‘Tis the Season of STEM

Image: Getty / Cardboard Holiday Robot

Smart Gifts, That I Did Not Get Paid To Review

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

Play is essential, as it gives plenty of opportunities for hands-on development of executive functioning, fine and gross motor skills, creativity, communication, socialization, and sensory processing. Well-designed toys open the door to general learning and can also target specific areas, including the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math.

To commemorate National STEM Day, which was celebrated on November 8th and in anticipation of the holiday season, I’ve curated a list of novel toys, games and kits that foster STEM learning through play. There are countless “educational products and gadgets” on the market, but not all are created equal. Here is a list of my favorites (out of 200 plus items sprawled out all over my office), broken down by age and price point to help you find the perfect gift on any budget. Key: $ = < $40, $$ = $40-$75, $$$ = $100+


Lower Elementary (Grades K-2)

Brackitz Pulleys 77-Pcs. Set

Young children can learn about simple machines with this kit that includes a crank, bucket, hooks, hubs, axles, and more. Emerging engineers can follow directions to build eight different contraptions or go off book for total creativity. $39.99 at Brackitz. ($)

Image: Brackitz Pulleys 77-Pcs. Set / Brackitz Education


Botley™ the Coding Robot

Screen-free coding for children? The designers of Botley™ have made it not only possible, but also fun. Kids use the coding cards and a remote control to input directions, then watch Botley™ follow their commands. The set also comes with activity pieces to build obstacle courses and tasks for a bigger challenge. $59.99 at Learning Resources. ($$)

Image: Botley™ the Coding Robot / Learning Resources


Magformers Sky Track Adventure 64-Pcs. Set

Magformers are magnetic blocks that click together to let your child build a track for a battery-operated space shuttle to travel. Your child can create a rollercoaster, have the shuttle use an elevator between tracks, and test out the 360-degree spinner as they learn about the laws of motion. $129.99 at Magformers. ($$$)

Image: Magformers Sky Track Adventure 64-Pcs. Set / Magformers®


Upper Elementary (Grades 3–5)

STEM at Play® BONES! Dissect Owl Pellets Kit

Bring ecology and veterinary science home with this owl pellet dissection kit. Your child will use included tools to pull apart real owl pellets to identify what owls eat. An included guide helps budding biologists identify animal bones and assemble their skeletons. $24.95 at ETA hand2mind. ($)

Image: STEM at Play® BONES! Dissect Owl Pellets Kit / ETA hand2mind


HUE Animation Studio

This clever kit comes with a flexible USB camera, a book about animation, and software to make it easy for your child to make her first stop-motion masterpiece. Explore the science of animation, or use the time-lapse feature of the camera to observe flowers blooming or snow crystals melting. $69.95 at HUE. ($$)

Image: HUE Animation Studio / HUE


Sensors Alive: Bring Physics to Life

This bioengineering video game uses a sensor to gather real data about temperature, sound and light levels in your home to create creatures adapted to live in these special circumstances. The game combines physics and biology in a unique way to spark imagination. $149.95 at Thames & Kosmos. ($$$)

Image: Sensors Alive Bring Physics to Life / Thames & Kosmos


Middle School (Grades 6–8)

Creation Crate Electronics 1.0

Learn to build small electronics and code them with a unique monthly project from Creation Crate. This subscription box brings computer science to your doorstep with a new project every month. $29.99 per month at Creation Crate. ($)

Image: Creation Crate Subscription Box / Creation Crate


Snap Circuits® Bric: Structures

Turn that LEGO collection into moving toys or well-lit skyscrapers with SNAP CIRCUITS® components. This kit comes with special adaptors that let kids add easy-to-use circuit boards to LEGO and other compatible bricks. $44.95 at Elenco. ($$)

Image: Snap Circuits® Bric: Structures / Elenco Electronics


Because Learning Sensor Kit

This technologically advanced electronics kit includes eight different sensors, including ones for UV light, an accelerometer, gyroscope and more. Young scientists can gather and analyze all kinds of data while exploring basic circuitry for a slew of cool experiments. $216 at Because Learning. ($$$)

Image: Because Learning Sensor Kit / Ardusat


High School (Grades 9–12)

STEM: Epic Heroes

This fast-paced card game has players racing to complete steps of the scientific method to make discoveries. Kids and adults will learn about famous scientists while trying to outwit each other with strategy. $20 at STEM: Epic Heroes. ($)

Image: STEM Epic Heroes / STEM the Game


Turing Tumble

Turing Tumble is an addictive game that makes coding concrete with simple switches and marbles. Users build systems to solve puzzles in the included comic book. With practice, you’ll be able to build a machine that creates patterns, solves problems, and more. $64.95 at Turing Tumble. ($$)

Image: Turing Tumble / Turing Tumble, LLC


Cue the Cleverbot

Older kids will love learning about AI by to coding their own robot. Chose from four customizable personalities and use your smartphone or tablet as the interface to teach Cue all kinds of interactive tricks. $199 at Wonder Workshop. ($$$)

