer programming. It’s everything you like about LEGOs plus those highly valued 21st century skills. Watch as your kid makes a robot that launches balls, or walks around making a lot of robot-y noises. MINDSTORMS are fun, and good prep for a robotics team at school or 4-H.
Ages: 8 and up
STEM Concept: Computer Science, Science, Engineering
Do you want your kid to learn the basics of programming someday? Developing their computational thinking skills is a good place to start. This board game is just as fun for a 4 year-olds as it is for 4th graders (plus it requires that the supervising grown-up makes lots of weird noises). Teaching concepts such as basic commands, algorithms, and functions, not to mention de-bugging and troubleshooting, your child works to get their turtle to the matching jewel in an engaging, unplugged game that gets more sophisticated each time they play.
Ages: 4 and up
STEM Concept: Computer Science
Shake up family game nights with a dice game! Math Dice encourages mental math as children practice age-appropriate math skills while playing a game. The Jr. version of this game contains one 12-sided die and five 6-sided dice to practice addition and subtraction and is great for kids in Pre-K to 3rd Grade. The older version, good for 2nd graders on up, contains more dice and allows for multiplication and subtraction. If you think that math practice can’t be fun, you’ll change your mind with dice games. (For a low-tech version, buy five or six dice and look up the rules to Yahtzee or Farkle online. Make your kids the scorekeepers and boom! Math is fun).
Ages: 6 and up
STEM Concept: Math
If you’re looking for something to excite your tech-savvy, smartphone-generation tween, Sphero’s app-controlled robotic ball might just be the thing. In Sphero’s own words, it’s like “Einstein and C-3PO had a baby.” Not on the shelves in stores in C-U, they’re available online. Kids use their smartphones or tablets to control these robots – make them change color, race around, complete tricks, and earn badges. Sphero is waterproof and pet-proof (your dogs will love chasing after it), and a way to get your kids programming – indoors, outside, and with their friends. Compatible with Android and iOS devices.
Ages: 6 and up
STEM Concept: Computer Science
Root Vue Garden
There can never be too much learning about the natural world! This innovative little garden allows your child to observe the growth of root vegetables. Unless you’ve got a very sunny south-facing window in your house, this kit may have to wait until spring. (But since seeds are cheap, try it in the winter and if your veggies fail to thrive, discuss why with your kids, have them develop hypotheses, and try it again in the spring!) We gave our daughter one a few years ago and we’ve used it every year to plant radishes, carrots, and spring onions. The observations are fun, and the kids will enjoy eating the results.
Ages: 3 and up
STEM Concept: Science
STEM Toys for Girls
As a woman in STEM myself, I applaud companies like GoldieBlox and Roominate for bringing attention to the lack of toys that require our daughters to use their brains. (I’ve got nothing against dolls, but do girl toys have to be pink?) There are several toy companies that are encouraging our girls to be engineers and this is wonderful. However, successful, cheeky marketing campaigns do not necessarily make great toys. Let’s discuss these toys and strategies for keeping our young gals in STEM soon!
When choosing a STEM toy we suggest that you ask yourself these questions:
- Is it fun? First and foremost, this is a toy, so it should be fun!
- Will my child play with this more than once?
- Is the outcome of this toy (particularly if it claims to be an engineering toy) predetermined, or is there opportunity for creativity and problem-solving?
- Are there enough pieces so that my child’s imagination isn’t limited by what’s in the box? And if not, is buying all the extension packs worth it, or affordable?
Where to buy STEM toys in Champaign-Urbana
Dr. G’s BrainWorks in the Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana and in the Market Place Mall in Champaign is my favorite place to find new games for my kids. Arranged by “Cognitive Focus Area,” the preschool section has a large selection of toys and games. The Critical Thinking and Problem Solving areas are also full of fun activities.
Art Mart Toys in Lincoln Square Mall carries a lot of toys that you don’t see elsewhere in town. I love the variety, and quality, of toys, games, and crafts for babies to upper-elementary aged kids that this store carries.
Barnes and Noble in the Marketview Shopping Center has a great toy section arranged by age group. They specialize in learning and educational toys and games, and do seem to have an eye for quality.
Toys R Us, next door to Barnes and Noble, has a lot of STEM toys, too. Toys R Us has a large tech section including all the latest video games and devices, making one-stop shopping for kids with a range of ages. The educational toys are just harder to find here because they’re integrated into the other aisles (and you have to wade through all the pink, action figures, and screaming kids).
What’s your favorite STEM toy for kids? Add it in the comments section below!
Sammy Lindgren is the mother of two spunky kids and the Coordinator of STEM Teacher Development at the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) in the College of Education at UIUC. A Champaign resident of just a year, she loves the IL seasons (but not winter), family games nights, food trucks, and any robot that can clean her house.
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