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- STEM toys are not only enjoyable to play with, but can teach skills that will help kids excel in careers later in life.
- Many STEM toys lead to development of more than one ability, honing skills in mathematics, logic, problem solving, and more.
- The LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox is our top pick because it helps a child develop everything from fine motor skills to a familiarity with coding and robotics.
This is going to sound a bit crazy, I know, but my son has every single toy on this list. The crazy thing is he’s not spoiled – he’s just enamored with robotics, coding, building, and generally making things. Already at age five, he has decided he wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up, and it won’t surprise me one bit if he stays on that course. I have no idea where his prowess for computing and engineering comes from, by the way, but it certainly wasn’t me.
Considering STEM toys help kids develop the skills they will need to excel in the jobs of the future, I’m all for letting children play with programmable robots, DIY computers, electrical motors and circuit sets, and any other hardware that fosters such abilities. There’s just one caveat I always assign: The toy also has to be genuinely fun. The ones I included here? They are. And I should know, because we’ve had some duds, too.
The secret to getting the right STEM toy (that’s the acronym for Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering) is to choose one with an angle your child already enjoys. Got a daughter who loves building things, say out of intricate, colorful little plastic blocks? Then a LEGO STEM toy is perfect. Got a son who is car crazy? Then a kit that lets him build little working vehicles will be a hit.
Because don’t get me wrong, many of the toys on this list present genuine challenges that require dedicated effort, critical thinking, and the investment of time to overcome. If you choose the wrong toy, you risk driving your child away from STEM activities rather than helping him or her to develop an affinity.
And of course, make sure you get a toy that is age appropriate for your kid. If a given activity presents too great a challenge, it will have the same adverse effect as a toy that’s simply not well enjoyed. For the record, though, it’s on you to figure out what’s appropriate for your kid’s abilities, don’t rely on the age rating on the box – I’ve found that many kids can handle STEM toys marketed to children two or even three years older.
Here are the best STEM toys you can buy:
- Best STEM toy overall: LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox
- Best STEM toy for younger kids: Snap Circuits Pro Electronics Exploration Kit
- Best STEM toy for robotics: Microduino Itty Bitty Buggy
- Best STEM toy for basic programming skills: Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit
- Best screen-free STEM toy: Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst Kit
- Best STEM toy for advanced computing skills: Piper Computer Kit
Read on in the slides below to check out our top picks.
The best STEM toy overall
Why you’ll love it: The LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox comes with components for five specific robots, but can also be used to create any number of original creations.
You’d think changing LEGOs would be gilding the lily, right? While there will always be a place in the toy chest for the classic plastic building blocks, the new techie spin the LEGO Boost line brings to this venerable toy is a welcome one indeed. Because before you start programming a robot to perform all sorts of tasks, you still have to build the thing one block at a time.
In this case, your kid will start off by building one of five different robots the kit can be used to create. There’s a charming cat named Frankie, the M.T.R 4 (that’s Multi-Tooled Rover), a guitar, and more. You’ll have to deconstruct one creation to make the next, so make sure you take some pictures of each finished bot. Or of the original design LEGO robot you build once you’ve mastered the toy. But I’m ahead of myself.
The first thing I noted when we broke out our LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox was how easy the app made the building process. Instead of using a paper instruction booklet, you tap your phone or tablet screen for clear a clear step-by-step guide that ensures you don’t accidentally miss a step. I was a bit surprised that you couldn’t save your progress, though, as once you shut the app down, you need to click back through every step to bring yourself back up to speed.
Once constructed, you can use the app to program each LEGO robot to do different things. Vernie dances and rolls around, Frankie looks around and purrs, and the guitar can be programmed to play different sounds through your smart device.
More than 300 people have left reviews about the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox on Amazon, and the kit enjoys a 4.3-star overall rating. One mom asked: “What’s not to love about this?” Adding that the Boost kit had her kids “programming like pros” in no time.
Pros: Great fine motor practice, five different robots to build, easy step-by-step build and coding process
Cons: App lacks save function
The best STEM toy for younger kids
- Snap Circuits
Why you’ll love it: The Snap Circuits Pro Electronics Exploration Kit is both simple enough for the precocious preschooler and challenging enough that it nearly bested 30-something me.
