Are you looking for a toy that can pry a child off a screen? I’m always on the lookout for products that can bring my kids back to the real world and keep them engaged – and I dare say, make them learn something. Below are some of my favorite gift ideas that fall right into that STEM space – that’s science, technology, engineering and math. Putting an educational twist on playing time does not mean it has to be boring. Below are my suggestions for practical activities to get kids building, mixing, and exploring to help light a spark inside.
Circuit Explorer is a bit like Lego, but it teaches the basics of how a circuit works in programming. Children learn to connect the lines on the side to complete a cycle and make things light up or move. Choose from three different sets of rocket ships, Mars rovers and space stations, or mix and match parts to invent your own monster machine. They can even connect with Lego bricks. Circuit Explorer is for ages 6 and up, but my 4-year-old picked it up quickly.
The Thames and the Cosmos
Making your own robot does not have to require programming skills. This is Kids First Robot Factory from Thames & Kosmos, and it’s great for introducing kids to basic engineering concepts. The manual is an illustrated history book that guides young people through building eight different battery-powered motorized bots. Kids can also do their own thing, and as they go through the story, they learn why each robot moves in its own way.
Here’s another bid for a DIY robot. Kids can build anything imaginable from plastic with this 3D printing pen. 3Doodler Start melts plastic pins so you can pull them into any shape, but the nozzle and the molten plastic are not hot, so they do not burn small hands. Draw on paper or even directly on tables as the plastic pops straight off. There is also a “Robosumo” 3Doodler Start pen kit that comes with vibrating mini robots to suit combat.
Want something more tasty? Draw it in the kitchen with chocolate with Skyrocket’s Chocolate Pen. A heating tray keeps the chocolate dull as your battery-powered pen sucks the sweet stuff down into the cartridge. Draw, eat, repeat. It is available in different colors, and small hands easily fill the molds. You can also draw the shape you want on wax paper and it cools in 10 minutes. Sure, this activity is more of a creative art – but there are chemistry lessons you can teach with cool confectionery. And that makes desserts a science!
There are easy ways to make kids cunning, even if you’re not the smart guy. I subscribe to KiwiCo Crates, which are hands-on learning activities in a box. Packed with a few science and engineering lessons, they come with the mail and cater to different age groups. The box I get is for the little ones and I like the quality of the goods. But older children can handle advanced tasks, and there are even problem-solving technique boxes for adults.
If you are stuck and trying to find ideas for screen-free activity, just look at the screen at the old school. Little Brite is back. The machine slimmed down a bit, but it still has the sticks you loved hitting holes. All that pixel art can only inspire tomorrow’s game programmers.
This cute robot aged 6 and over teaches basic programming, has various challenges and is screen-free without the use of a phone or tablet. Botley can detect objects and move around them, follow looping commands, navigate obstacle courses and follow a black line designed by your child. And with an included activity set of 77 parts, there is plenty to keep the kids busy with.
Even the little ones in your life all the way down to 18 months can learn STEM with these magnetic foam builders. Soft blocks connect effortlessly and rotate so you can build creatures with head, wings, elbows and other body parts. And you do not have to worry about the blocks getting dirty as they are dishwasher safe and are bath friendly.
The latest historical puppet from American Girl is an 80’s gamer -wiz named Courtney. Her storybook tells of her love for Pac-Man and how she will one day design a video game with a girl hero. And this character has the coolest doll accessory ever: a working Pac-Man video arcade cabinet. (Sorry, parents, that’s an extra $ 150. Yes, we know it’s really for you.)
Of course, the doll will not teach a child programming, but exposure at a young age to these concepts can help girls not think of games or programming as a “boy” thing and inspire changes in culture.
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