In our Inventors’ Lab (a STEM enrichment class for age 3 – 7), most of the time, we try to plan projects using common everyday items like straws, pipe cleaners, Duplos, cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes and other items from the recycling bin. (Read more about our “Cardboard and Plastic Lids” philosophy here.) We want our projects to feel accessible, affordable, and like something that parents could easily replicate and extend with materials they have at home.
However, we do also bring in some specialty toys that are fun, unique, and illustrate concepts well that we can’t illustrate otherwise. For example, though it would be possible to build a conveyor belt, it would be tricky! So, we bought a toy one to illustrate how they work. In this post, I will collect a list of all these specialty items, and Amazon affiliate links to each one. Most of them are probably not toys I’d buy for one child to use at home (I prefer open-ended flexible toys to closed-ended single purpose toys.) But, they can be great supplements in a STEM classroom.
Simple Machines Toys
Pulleys. I think having a set of basic pulleys enables lots of fun science play – you can buy them from a hardware store or sporting goods store, or you can rig your own from an empty spool. Here’s a link to the ones we use in class: Rocari pulleys and with 1/4 or 3/8 inch nylon rope. You’ll need 20 – 25 feet of rope for a fixed pulley system, more if you want to do more complicated pulley set-ups.
Inclined Planes. When we study inclined planes, we bring in a toy Conveyor Belt, although technically it’s closer to a pulley in function than to an inclined plane. This is a great toy for the sensory table with popcorn kernels or rice, though they did clog it up from time to time. You shake it and rattle it around for a bit to clear it out.
Levers. For both this class, and our Build a House class, I want the kids to have a good quality sturdy toy hammer to play with. We’ve been happy with the one from Black and Decker. It’s stood up to LOTS of use with kids pounding wood golf tees into Styrofoam, and using the hammer’s claw to pull them back out again. Note: if you’re working with kids age 5 and up, you can just get real hammers! (Look for small ones.)
I also like this toy drill which allows you to drill plastic bolts into a plastic plate, and then reverse them out again. I bought it for my child. He didn’t use it enough to justify the cost. But with the kids in my class, it definitely gets used enough to be worth it. It’s quite popular in a class setting! (They also have a design and drill marble maze.)
Simple Machines sets
The Learning Resources Simple Machines Set is not a toy that your child will play with on their own for hours on end. But, what it’s good for is demos to a class – it’s quick, clean and easy demo of each machine. Caution, the activity cards that come with the set are not always clearly written, and not always scientifically reliable. For example, they ask: between the lightweight barrel and the heavy barrel, which one takes more rope to lift? This, of course, totally misses the point… they take the same amount of rope (i.e. distance pulled) to lift up to the same height. It’s the amount of effort that is different.
Duplo Early Simple Machines. I have a full review of this kit here. Quick summary is that it’s a great kit, with some really fun projects (some not as exciting), and some specialized pieces that I’m not sure you could find elsewhere. But it’s not really that specific to the simple machines concept, and it’s really pricey! ($150)
Other Engineering Related Toys
The KEVA Wrecking Ball was a lot of fun in our week where we built towers. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available. You can, of course, build your own wrecking ball / pendulum in many different ways, but this is a fun specialty toy that’s pretty cheap.
I absolutely LOVE marble runs (or ball runs, or marble mazes, whatever you want to call them – those things where you line up the tracks in a wide variety of ways and run a ball down them, then adjust the tracks and run it again to get the longest run, fastest run, most dramatic run, or whatever. We built a magnetic wall with PVC pipes, and I have the instructions plus lots of other ideas for simpler ways to build marble runs here. There’s tons and tons of pipe style marble runs on Amazon, lots for pretty low prices. Just search for marble run. One of my favorite sets is the Learning Resources Tumble Trax. You could use it on a refrigerator or other metal surface. We use an oil drip pan.
Contraptions week. Near the end of our Engineering unit, we study Rube Goldbergs. An essential item is domino chains. Although you can, of course, set them up manually, it’s also really fun to have something that sets them up automatically, like this Domino Train Toy Set. To be totally honest, re-loading the dominos into their cartridge is time-consuming, so as an adult, I could set my own domino chain faster than the train can do it, but it’s still fun.
A Microscope. For children 3 to 5, I would recommend a very basic microscope, such as the Kidzlane microscope (magnifies 8x)), or Learning Resources Viewscope (20x). They’re easy to use and pretty sturdy. They’re about the same strength as a magnifying glass, so good at looking at things like rocks, shells, and seeds. You could also try a digital microscope – easy for little ones to learn to use.
For elementary age children, I liked My First Lab Mini-Duo Scope. It has three levels of magnification – a 10x eyepiece means that the lens function as 4x = 40 times bigger, 10x = 100, 40x = 400. It was pretty easy to use and focus. We bought prepared slides to use with the microscope.
Solar System Model. I don’t know if this counts as a toy, because it’s not really up to a lot of hands-on play from children, but, when teaching the solar system, I find that having an orrery is a very effective teaching tool. A cheap DIY one is this Solar System Planetarium.
Lunar and Mars Rovers. For space travel week, we fill the sensory bin with sand and add these: Hot Wheels Mars Rover Curiosity; Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Pack and the Daron Lunar Rover Playset. Learn more about them in my post on Mars Rover Toys.
Wind Tube. Although you can buy wind tubes, they tend to be quite expensive, so we built our own Wind Tube, based on directions from the Exploratorium. It’s a clear tube mounted above a fan. When you place really lightweight things in the tube, like a scarf, they blow right out the top. If you place a heavy thing, it sits on the fan. The most fun are the mid-weight items – the plastic ball that’s too heavy to float, but will roll round and round in circles on the fan, or the paper cup that will float a few feet up but never quite escape the tube. It’s a great deal of fun to play with for everyone from toddlers to adults. See videos of the tube in action: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2015/02/02/wind-tube/
Electricity: I really like littleBits, and they are easy for children as young as 4 to click together and explore different configurations. They used to be stupidly expensive, but the price has started to come down. (Learn more about them in my Electricity post.)
I also have a set of Snap Circuits Kit, which are much more affordable. My husband also thinks they do a better idea of really illustrating how circuits work. However, they take a lot more fine motor skill and finger strength than a 3 or 4 year old child has, so they’re not as good of a fit for my class.
I have a more detailed review of Snap Circuits and littleBits here. That post includes some simplified instructions I created for Snap Circuits – I thought their instructions were hard for young children to follow, so I re-designed my own.
Periscopes – I think binoculars and magnifying glasses should be a part of every child’s resources at home. Telescopes are fun, but since I live in the Seattle metro area, with all its clouds and ambient light, I’ve never felt the need to invest in one. For our class on submarines, we put out two different periscopes for kids: one is similar the Hape Periscope and the Elenco Adjustable Periscope. The Elenco is much cooler because it’s much bigger, but the Hape is more manageable for the three to five year old’s motor skills.
Robots – A few years ago, we researched lots of toy robots, and bought a few (see my full Robot Review here.) The crab shaped Table Top Robot is cheap but entertaining. My favorite is the programmable Code & Go Robot Mouse.
Useful, fun, not really educational, but cheap toy
A Balloon Pump is terribly useful if you have lots of balloons to blow up – much easier on your lungs. But, it’s also tons of fun for small children – so easy to blow up a balloon, let it go and fly/splutter across the room. And repeat. For hours. We also use it to create wind to blow things around.
What are your favorite unique specialty toys that you use in a STEM context? Please share ideas in the comments!