It’s All the Rage: Toys That Bolster Kids’ STEM Abilities

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Here are fun gifts that encourage kids to explore science, technology, engineering and math -- and could pique their interest in a career in one of these lucrative and critical fields. (It's never too early to start!)

Dear Santa Claus: Bring STEM gifts. Sincerely, Mom and Dad.

STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is the mantra of the moment among American educators. Explains LiveScience:

What separates STEM from the traditional science and math education is the blended learning environment and showing students how the scientific method can be applied to everyday life. It teaches students computational thinking and focuses on the real world applications of problem solving.

The mantra is also shorthand for the effort, by parents, business leaders, government and others, to help American kids grow into a future sure to be defined by research, invention and the quest for solutions to thorny problems like climate change, hunger and disease.

Although STEM careers are among the most fulfilling and lucrative, few American students are drawn to them and too few young teachers with STEM skills are in the pipeline, says the U.S. Department of Education.

That’s why toys that introduce or build STEM skills — and make them fun — are hot this year.

STEM toys for girls

Toys aimed at interesting girls in science and math are especially big. Girls are in the cross hairs of the movement because so few enter STEM fields. Among other things, STEM toymakers are trying to give these traditionally male-dominated subjects a cooler vibe for girls (and counter messages like the ones from Teen Talk Barbie’s “math class is tough” and Forever 21’s 2011 “Allergic to Algebra” T-shirt).

A few STEM toys aimed at girls:

  • GoldieBlox: Kits and action figures bring pink-and-purple girly attitude to construction toys. $10-$60. (Ages 4-6 and up).
  • Ruby Rails: This action figure — smart, into fashion, African American and a skydiver — is named after Ruby on Rails, the Web application framework. $25. (Ages 4-6 and up).
  • GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine: Construction toys  are bundled with storybooks starring Goldie, a girl who loves learning and engineering.
  • Tinkertoy Pink Building Set: The venerable brand gets into the act with this set of 150 plastic components. $36. (Ages 3 and up).
  • Lincoln Logs: The brand that launched many an engineering career now has a pink-themed Little Prairie Farmhouse Building Set with 115 pieces, including logs, figures and accessories like a pony with a pink mane. $28.  (Ages 3 and up).
  • Roominate: Building kits in bright, friendly colors allow kids to wire their creations to include lights and moving parts. Roominate’s 121-piece Townhouse Play Set, for example, includes a battery pack, circuits, modular building pieces, connectors, columns, wheels, axles, motor, screwdriver and instructions for wiring rooms for amenities like lights, a doorbell, a fan or an elevator that can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet app. $40.  (Ages 6-12 and up).

Subscription science kits 

Mail-order science projects are a time-honored way to ignite a kid’s interest and keep the fun coming after the holidays are over. 

These kits provide hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics experiments that “facilitate thinking, questioning, inquiring, and original creation to guide children through scientific inquiry and [the] engineering design process,” says Stevanne (aka Dr. Toy) Auerbach, in her guide to best gifts to launch STEM learning:

  • Spangler Science Club: Former teacher Steve Spangler’s kits include two instruction guides – one for the young scientist and a “top-secret document for the adult science helper.” Themes include kitchen chemistry, the power of air, science magic and bubbling potions. Good for science-fair projects. $30 a month. (Grades K-6).
  • Genius Box: Includes three or more projects around a monthly theme — such as earth science, polymers and gravity. $25 each for one month, $24 each for three months, $23 each for six months. (Ages 8-11).
  • The Young Scientists ClubMonthly or twice-monthly kits include materials like chromatography paper, owl pellet, minerals, magnets, mirrors, thermometers, rulers, pH paper and brine shrimp. Thirty-six topics include recycling, scientific measurements, magnets, weather, surface tension, owls, stars, polymers and planets. Comes with eight-to-16-page manuals for children and separate instructions for adults (no science background required) $11.99 each plus shipping and handling. (Ages 5-12).
  • Clifford Big Red Dog Science Kits: These are also Young Scientists Club products, based on the exploits of the storybook pooch. $33 per kit. (Ages 3-10).
  • Green Kid Crafts Discovery Box: Monthly deliveries teach science and art. Themes include ocean science, space, safari and music. $18-$20 a month, shipping included. (Ages 3-10).

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