“Make the vegetables themselves taste good, and you won’t have to bribe kids with chocolate,” writes Annie Murphy Paul, author and consultant, writing about educational games for kids. The right educational toy or game won’t appear “educational” to your kid – it will just look like good, compelling fun.
These STEM toys (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) will all look like terrific treats when they come out of the wrapping paper, but they teach skills that will help kids out in the classroom, and perhaps even lead them to a future career!
The Totally Irresponsible Science Kit, Workman Books, $22.95
How do you package science to make it palatable for any kid (especially kids who love a big “boom” or a gross-out factor)? Just repackage it as mischief, and watch little guys and gals clamor to get started! Potato guns, homemade lightning, cola geysers, and more are on tap, and the more kids study the principles behind each experiment, the more silly stunts they can execute.
Reviewers say that the authors of this book did a great job choosing experiments that are dramatic but not dangerous, and that they’ve had no problem finding items around the house to use for each project. Plus, all of these experiments are great fun for the family to do together, and we love a toy that gets everyone involved!
Squishy Human Body, Smartlab, $27.99
The classic “visible man” model is pretty cool, but it has its limitations: your view of each part of the body is still limited by what’s in front of it, and it’s not particularly dynamic. However, if you can dissect the model, it gets a lot more interesting, since you can examine everything in detail, and this kit also adds the delightful gross-out factor of squishy removable vital organs. Ew! Cool! Ew! Cool!
Along with the 12” high body model, the Squishy Human Body set comes with a 24-page book that explains where everything goes and what everything does, and includes examples that kids will love, including the tale of what happens as a bite of pizza travels through your body (including the end point, which will get some definite giggles). A chart is provided to help kids disassemble and reassemble the body and identify each piece. Smaller kids will need a little help, while bigger kids will take great pride in being able to put their visible man back together. And kids will also love pretending to be a doctor and doing “operations.”
Snap Circuits Arcade, Elenco, $59.99
I kind of love the retro feel of Elenco’s Snap Circuits promos: while I assure you that this is a brand-new product, the look and sound of this promo has a distinctly ‘80s feel. They know their audience: kids who don’t need to be dragged into learning about electronics in a gimmicky way (although they’ll still be psyched to show off the end result, with flashing lights and sound effects)!
As with all Snap Circuits sets, the Snap Circuits Arcade uses components that snap together as easily as the buttons on your jacket, so all kids need to do is assemble each project according to the instructions to get very cool results. Assembling each project gives them another way to learn about how electronics work, encouraging them to dream up their own inventions!
Robot Turtles Game, Thinkfun, $24.99
If you’re programming a robot or a computer to perform a task, you need to break it down step by step. My Computer Science 101 professor chose to illustrate this concept by forcing the class to describe every excruciating detail you’d need to program for a robot making fried eggs: First, tell the robot to walk to the refrigerator, then open the refrigerator door, then take out the eggs, then close the refrigerator door, then bring the eggs to the counter, then…
It’s a key concept in programming, but there’s definitely a less boring way to convey it, especially to smaller future programmers. That’s where Robot Turtles come in, with an ingenious game mechanic: they get to command an adult to move their turtles around the board, preferably with wacky sound effects. Definitely a better way of getting the job done.
Keva Contraptions 200 Plank Set, $49.99
How many things can you build just with identical wooden planks? A whole lot, apparently, and with this kit, it goes far beyond just constructing buildings (although those are super fun, too): with Contraptions, Keva structures go kinetic!
Kids can build ramps, funnels, chutes, and other structures to guide a ping-pong ball from top to bottom, and learn physics and engineering as they go along. The 18-page idea book gets them started, and from there, it’s time to invent. The satisfaction of building projects that really work is immeasurable – there’s always a “yay” at the end!
This is also a great toy for the family to play with together, or for multiple kids to share – there are plenty of blocks to go around, and the fun spans age groups. Build a Contraption with your older kid, and then let the littlest member of the family smash it down!
Goldieblox Craft-Struction Box, $39.99
Goldieblox toys have the same “yay” at the end, with a little more color and character, and very cute instructional videos:
As with Keva Contraptions, kids can learn all of the basic building principles by building the crafts in the instructional booklets, and then get inventive. After they’re done building the Bloxipede, the Leap Bot, the Spring Car, and the Extend-o-Flower, they can create their own inventions using these pieces and other bits and bobs from around the house – they’ll be digging into the recycling bin and combining in their other toys in no time! (And no, it isn’t just for girls: read the reviews of any Goldieblox product and you’ll find that lots of little boys are clamoring to get in on the fun too.)
Math Dice, Thinkfun, $7.99
Rote memorization is boring. Competing against your siblings and pals to see who has the quickest recall of addition, subtraction, and multiplication problems, though? Now THAT is an entertaining challenge!
This is a great alternative to drills and flash cards – it reminds me a bit of my favorite childhood computer game, Number Munchers, since it provides a similar motivation to memorize how all of those numbers interact. And since it’s a teeny-tiny game that can be played over a brief period, it’s also great to travel with – excellent for waiting rooms and airports!
Sum Swamp Addition + Subtraction Board Game, Learning Resources, $19.99
A similar concept, for even younger players: navigate through a tricky swamp by adding and subtracting! It’s fast-paced, and helps kids make the leap from counting on their fingers to mental math. You can also expand gameplay to multiplication and even fractions.
Once again, the competitive factor makes it fun, and adding a little adventure to it sure doesn’t hurt.
Didn’t find the STEM toy you were looking for here? Check out more of our top picks here, or jump to another category in our Holiday Gift Guide, which is loaded with other terrific toys to delight every kid on your list. Or if you’re truly stumped on the right present, just ask us – we can make great recommendations via live chat, phone, or email, or schedule a free one-on-one consultation to take the stress out of your holiday shopping! Our mission is to make your life easier, so don’t hesitate to ask.