The front of the Snap Circuits Pro Electronics Exploration Kit states it was designed for ages “8 – 108.” But I kid you not, my son was enjoying this kit at age three. My wife and I had to help out a lot back then, of course, but we acted as assistants, not guides, as he built all sorts of basic systems of circuitry that could make lights flash, noises sound, or a little motor spin around.
By midway through his fourth year, the kid could complete many of the projects included in the two booklets that come with the kit entirely independently. There are hundreds of challenges laid out in said booklets, including the making of a working AM radio, a game board you construct and then play with, and a helicopter blade launching machine. But the best projects of all are those that a user creates himself or herself.
The look of delight on a child’s face when their original design actually works – when an LED illuminates at the push of a button or a speaker plays a tune at the flip of a switch – is worth every moment of frustration when many self-guided projects initially fail.
The instruction booklets that come with the Snap Circuits Pro Electronics Exploration Kit could be clearer, as all they do is feature a schematic image of each finished project without any step-by-step guidelines, but if by starting with the simple kits, your little maker will get the hang of things soon.
I also have to warn that some components break easily, especially the two flexible wires. But that may simply be the product of us letting such a young kid dive in here.
More than 350 people have reviewed the Snap Circuits Pro Electronics Exploration Kit on Amazon and it enjoys a glowing 4.6-star rating. One mom speaks for many parents when she calls the kit “seriously next level fun,” noting all the repeat play it fostered. A number of folks did note those weak wires, though, so maybe it wasn’t just us…
Pros: Suitable for pre-school age kids, comes with hundreds of project challenges, great repeat play value
Cons: Weak wires break easily
The best STEM toy for teaching robotics
Why you’ll love it: Once your young maker has built her Microduino Itty Bitty Buggy, she can program it in multiple ways, from drag and drop coding to actual C++ written programs.
As we discussed earlier, STEM toys are supposed to be fun. Sure, they teach programming skills and math skills and robotics skills and so on, but first and foremost, a toy should be enjoyable. And the charming little robots you build using the Microduino Itty Bitty Buggy kit are certainly that.
You can create a robotic sloth that can actually climb along a taut length of rope, a ladybug that can walk around on four legs, a two-legged alien-like creature, and a flightless bird that flaps its robotic wings.
How you make your robots move is where things get interesting. Using the Microduino app, your kid can use basic drag and drop block style coding that programs a robot with a number of pre-set actions, such as turns, forward or backward movement, starts and stops, and so on. Or your kid can step things up and use a genuine coding language like Python or even the more challenging (but more liberating) C++ to take full control of your robot.
When used with more basic drag and drop programming, the Itty Bitty Buggy robots can still do some pretty cool stuff, like following lines you draw or playing tones that correspond to colors. Because the functions of the various robots you can build with the set are so different yet each use the same components and motors, the kit helps develop an appreciation for the fundamentals of robotics.
A dad named Austin called the kit “fun and educational” and “a great way to stimulate kids’ interest in science and engineering.”
A writer from GeekMom concurred with that assessment, saying the Microduino Itty Bitty Buggy kit was a great “way to interest your kid in STEM” that helped kids to ” imagine, explore, and create” and is also rather affordable, a rarity in this category!
Pros: Teaches basic robotics, works with multiple coding platforms, durable materials
Cons: Building process can be frustrating due to small tight fitting parts
The best STEM toy for basic programming skills
Why you’ll love it: The Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit is equal parts physical building and basic coding, so young makers gain a breadth of experience.
Before you code any of the projects you’ve built using the Makeblock Neuron Explorer Kit, you have to, y’know, build them. This involves everything from the complex folding of cardboard to make the frame, keys, and hammers of a piano to assembling a rover’s wheels complete with rubber treading to building a guitar in which color-coded alligator clips stand in for strings and for which your own body will become an electrical conductor.
The construction phase of the Explorer Kit challenges requires logic, spatial reasoning, and, in some cases for a five-year-old, mom or dad. Though actually, my son constructed much of the piano himself, including the threading of an LED light strip through about a dozen closely spaced slots in a cardboard panel – I was impressed.
Beyond cardboard and clips and such, the projects also involve a dozen smart blocks, such as the LED panel, the Temperature Sensor, the Buzzer, and the DC Motor. These blocks are incorporated in with the building materials to create devices that can flash, play sounds, create movement, detect light or motion, and myriad other functions.
