Children are educational sponges. They’ll pick up whatever you throw at them, so it’s important to keep challenging them even from a young age. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) toys do just that—and provide fun along the way.
What to Look for in STEM Toys
No one group or organization owns and defines what makes a STEM toy. But the Toy Association, the American trade association for the U.S. Toy industry, has researched the topic heavily, and they make some reliable recommendations on what makes a good STEM toy.
- STEM/STEAM Focused: Obviously, the toy should focus heavily on Science, Technology, Education, or Math. Some toys may include Art (for STEAM) as part of the goal. A STEM toy might cover concepts like building bridges, learning to code, or even feature science experiences.
- Open-Ended Fun Play: It’s not a toy if it isn’t fun. So, especially for younger children, the more a STEM toy resembles a game your child might otherwise play, the better. STEM toys should also allow for trial and error, as that’s a fundamental aspect of the learning process.
- Real-World Grounding: Since STEM toys are typically physical, they should be grounded in real-world physics. A small truck your kid can push is merely a toy. A truck that teaches greater force yields more dramatic results, on the other hand, is a STEM toy.
- Age Targetting: Some manufacturers target specific age ranges for STEM Toys. It helps to know whether a toy is too advanced or simple for where your child is at right now.
Chances are, you have a good idea of what you want to accomplish with STEM toys. If you’re hoping your brilliant little child will grow up to work for Google or Microsoft, then start with something that teaches coding concepts, for instance. Use your best judgment on whether it looks likes fun then check the age-range.
Best for Toddlers: Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar Twist
For burgeoning young minds, the Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar Twist will hit several concepts, like problem-solving and elementary coding concepts.
Your child will turn dials on each segment of the “Code-a-Pillar,” and those dials will cause the toy to perform actions in a sequence. You can set up obstacles and paths and challenge your children to get the toy from point A to point B without crashing.
It’s a great start to fundamental coding concepts where each point in the code can influence, or even break, the next.
Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-pillar Twist, 3 - 6 years
If you want to instill basic coding and problem-solving skills at an early age, the Code-A-Pillar is a good choice. Children turn dials to create sequential action that causes the toy to navigate the room.
For Pre-Schoolers: Learning Resources Coding Critters
Coding Critters are like a more advanced Code-A-Pillar. It comes with several pieces, including a book, a “playset” (like a slide), a small animal toy, and a larger programmable animal toy.
Your child will read and interact with a story and use buttons to program actions into the toy (either a dog, dinosaur, or cat). The book walks them through steps to take to accomplish a task (like finding a friend who is hiding, etc.).
The programmable toy also has a “pet mode” to feed, pet, or even make the animal dance or sing.
Learning Resources Coding Critters Ranger & Zip, Screen-Free Early Coding Toy for Kids, Interactive STEM Coding Pet, 22 Piece Set, Ages 4+, Gifts for Boys and Girls
The Coding critters not only teach coding concepts but are useful for teaching the idea behind following instructions. Your children will read a companion book and program an animal to move the story along by playing hide-and-seek, fetch, or other fun activities.
For Engineering Concepts: Thames & Kosmos Structural Engineering: Bridges & Skyscrapers
Have you ever played a bridge-building simulator app? What if you could play that in real life? That’s precisely the idea behind this Structural Engineering set, which obviously hits on the Engineering section of STEM.
Suitable for children eight years and up, this set will teach your children concepts of stability, support, and sound building choices. They can either build bridges or skyscrapers. But of course, bridges are the real star since it won’t be long before you’re rolling four Hot Wheels toy cars across at once—for science, of course.
Thames & Kosmos Structural Engineering: Bridges & Skyscrapers | Science & Engineering Kit | Build 20 Models | Learn about Force, Load, Compression, Tension | Parents' Choice Gold Award Winner, Blue
Who hasn't built a bridge just to watch it collapse? Sure, you may have done it in a mobile game, but with this set, your children get true hands-on experience with their choices, good or bad. They'll learn a lot about building stable objects along the way.
Learning to Code: Kano Computer Kit Touch
If you want your children to learn more advanced coding concepts, look no further than Kano’s computer kits. The latest version mimics a tablet, including the touch screen. Your kids will “build” the tablet (though that mostly amounts to connecting components) to get started.
Once the system is up and running, they’ll work with programs like Scratch to learn coding fundamentals. Scratch is advanced enough to build simple games with, yet works of an intuitive drag and drop puzzle piece like system.
The best part is since the Kano Computer Kits have a Raspberry Pi for a brain, your child is getting a good “first computer” complete with browser and keyboard with touchpad. They can watch YouTube, compose songs, and even draw with the touchscreen. Maybe you can finally wean them off your personal iPad.
Build Your Own PC: Piper Computer Kit
While Kano veers more towards teaching your children software coding concepts, Piper excels at marrying software to hardware and getting the two to interact. Your children will “build a PC,” which includes constructing a case, connecting a Raspberry Pi, Speakers, and screen.
You’ll notice there’s no keyboard in this kit, and that’s because your child will also build a controller along the way using wires, switches, and the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins. The first time they connect to wires together to make a character in the story lessons move forward is a pretty big wow moment.
Though this set is more expensive than others out there, you do get a fully working computer out of it, including lessons based in Minecraft, a full Linux Operating System, and a browser. When it’s time to stop, the Piper kit even folds up like a laptop.
Piper Computer Kit: Award-Winning Build-A-Computer Age 8+ STEAM Learning, with Raspberry Pi, Google Blockly, StoryMode, Games, Python, and Amazing Projects!
If you want truly hands-on learning, the Piper Computer kit delivers. Your child will build a PC from parts, including the case enclosure and controller. Lessons teach concepts like GPIO pins, breadboards, and wiring switches.