Children can build strategy, critical thinking and resilience during expert-approved play
Assistant Editor, Science and Innovation Magnetic Building Set
With the holidays approaching, adults are lingering in the toy aisle or combing the internet, keeping an eye out for the perfect gifts for the kids in their lives. For those searching for educational fun this year, a team of engineers has selected expert-tested toys that promote science, technology, engineering and math skills.
Every year since 2015, the Inspire Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering at Purdue University has put together a guide to skill-building, mind-stretching STEM toys. Previously, it has brought children into the lab to test drive the games and puzzles, but the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors have led the engineers to pick the toys on their own for the past three years. Several of the toy-testers are parents, and they’ve used that to inform their rankings, curating a select group of activities, all released in recent years, that can serve children in future STEM pursuits.
“A lot of your child’s time is outside of the classroom and outside of formal learning environments,” says Morgan Hynes, the deputy director of Inspire and a professor of engineering education at Purdue. “It might just be at home playing with toys.”
While not all play has to be focused on learning—though experts agree any kind of play benefits children’s development—some toys combine delight and STEM basics. Playing with these promotes fundamental skills that can help children approach mathematical or engineering tasks later in life. For instance, building blocks boost spatial awareness and their understanding of how objects influence one another in the physical world. Other toys promote creative thinking, brainstorming solutions or trial and error.
Hynes encourages parents to play along with their kids. Whether by walking children through the extra challenges in a game’s manual or discussing what future careers use similar skills, parents can enhance the toys’ educational power. And they just might have a good time while doing it.
“I'm a trained engineer, but some of these, they remind me of things I either forgot or never learned,” Hynes says. “So, I think there’s an opportunity for everyone to have fun.”
Forty-seven gifts make up this year’s complete guide, but here are the top ten selected by the Inspire team.
With Intro to Gears, kids can follow instructions to build four geared machines or use their creativity to make whatever they want. For the youngest children, simply placing the gears on the board and spinning them is an entertaining activity that will teach resilience: When a gear doesn’t spin, they’ll have to make some changes to the design to correct it. Older kids can create more advanced constructions by placing the gears at 90-degree angles from each other.
The instruction booklet walks young engineers through experiments to teach how gears of different sizes can change the axis of rotation. It explains where gears are used in real life and reinforces learning of ratios and mathematics in a hands-on activity.
“You can really feel it,” Hynes says. “You can see it and feel the difference when you are speeding something up or slowing it down and giving it more power. You can experience that in a physical way, which I think is fun.” (Thames & Kosmos, $39.95)
Join Ty and Karlie — the young engineers featured in the other Kids First early engineering kits — to build four awesome geared machines and learn all about how gears work.
Sensory Leaves are a fresh take on teaching math to young learners. The set has various boards that children place leaves on top of, whether by matching a pattern or in response to a prompt. Parents can supervise children through these activities to reinforce learning. “It's a great way to introduce young children to counting and sorting and categorizing and logical thinking as well,” Hynes says. “But I think what stood out… was that there were connections to science and biology.”
With six different shapes, the leaves show children how to identify various trees, including maples, redbuds and live oaks. The activities also help children recognize patterns, shapes and colors. Textured bugs on the leaves add another level to some of the counting challenges. And to top it all off, the pieces are made from recycled materials. (Hand2mind, $24.99)
This certified, recycled plastic set includes 6 different types of tactile leaf counters in 6 different colors and 3 different sizes. With 10 teacher-developed, double-sided Activity Cards, children learn early math skills, compare their counters to real-life leaves, think creatively, and so much more!
Switcheroo Coding Crew consists of an electronic toy car, with three colored shells that kids can slide onto the vehicle to turn it into different kinds of trucks. Challenge cards lead children through storylines that encourage them to complete a task in the game board city, perhaps driving to a certain location to help put out a fire. Kids press buttons to code the car to perform its actions in a particular order—drive forward three beats, then turn left, for example. The game builds patience for trial and error, and it encourages children to identify problems and find solutions.
To think like a computer programmer is to step outside of how a human might approach a task and imagine what sort of prompting a machine would need to get the same thing done. “The earlier you get people familiar with the kind of logical reasoning that goes with computer programming, the easier it is in the future, if they choose to pursue that in a course or career,” Hynes says. “These toys break that down and allow children to demonstrate that ability.” (Learning Resources, $59.99)
Draw a coding rescue challenge card, snap on one of three vehicle shells (police car, fire truck, or construction vehicle), and code to solve the mission!
Hynes refers to the Brainometry puzzle shapes as “Tetris blocks.” Though they’re not shaped exactly like the pieces in the famous video game, the triangles, squares, zigzags, L shapes, plus signs and T-shaped blocks of this set encourage the same sort of spatial reasoning. Brainometry also includes challenge cards that set criteria, like which patterns must or must not touch, for the structure a child is building. Kids can put together a structure that stands and balances or one that lies flat on the table or floor. Even at a basic level, Hynes says, stacking up the pieces can teach foundational spatial skills. (Learning Resources, $15.99)
Explore this set's 10 STEM challenge cards for critical thinking puzzles that turn shape pieces into the 2D and 3D building blocks of victory! Manipulate six different shape pieces into solutions that require a keen eye for stacking, sorting, and geometry.
