Parents often find it challenging to buy just the right holiday gifts for their children. Toymakers are increasingly encouraging parents to consider education-related toys, especially STEM toys, when they are drafting their holiday gift lists. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and technology. Before discussing a few STEM-related toys you might want to consider this holiday season, I need to let you know not everyone believes such toys are of great benefit. Patrick A. Coleman (@PatrickAColeman) writes, “Toy companies have been flocking to STEM as a marketing tool to capture results-oriented parents who’d like play to be as academically useful as it is fun. But here’s the problem: While the popularity around STEM toys is skyrocketing, the research around their efficacy is lagging behind sales. So while toy companies are happy to promote a toy linked to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, there’s little evidence to suggest the toy is good at teaching a child anything about those subjects.”
Coleman argues, “STEM toymakers claim that their devices will help kids learn coding or electrical engineering. Other’s claim to speed up the progress of math and science literacy. The problem is that there are no high-quality studies following a group of children who use such toys over a period of time that would lend credence to those claims.” He may be correct. He may also miss the point that piquing a child’s interest in STEM may be more important than teaching them a particular skill. I could also point out that toys have been used for generations to help children learn numbers, letters, colors, animals, and so forth. He does make one other important point: Toys marketed as STEM-oriented are expensive. He writes, “Toy manufacturers that differentiate their toys as being specialized for STEM can charge more for that specialization. Moreover, if a toy is app-enabled, uses artificial intelligence or is otherwise integrated to the internet or the cloud, manufacturers will ask a premium price for the cutting edge tech.”
It comes as no surprise that The Toy Association is pushing back at arguments like those Coleman presents. Ken Seiter (@independenceken), Toy Association executive vice president of marketing communications, asserts their research concludes STEM or STEAM (the “A” stands for art) can help children learn. He states, ” The Association is proud to be at the forefront of this important discussion with new research-based guidelines to help companies develop and market STEM/STEAM products that enhance kids’ learning and provide support to parents looking to foster these skills.” He adds, “Our research indicates that 67 percent of parents believe that STEM/STEAM-focused toys are the primary way to encourage science and math development in young children. We have now identified best practices toy companies can follow to create these toys and that parents can use as a guide when selecting them for their kids.” Coleman would probably argue there is a reality gap between what “parents believe” and actual evidence that STEM toys promote learning. You can read the Association’s report by clicking on this link. According to the report, a great STEM/STEAM toy has fourteen unifying characteristics. They are:
1. Explores and aspect of STEM
2. Is fun
3. Is open-ended
4. Relates to the real world
5. Allows for trial & error
6. Is hands-ons
7. Is child-led
8. Is problem-solving
9. Includes curriculum
10. Is gender neutral and inclusive
11. Supports parents
12. Builds confidence
13. Encourages creativity
14. Promotes social and emotional skills
Those are good guidelines for teaching STEM in school as well as for developing toys. I believe in a hands-on, project-based, problem-solving approach to STEM education. That is why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — a project-based, problem-solving approach to STEM education helping schools near where we live demonstrate to students that STEM subjects can be fun and applicable in their lives. With that said, let’s look at some toys you might want to consider buying this holiday season.
STEM Toys under $50
Viahart Brain Flakes. ($20) The PopSci Commerce Team writes, “Although it may sound like a twisted breakfast cereal, the Viahart Brain Flakes are actually a unique spin on the construction toy. Containing 500 interconnected, multicolored discs, the Brain Flakes push children to think about basic engineering techniques as they manipulate the round bricks to build everything from vehicles to unicorns. Completely child safe for children as young as three (the plastic pieces are BPA free), it’s one of the simplest and best toys because it requires literally no set-up. Just dump out the pieces and have at it.”
The IQ Builder Fun Educational Building Toy Set. ($25) Christopher McFadden writes, “The IQ Builder Fun Educational Building Toy Set does exactly what it says on the box. This fun little STEM learning kit includes all the components needed to help children learn about STEM in a fun and challenging manner. By playing with this toy, children will learn about some basic STEM concepts and improve their general cognitive abilities at the same time. It is a great science toy to purchase for your children or even as a gift.”
Dan & Darci Light-Up Terrarium. ($27) The PopSci Commerce Team writes, “Let’s not forget Mother Earth in our science education. This garden in a jar is a great way to get kids thinking about the environment and biology. The set comes with everything you need to get going immediately: A 4 x 6-inch light-up jar, a micro-USB charging cable, vermiculite soil, sand, river rocks, wooden sticks, and wheatgrass and chia seeds. There are also bunny and mushroom miniatures and removable stickers to add a playful element to the whole thing.”
