Since I teach STE(A)M enrichment classes for kids, I often get asked “what are the best STEM learning toys for kids?” Here is my STEM Gift Guide for 2020 with some great ideas, from marble runs to building toys, pulleys to tools, electronics and robots, sensory play, games, books and experiences. All have been play-tested in my class by over 100 kids, boys and girls, science-minded and not, age 3, 4, 5, and 6.
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. These are one of the best possible engineering toys for learning the tinkering mentality, while also learning about gravity and inclined planes. I have instructions for how to build one with pipes plus ideas for simpler ways to build DIY marble runs here.
For commercial items, one of my favorite sets is the Tumble Trax. (Watch a video of it here.) You could use it on a refrigerator or other metal surface. We use an oil drip pan for this and other magnet play. There’s tons and tons of plastic pipe style marble runs on Amazon. Just search for marble run. If you prefer wood toys, check out Bamboo Builder.
There are so many fabulous building tools to choose from. I am blessed to have access to many options at my teaching sites and in my home stash. We use Tinker Toys when we study levers, we use gears on wheel week, K’nex for Simple Machines, a KEVA Wrecking Ball and Keva blocks on towers week, Crystal Climbers and Magna-Tiles when we study light and shadows (note, Playmags are much cheaper than Magna-Tiles, but I haven’t had a chance to compare quality), Lincoln Logs on House week, and Zoob on Skeleton week, and probably others I’m forgetting!
We also use lots of other things to build with – just get creative: plastic Solo cups, plastic shot glasses, straws and pipe cleaners, toilet paper tubes and cardboard, gum drops and toothpicks, raw spaghetti and marshmallows, sugar cubes, cereal boxes, PVC pipes, rolled up newspapers, binder clips and craft sticks and more. (Check out our Building Structures lesson plan.)
But if I had to choose only one building toy, it would be Lego / Duplo hands down. It’s the most versatile, high quality, modular building set there is. For a gift for a 3 – 4 year old, you can never go wrong with a basic Duplo set. For a 5 – 6 year old, choose basic Legos.
Having a set of basic pulleys enables lots of fun science play (learn about Pulleys here) – you can buy them from a hardware store or sporting goods store, or you can rig your own from an empty spool. In class, we use the Block & Tackle Pulley Kit and outdoors on the playground, we use these pulleys with this rope – either 1/4 inch or 3/8 inch.
For a 3 – 4 year old, I LOVE the play tools from Black and Decker. We’ve used their toy hammers to hammer golf tees into styrofoam blocks, pumpkins, and the foam insulation we use for our Build a House project. For 5 – 6 year olds, consider buying real tools – a small hammer, a hand drill, sand paper, screwdrivers, and wrenches, and give them real scrap materials to work with. (See if there’s an Adventure Playground in your area!) If you spend a lot of time cooking, get them real kitchen tools that they can use. If you garden, get gardening tools… whatever you do, they want to join in, so make it possible for them to do so by having kid-size, kid-safe, useful tools.
And just for fun, try these Rolobox Wheels that attach to any cardboard box to turn it into a wagon.
Science Toys and Tools
Electronics and Robots
For elementary age kids, ages 5+, for learning about electric circuits, the best balance of affordable price and quality toy is Snap Circuits. Read my review here, which compares them with littleBits. For 2 – 3 year olds, check out Start-Up Circuits. (I haven’t had the chance to test it yet.)
I reviewed several robots last year, on my own quest for a good present for a 6 year old. The family favorite for initial fun was Sphero, but my favorite for long-term learning was the Code and Go Robot Mouse.
For preschool age 3 – 4 year olds, I would focus a lot on sensory play: Water toys, like water wheels, scoops, pumps. Sensory bins – a big plastic tub full of rice, or beans, or popcorn kernels or sand that kids can pour, scoop, dig, and bury things under plus fun tools to use with the materials (learn about our conveyor belt and grain auger in this post on Specialty Toys We Use in our STEM class). Check out The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Tables, and The Ultimate Guide to Water Tables.
Play-dough is fabulous for developing small motor skills and hand strength. I make all my own play-dough. Here’s the recipe. Play-dough can be combined with so many kinds of tools: pizza cutter, garlic press, rolling pins, cookie cutters and more.
Also, be sure they have musical instruments to play with, especially rhythm instruments. (Learn more about how music helps kids learn STEM.)
Board Games and Activity Sets
For sheer board game joy, I have a variety of favorite games, which I’ll write about someday. For now, here are some board games and learning games which are fun tie-ins to a full lesson plan on a STEM topic. So, here’s the games plus links to the related lesson plan on that topic:
- Towers – Rhino Hero and Jenga
- Contraptions – Roller Coaster Challenge and Mouse Trap
- Robots – Robot Turtles.
- Electricity – Operation
- Simple Machines – Simple Machines DUPLO and Learning Resources Simple Machines
- Light and Shadow – Laser Maze
- Chemistry – Dr. Eureka
- Sink and Float – Battleship
Here’s where to find my most recommended Books about Inventors and Makers and here are lists of all the books we use in our classes: 100 books on Engineering and Simple Machines, 100 books on science and 100 books on biology.
I rarely buy books, but we do check out over 400 books a year from our local library! If you give a book to a child, consider also giving the parent a list of other great books that they could check out at their local library. (And make sure they know about library story time!)
I don’t really buy a lot of toys for my own kids. (Read my thoughts on “how many toys are enough” for recommendations on how to choose the toys you DO buy.) I generally prefer experiences – times where we get the opportunity to learn and explore together.
At the bottom of my 2018 Gift Guide, I provided links to, and information about children’s museums, science museums and zoos, plus junior ranger programs at national parks. I realize that in 2020 pandemic, many of these options may not be available to you. But I encourage you to check out that post to learn more.
The Great Outdoors
There’s so much science to be learned just by playing outside or as you walk to school. Here’s a long post, compiling all the benefits of letting your kids play outside. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, here’s a guide to learning about native plants. Here’s a guide to Staying Connected to the Outdoors During Coronavirus.
Science and Engineering with Found Materials
Read my post on “the cardboard and plastic lid aesthetic” for my thoughts on the benefits of using simple free materials in your experiments. And this entire blog is filled with ideas for hands-on, easy, cheap science, technology, engineering, and math activities you can use with materials you already own! For more ideas, check out any of these books (links take you to my book reviews): Tinkerlab, Curious Kid’s Science Book, Big Science for Little People, 101 Coolest Simple Science Experiments, or the other ideas listed on my Resources page.
If you have other great STE(A)M toys you recommend that I haven’t included, please share them in the comments!
Note: This page includes Amazon Affiliate links. If you click on those and then purchase anything on Amazon, I get a small portion of the proceeds, which I use to support my work on this blog. It doesn’t cost you any extra if you use these links. I also include links to lots of my other posts, in case you’re interested in learning more about how to teach STE(A)M concepts to kids with fun, easy, cheap activities.