Discover contains all the tools a child needs to build fantastic structures: Just add cardboard. Kids can bring new life to old, discarded boxes using this set of safe saws to cut the material, a folding tool and 120 screws to fasten cardboard together into new shapes. From a favorite animal to a flower, to a life-size tunnel or playhouse, the possibilities are literally endless.
“It really emphasizes the creativity in design thinking,” Hynes says. While building, kids can also hone their ability to take precise measurements and to stabilize a structure, among other crucial engineering skills.
What kids get out of this game is dependent on how much they put into it. But ambitious young engineers who want to build structures or toys will get a feel for the entire design process, start to finish. And for those with access to a 3D printer, the manufacturer, Makedo, provides directions on its website to print even more advanced pieces that will take a child’s creations to the next level. (Makedo, $45)
Using this kit, children construct a paper airplane launcher that works with hydraulic pressure. Kids can tinker with the design of their plane and the height of the launcher to see how those factors impact the height and distance of the flight. They fill a syringe with water and push on the plunger to send their plane soaring.
The set comes with a manual that lists challenges and experimental setups that children can test out. It also includes paper with markings that guide pilots in making various kinds of planes. The toy promotes curiosity about how planes fly and how the launcher works, and it encourages children to tweak their setup and improve their results. “That’s a great opportunity for them to make connections between the making of something, the testing of it [and] the redesign of it,” Hynes says. (Elenco, $32.99)
This Hydraulic Plane Launcher allows your little scientist to build a Hydraulic Plane Launcher and use the power of hydraulic pressure to launch paper airplanes.
Wearing this larger-than-life cyborg hand, children can pretend to be Iron Man while learning about a crucial innovation: hydraulics. This realm of technology uses liquid pressure to get big items to have soft, controlled movements. But in the real world, hydraulic components of machines are often hidden.
This toy pulls back the curtain and lets children understand the science of hydraulics. But first, kids have to assemble it—perhaps with some parental assistance—building fine motor skills and spatial reasoning. Once the toy is constructed, a child slides their hand in and puts their fingers through little rings that control the movement of the massive machine, which can dexterously pick up small items.
Plus, the kit includes a manual that talks about exoskeletons and how they can provide safety to people. “You can manipulate things with your body but also not put your body at risk,” Hynes says. “You have [an] exoskeleton take the risk for you.” (Thames & Kosmos, $44.95)
Build your own awesome, wearable mechanical hand that you operate with your own fingers.
Iggy Peck is an architect, and kids can be, too, as they complete the activities in this workbook. The projects encourage children to use items around the house to think like a builder—such as constructing a bridge out of marshmallows and dry spaghetti. Other pages have puzzles to solve or prompts for drawing and sketching.
The project book is a good companion to the original picture book, Iggy Peck, Architect, by Andrea Beaty, but it also is effective as a stand-alone gift, even for children who haven’t read the story, Hynes says. “The books [in the Questioneers collection] are nice and get you excited about the ideas and following a storyline, but this [project book] was the practical, hands-on guide to go with it,” Hynes says. “All that stuff that Iggy was doing in the book, you can now do.” (Abrams Books, $14.99)
Featuring art from the beloved New York Times bestselling picture book Iggy Peck, Architect, this activity book contains kid-friendly projects of all kinds and is perfect for young builders and creators.
This toy gives children a glimpse into how electricity powers homes. Kids can learn the nuances of parallel and series circuits without any of the wiring or soldering typically involved—these pieces simply and safely snap together.
“You can actually build a structure that looks like a house, connect different lights and sensors to that, and create what would be an automated smart home,” Hynes says. With more than 50 projects, kids can bring electric lighting to the house, build a doorbell, add a home security system and use solar panels.
This is a toy a child can grow with, Hynes says. Eight-year-olds, for example, might be able to build some of the more basic constructions, and as they get older, they could use the same toy to attempt advanced circuits and still find a challenge. (Elenco, $129.99)
Build 53 exciting STEM projects that are based on electric circuits you would find in most homes. Learn how power gets to your home, how power travels inside your walls, what happen when you turn on a light, what happens when the power goes out, what are fuses, circuits breakers, and more!
This problem-solving game is a great way for older children to build logical thinking. The multiplayer Zendo has one participant assume the role of a moderator and put together a structure that follows a “secret rule” that only that person knows. Maybe, for example, no two pieces of the same color can touch. The moderator can answer other players’ questions about the rule. Then, those players must try to guess the rule and build a different creation that also abides by it.
To be successful, children must use inductive reasoning, coming up with a general conclusion based on a specific example. If they’re wrong, they need to make another practical guess. “It would be pretty rare to get it right on the first time,” Hynes says. But what this and other games in the guide teach is that going back to square one isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, engineers have to do it all the time. (Looney Labs, $44)
The classic puzzle game of inductive logic is back, purer, and clearer than ever! Beautiful crystalline pieces in three shapes and three colors are used to build structures marked by the Moderator according to a secret rule selected from a versatile deck of options.
Carlyn Kranking is the assistant web editor for science and innovation.