In recent years, STEM-themed toys for all ages have flooded the market, making it a little overwhelming for people to choose the most skill-based gifts for the kids in their lives. But a team of engineers has come to the rescue with a recommendation of the most thoughtfully designed STEM-oriented products on the market.
Each year, Purdue University’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering turns into a toy testing laboratory as faculty and students run mounds of toys, books and games through their paces. The highest rated products earn a coveted spot on the institute's annual Engineering Gift Guide, which is now in its seventh year.
"Play is one of the places where we can capture a kid's imagination," says Tamara Moore, a professor of engineering education and the executive director of INSPIRE. "For a child to get interested in potentially having a STEM career, you want [to] capture their imagination. Being able to have that freedom to play is really one incredibly important way for this to happen."
The gifts usually go through a strenuous review process, which includes input from parents and kids that test out the toys. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the process looked different this year. It was spearheaded by a team of four undergraduate students that thoroughly inspected, played with and reviewed nearly 100 toys released in the last couple of years, Moore says.
The team looked for toys that embodied the hallmarks of engineering and fostered meaningful skills, like spatial reasoning, computational thinking, innovation and creativity. "And those skills start early," Moore says. Well-designed toys can expand young learners' minds and foster these skills throughout childhood development.
For Smithsonian readers, Moore and her team selected their ten favorite STEM gifts for 2020 spanning three different age groups.
Enter the Spudnet is a potato-themed board game that introduces kids to the world of cybersecurity and networking without even having them touch a computer. Players receive tasks that they must complete by moving their ships from warehouse to warehouse on the board while protecting their privacy and preventing opponents from attacking them. Cybersecurity is more important than ever, so it's a socially relevant game, Moore says. It also builds skills in critical thinking, problem solving and design. Plus, it's just good family fun. (Potato Pirates, $57)
WordStruct is an engineer's version of Scrabble. This word-building game comes with 100 letter tiles that players can arrange together to spell out words, but in a 3-D structure. The goal is for players to score the highest number of points by building the most complex crosswords they possibly can. Words can be arranged horizontally, vertically and diagonally, creating an extra level of complexity. This game promotes innovative thinking, spatial reasoning skills and perseverance as players are challenged to think both critically and creatively. (WordStruct, $24.99)
Best Overall STEM Toy
Gravitrax takes the beloved marble run to a new level. It comes with more than 150 pieces that include obstacles like trampolines, bridges, tiles and ziplines, allowing players to build elaborate routes for their marbles to roll down. Kids have the option to follow the layouts that come with the game or design their own. Players will engage spatial reasoning, trouble-shooting, and critical and creative thinking skills in a game that's fun for adults too. Plus, Moore says this game encompasses several of the engineering skills that she looks for in a good toy, in that "it allows children to explore both through creating their own designs and following maps that have been made [to follow]." (Ravensburger, $129.99)
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