Once your piano, guitar, light sword, or any of the other Makeblock projects is completed, it’s time to code! Makeblock coding is rather basic, but that’s the point here – the Explorer Kit is recommended for kids as young as six and it’s appropriate for kids even a bit younger than that.
Using the app, kids can follow easy instructions to program predetermined actions, with the actual coding all using a simple drag and drop interface. Once they’re comfortable with the system, they can create their own original block-style programs, making their devices to all sorts of new things.
And once they’re really comfortable with Makeblock, they can build wholly original projects, using the smart blocks, the hardware from the kit, as well as any other materials they source from around the home.
One parent reviewing the Makeblock Explorer Kit put it perfectly when saying the toy has “an amazing way to weave software and hardware” together, adding that the system is a great way for kids to learn the Swift block coding language.
Pros: Teaches basic coding skills, blends programming and physical construction, great open-ended play opportunities
Cons: Rather expensive
The best screen-free STEM toy
- Tinkering Labs
Why you’ll love it: The Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst Kit provides hours of challenging, satisfying fun with no apps or smartphones required.
Coding skills are going to be critical in the coming years, so toys that use smartphone apps and help teach kids about programming are great and all, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to turn away from the glow of the screen while still enjoying the challenges and rewards of working on complex projects.
The Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst Kit comes with all the components a young engineer needs to build miniature working cars, robots, or machines that can create art, transport objects, or simply entertain. There are a number of readily designed projects a youngster can complete using a step-by-step guide, but the most fun comes from building original creations with the unique wooden frames, the rubber bands and axles, and the two plucky little DC motors.
Kids will be amazed that the same materials can be used to create a rover that drives around and an art machine that creates spiraling patterns of bright colors. And, if your experience is anything like mine, parents will be amazed by the crazy (and occasionally ineffectual, but hey) ideas kids come up with for what to build next.
As the Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst Kit does involve using a screwdriver, lots of little hardware, and working motors this is a toy better suited to kids of the middle to older elementary years or used with close parental supervision. But in the right circumstances, it’s a surefire source of fun and learning, and no screens or apps required.
With several dozen reviews posted on Amazon, the Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst Kit has a fine 4.6-star overall rating. One dad says that it was “the best thing ever” for his “STEM-minded 12-year-old,” while a mom called it a “high-quality kit” that was “clearly organized” and fun to play with immediately out of the box.”
In a write up, a product writer from MakerShed called the Tinkering Labs Electric Motors Catalyst Kit a great way for “parents and teachers to provide kids with super-fun open-ended learning and tinkering.”
Pros: No screens or apps needed, teaches engineering skills, great for open ended play
Cons: Some projects require parental help
The best STEM toy for advanced computing skills
Why you’ll love it: The Piper Computer Kit literally teaches a kid to build a computer, and once it’s built, they can play with it – for years.
OK, so, to be honest, I’m being a bit loose with the word “advanced” when talking about computing skills. A kid using the Piper Computer Kit isn’t going to master SQL or Java or C++ or anything like that. But as this self-described “computer and a maker kit” toy will do is teach a child to use an actual computer that they can program, use to play games, and use to control lights, sounds, sensors, and more.
The Piper kit starts off as a building toy, with a child led through the process of assembling a computer using hardware. From connecting buttons to the motherboard, affixing the screen in place, and linking the mouse and other physical objects, the process is hands-on and will help youngsters gain an appreciation for the complexity of the devices we daily take for granted.
Next comes the software stage. The Raspberry Pi Project Board that comes with the kit is a basic but entirely functional computer that has 16 gigs of RAM, a 1.2-gigahertz processing unit, wi-fi capabilities, and can be used as a word processor. The computer can run a basic version of the beloved game Minecraft, and can also to program and control for any number of projects that illuminate LEDs, play sounds, and connect to varied sensors.
Chances are that any kid who is ready for a Piper kit has already used a smartphone, tablet, and a computer. But by learning the basics of hardware function and software programming, they will gain a much greater understanding for and appreciation of how the devices they already know how to use actually work.
A dad named Peter left a glowing Amazon review of the Piper Computer Kit in which he said it had “a huge positive educational influence on my child… from the first step of putting it together all the way through” using the software. And a mom named Skylar called it “the top pick for making STEM fun and hands-on.”
Pros: Comes with functional Raspberry Pi computer board, involves building and programming, teaches coding through gaming
Cons: Very expensive