Image: Cue the Cleverbot / Wonder Workshop


**Bonus Gift**

A little something for you…

Galton Board

The Galton Board is a mesmerizing desktop toy that demonstrates normal distribution in statistics. When you flip the board into motion, tiny steel balls fall randomly through a pin board, showing the beauty of the Bell Curve in real time. $49.99 at Galton Board. ($$)

Image: Galton Board / Four Pines Publishing


Whether you’re shopping for a confirmed science geek or just trying to provide some high-quality play time, STEM gifts open up a whole new world of possibilities for their recipients. You’re never too young — or too old! — to learn a new skill or make interesting discoveries about how things work, so be sure to spend time exploring these items alongside your child. Furthermore, you’ll get to spend some quality time together while modeling active, lifelong learning. By inviting your child to solve problems and tap into their creativity with STEM toys, you’ll be encouraging the flexible, higher-order thinking skills while making STEM concepts fun and accessible — and that’s a gift for a lifetime.

Image: Getty / Girl Holding LED‘s

This article was originally featured in Medium on November 15th, 2018.


Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg.

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”

The Rise Of The STEM Toy

Image: Shutterstock / Toy Assortment

STEM Toys Can Help All Students, But Are All STEM Toys Helpful?

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

While the subjects that comprise the acronym STEM aren’t new, grouping these subjects of study — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — into a pedagogical approach didn’t become a trend in educational circles in the early 2000s. Today, as the movement has gained momentum across the globe, more parents are taking action when faced with traditional curricula that don’t offer their children the kind of content and pedagogy that will best prepare them for a career of innovation and problem-solving. Some families are advocating for better courses or enrolling their children in extracurricular STEM programs, while others have turned to the marketplace to find the answer they seek.

That’s right: STEM toys. STEM toys have actually been around for several years now. As the New Yorker reported back in 2013, the industry was already welcoming an increase in STEM-related toys for almost a decade. According to data from a research firm on the toy industry, “Sales of building sets rose 22% from 2011 to 2012, from $1.63 billion to $1.99 billion; sales of scientific toys and educational toys, while a tiny fraction of overall toy sales, grew as well, by 17% and 25%, respectively.”

STEM Toys Can Help All Students, But Are All STEM Toys Helpful?

One trend that clearly stands out in the toy market: subscription services. Amazon’s STEM Toy Club, which launched in 2017, is perhaps the most visible major company to offer such an option, but the e-commerce juggernaut is not the only retailer that’s gotten involved with STEM toys. A recent piece in Retail Dive makes clear that several other large companies, including Walmart and Target, also offer STEM subscription services. The idea is simple: Parents pay a flat rate per month, and their children receive a different STEM toy or kit each month.

Subscriptions services are a great way to build curiosity and interest in STEM for kids who might not otherwise be interested. After all, who among us under age 12 would refuse a new toy in the mail each month? But as a product editor quoted in the RD article makes clear, it can be hard to tell if retailers are offering truly educational, engaging STEM toys or just trying to capitalize on the trend of STEM: “Amazon is actually late to the game,” Jennifer Stein said. “STEM has become a fabulous term for marketers to use because parents buy into it, but it has been around. For it to be effective, it needs to be used correctly.”

One can assume that most seasoned STEM educators couldn’t agree more.

What To Look For When Making A Selection

So, how can parents — and educators — determine which of the new crop of STEM toys are actually beneficial and which are just getting in on the trend of STEM? Tech firm Technavio, which released a report forecasting the growth predicted in the STEM toy industry, breaks down educational toys into three categories: academic, cognitive thinking and motor skills.

Solid academic toys include math and science kits, as well as language learning toys, and these toys should actively engage children in skill acquisition or application. In other words, children should not be passive observers — a good academic toy should require them to think, interact with and/or manipulate concepts and ideas.

Cognitive thinking toys for younger children can include puzzles and construction sets that require children to think logically and apply reason. Cognitive skill-building toys for older students include classics like the Rubik’s Cube, as well as more advanced construction sets from companies like LEGO, which require older students to apply concepts of both geometry and engineering.

Motor skill-building toys are a growing subset of STEM toys and primarily apply to the youngest of learners. Toddlers and preschoolers can benefit from workbench sets or even simple, well-designed building blocks, which allow young learners to develop the physical skills they need to move and manipulate objects.

Image: Getty / Students Building Electric Model Car

For parents who want to give their children additional opportunities to learn and practice STEM skills, quality STEM toys can be a great option. A growing market means that retailers are looking to capitalize on the opportunity, so it’s important to do your research and look for toys that offer dynamic, hands-on learning as opposed to just encouraging students to pretend to “do science.” While imagining a world in which they can grow up to be an engineer or a web designer is valuable, it’s most important that children actually get real-world experience by engaging in problem-solving as opposed to playing with something fun that just makes them look the part. After all, hard work can definitely feel like play, especially in the STEM fields, so look for toys that offer that sweet spot of rigor and joy, and watch your child’s interest in STEM take flight.

This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on May 29th, 2018.


Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…