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 Club: Monthly 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).
DIY science kits
If you’re not interested in spending big bucks, make your own kits for the cost of materials. You’ll find free directions from:
- Scientific American: The site publishes a new “Bring Science Home” project each Thursday (ages 6-12 with adult help). Past projects include a paper rocket, a homemade compass, craters with mini meteors, cucumber chemistry, waves, plant seed dispersal and popsicle trusses.
- Instructables: Dozens and dozens of free project instructions, including beetle dissecting and mounting, a DIY potato clock, LED wave display, Halloween projects for science lovers, magnetic slime and a simple mag-lev train.
- Make: Maker Media has tutorials for projects like tracking night-launched projectiles with LEDs, making a cosmic ray detector and creating a mint tin backpacking stove. Recommended ages are not given. Projects are rated by difficulty and time required.
- Snap Circuits: These products and kits teach electronics by supplying parts and instructions for building equipment like FM radios, digital voice recorders, AM radios, burglar alarms and doorbells, says the maker, Elenco. Kits and parts run from $15 to $200 and up. (Ages 8 and up).
- Chibitronics Chibi Lights Circuit Stickers let kids build electronic circuits with no soldering or plugging wires or clips. Conductive-tape stickers are used to build interactive craft projects. Starter kit is $30.
- Code Master Programming Logic Game makes it fun to learn programming logic. $29. (Ages 8 and up).
Construction toys are super gifts for keeping boys and girls occupied for hours while teaching them problem-solving and spatial thinking:
- LEGO Ultimate Building Set: The popular classic with 405 pieces. $135. (Ages 4-12).
- Magna-Tiles: Construction toys for the younger set. $120. (Ages 2-12).
- Mega Bloks First Builders Big Building Bag, 80-Piece Classic set: These early-learning toys get the littlest kids into construction. (Ages 1-2 1/2)
- Tinkertoy 100 Piece Essentials Value Set: This is another classic toy that has entertained generations and serves the STEM objectives. $30. (Ages 3 and up).
Tips for grownups
Some kids, depending on the toy and their ages, will take a toy and run with it. For many, though, the road to enjoying science and math starts with a friendly, interested grownup who’s willing to simply watch or lend a hand as needed. Let the kid do the playing and tell you what’s needed.
Do a little research. Before buying a toy, research it online by reading product reviews from several sources. Toy expert Auerbach tells what to look for in a toy.
If you want more ideas for STEM toys, here are some of the sources we drew from: Modern Parents Messy Kids’ Best Toys for Building & Construction and Best Toys For Building S.T.E.M Skills; Parents’ Choice Foundation’s Parents’ Choice Awards and Daily Dot.