ThinkFun Gravity Maze. ($30) The PopSci Commerce Team writes, “A combination logic game and STEM toy, the Gravity Maze challenges kids to build small marble runs using colorful magnetic bricks. With these simple pieces, they can construct nearly endless maze run variations, each one relying on their spatial reasoning and basic engineering skills.”
Primary Science Lab Set. ($30) According to McFadden, “The Primary Science Lab Set, produced by Learning Resources, is a great introduction to the wonderful world of science. It comes complete with some basic lab equipment from a beaker, magnifying glass and test tubes to goggles and other cool tools. This STEM kit comes with an easy to follow activity guide for entertaining children whilst they learn some basic scientific principles. It is aimed at children between the ages of 4 and 6.”
Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 Electronics Exploration Kit. ($35) The PopSci Commerce Team writes, “A great way to get kids into electrical engineering and coding, the Snap Circuit Jr. encourages them to build functional electronics like a flashing light, siren (mercifully, it’s volume-adjustable), photosensor, and up to 30 other devices. The box comes with a clear motherboard, colorful circuits, and an instruction manual. The best part is that the system can grow in complexity — there are add-on pieces available — as your kids get older, giving you years of educational play.”
LEGO Technic Racing Yacht 42074 Building Kit. ($35) The PopSci Commerce Team writes, “Your kids are likely going to have a Pavlovian response to the LEGO logo no matter what, so you may as well use it for good. The Technic line is designed to be more complex and to help kids think more spatially and with more of an eye toward engineering rather than just rushing to build an X-Wing. This 330-piece catamaran has gears that activate functional rudders and sails, and each of the pieces is fully compatible with any other LEGO kit. It’s educational on the sly, while also offering a slightly more mature LEGO experience for older kids (and adults).”
The Magical School Bus Engineering Lab. ($40) McFadden writes, “The Magical School Bus Engineering Lab is a great little STEM learning kit from the creators of one of the most popular children’s educational cartoons of all time. With this fun STEM kit, children will be introduced to some fundamental principles of engineering in a fun and entertaining way. The kit is aimed at children between the ages of 5 and 8 but is appropriate for older children and young teenagers. It contains 33 experiments and includes all the necessary components needed to complete some chemical, electrical, mechanical and civil engineering projects.”
GeoSafari Jr. Talking Telescope. ($50) McFadden writes, “The GeoSafari Jr. Talking Telescope, from Educational Insights, is a great little STEM learning toy for children of all ages. This toy is ideal for teaching children about the wonders of outer space and the universe. The toy is used to show children photographs that they view through the toy’s scope. It includes 24 incredible photographs of space objects and teaches children some fascinating facts as they look at the images. It even comes complete with a quiz mode to reinforce what they have learned. The STEM toy is also very portable so they can continue their learning outside of the house.”
More pricey options
Evo Educator Entry Kit. ($100) McFadden writes, “The Evo App-Connected Coding Robot is a great little STEM kit to help children learn and improve their skills. This little robot will help children get to grips with the basics of robotics and coding. It has been developed by Ozobot and can be played with right out of the box. It’s aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 12 but might be fun for younger children and older teenagers too. Kids start by moving their Evo using markers on paper, and then learn to control it by solving brain teasers, playing free app games, and doing other STEM projects.”
evive Starter Kit. ($350) According to McFadden, “STEMpedia’s Starter package is a great little STEM learning kit for children. It, according to STEMpedia, is a comprehensive package consisting of futuristic hardware for easy and efficient DIYing, Scratch-based graphical programming interface, a mobile application for easy project-making and control, and online courses on electronics, programming, and robotics. It comes packed with all the components needed to complete various tasks within its ‘Young Maker’s Guide’. This kit might be the only one you ever need to buy to teach your children some STEM basics in a fun and entertaining way.”
The PopSci Commerce Team concludes, “Getting children interested in these core sciences has become increasingly important as future careers and everyday life revolve more and more around technology. So getting them started early, and keeping their interest going, has become a priority for many parents.” McFadden adds, “The best STEM toys are those that teach your children something practical about any of the subjects under the banner of STEM. … The best ones on the market are those that engage children in hands-on learning experiences and if they can involve the rest of the family, the more, the merrier. At the end of the day, which ones are the best will be a very personal choice.”
 Patrick A. Coleman, “5 Harsh Truths About STEM Toys,” Yahoo Lifestyle, 5 August 2019.
 Cision PR Newswire, “What Makes a Good STEM/STEAM Toy?” Yahoo Finance, 21 May 2019.
 PopSci Commerce Team, “STEM toys that feel more like fun than homework,” Popular Science, 12 November 2019.
 Christopher McFadden, “7 Great Kits for Your Children to Improve Their STEM Skills,” Interesting Engineering, 1 June 2019.