In recent years there has been a renewed emphasis on teaching our kids science, technology, engineering, and math in the classroom, but also at home, through gifts that inspire STEM learning. As a former classroom teacher and mom of two elementary-aged children, I’m a big fan of teaching my kids through hands-on experiences provided by interactive toys that make learning fun, and also further develop their abilities to problem solve through questioning. STEM products are designed to entice kids into learning more about these subjects, develop their natural curiosity, and make them rely on their spatial abilities, critical thinking skills, logic, and reasoning.
With so many toys on the market claiming to promote STEM subjects, the best ones promote learning in a natural way and also come at a variety of price points. An old computer that your kids dissect on the kitchen table is budget friendly because it’s free. Apps for under $5 that can be put on a tablet for learning on the go can also be fun, affordable learning tools. But, there are also pricier complex circuit sets to teach wiring that are well worth the money.
Over the years we’ve purchased a variety of gifts for our kids to inspire their STEM learning and here some our favorites, along with those that I have my eye on as potential gifts for this holiday season.
Gifts to inspire STEM learning in kids — that fit every budget 1 of 11
These gifts are fun AND help your kids learn...
Dismantle an old computer to understand how it works 2 of 11
Have you ever looked inside a broken computer? It's fascinating! One of the best ways to develop curiosity about how things work is to take them apart. My mother-in-law used to give my husband broken radios when he was a kid so he could take them apart. Now our kids love taking tiny screwdrivers to broken computers to find treasures such as the power supply, graphic cards, mother board, fan, and hard drive. The entire process provides a look inside a machine that they use constantly and the components that make them work. So next time you see a broken hard drive sitting on your neighbor's curb on trash day, knock on your their door to ask if you can take it home. Depending on the age of your kids, it can be a family project that will provide an afternoon of fun for your kids while developing a new understanding and curiosity. Just be sure that your kids know not to dismantle any working computers after they've had the experience of taking a broken one apart!
Teach kids basic computer programming 3 of 11
Sometimes if you load an app on to a mobile device or tablet and just let kids find it on their own, they'll be more inclined to play with it than if you point it out. One great app that they'll want to discover quickly is LeapFrog's My Robot Friend App. The goal is to program the robot to move through a path. It starts out easy but progresses with each task completed and can become addictive, but in a good way! Ages 6 and up can use this interactive app to learn basic computer programming at a young age, and parents everywhere rejoice that this app does not feature any in-app purchases. Hooray!
Price: $3.99 from iTunes.
Image courtesy of LeapFrog
Rube Goldberg for girls 4 of 11
The goal of GoldieBlox is to keep girls building. Sure, girls are interested in building toys like Legos, but the founders say only up to about age 8, where they tend to lose interest in the subject. Sold in sets, girls can start out with sets like GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine to teach how spinning belts work and then mix and match items with other sets to form endless new creations for open-ended play that requires creativity and problem solving. If GoldieBlox sounds familiar, you may have heard the controversy over their parody of the Beastie Boys' song, "Girls," before it was pulled because the band forbid the use of their songs as a marketing material. Regardless, GoldieBlox's innovative products caught my attention long before the song controversy.
Price: Sets are $19.99-$29.99 and available through GoldieBlox.com.
Image courtesy of GoldieBlox.
Wire your own dollhouse 5 of 11
Gone are the days of just playing house with your dolls, thanks to two female engineers with backgrounds from Cal Tech, MIT, and Stanford who have changed dollhouses forever with Roominate. Roominate kits empower girls to create their own mini rooms and buildings using modular building pieces to construct the necessary furnishings, but also create circuits to wire a fan, elevator, merry-go-round, and plane propeller for possibly the coolest dollhouse yet!
Image courtesy of Roominate.
Get acquainted with space science 6 of 11
There's nothing quite like stargazing on a clear night, and standing under a dark curtain punctuated with twinkling stars to make kids want to learn about space. National Geographic's Space Exploration Kit is an affordable comprehensive kit that provides a wealth of materials for kids to learn about outer space, such as balloons and chemicals to launch rockets and teach about rocket propulsion, materials to build a telescope and star map to explore the constellations, and a build-your-own solar system model to learn about the rotation of the Earth. Children can also learn about eclipses, how craters of the moon were made, and how the Earth's rotation creates day, night, and the seasons we experience.
Price: $34.95 from NationalGeographic.com.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.
Get an inside look at how things work 7 of 11
For kids who love to build and see how things work, Smithsonian Motor Works provides an opportunity to build a combustion engine. Budding engineers can learn how parts like spark plugs, valves, pistons, belts, and the fan fit together to make an engine run. It's a great accomplishment for children ages 8 and older to see their hard work pay off with a working engine. Our son received this as a gift when he was 6, and since it is a complex gift, it is recommended for older ages unless parents work with their child to put it together.
Price: Available from Amazon for $36.58.
Image courtesy of Amazon.
Teach the youngest ages about building with geometrical shapes 8 of 11
The family with the giant bin of MagnaTiles was always the most popular host for group playdates when our kids were little. Candy colored tiles with magnetic sides in the shape of squares and equilateral and isosceles triangles make for fun building for ages 3 and up. Lay them flat or build them up. The possibilities are endless as kids learn about building with geometric structures.
Price: MagnaTiles Clear Colors 32 piece set is $51.50 from MagnaTiles.com
Image courtesy of MagnaTiles.
Introduce to circuits in a safe way 9 of 11
The beauty of Little Bits is that the 10 pieces that come in the Base Kit are color coded so kids can easily snap them together right out of the box to make their very first circuit in no time flat. Magnetic connections ensure a safe and reliable connection every time whether you're a beginner, expert at reconfiguring the 10 pieces into the 150,000 possible combinations, or are adding additional modules or accessories to make your own creations.
We opened the Basic Set tonight and within minutes, our kids had created working buzzers, had figured out how to wire a light to a dimmer switch, and had attached a paper airplane to the DC motor to make it spin. I already have my eye on The Synth Kit and am tempted to pre-order it for my young music lover to make his own synthesizer!
Price: $99 for the Base Kit from Little Bitts.
Image courtesy of Little Bits.
Learn more about circuitry 10 of 11
Expand knowledge in circuitry with endless kits from SnapCircuits. Affordably priced kits begin at less than $15 to make a flying saucer and musical recorder using items like snap wires, slide switch, resistor, microphone, and capacitors. Our kids started out with a basic set and have since received additional ones with more components that have gotten more complex to match their age and abilities. One gift of Snap Circuits means that you can always add on sets like the Alternative Energy Kit and the RC Rover as possible future gifts to keep the learning going as they want to learn more complex circuitry.
Price: Begins at $14.99 for Snap Circuits Flying Saucer via Amazon
Image courtesy of Amazon.com
Engage in family learning at a science museum 11 of 11
An annual family membership to a local science museum makes for a wonderful gift for kids of all ages. The best way to find area museums is to visit the Association of Science Technology Centers website and search by state or city to find one near you or a relative to whom you might want to gift a membership to. Besides the great in-person learning that can be done at local museums, memberships to museums are often tax deductible. Also, museums offer reciprocity at affiliate organizations, allowing you to travel to another city and visit one there for free.
Price: Cost varies according to science center or museum
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