In the grand tradition of Black Friday deals, toys for grownups dominate the doorbuster lists: TVs, laptops, tablets, smart home devices. But there are just as many tech toys for kids out there now, and how to pick the best robot, app, game or playset for your budding scientist or engineer can be a dizzying task.
Along with the now-expected mix of building sets and toys with lights and motors, Cardella says one emerging trend is the availability of a wider variety of STEM-related books.
“That’s exciting for a couple of reasons: some kids are more interested in reading than in building,” Cardella says. “Books are a way to reach them and get those kids excited in STEM. But also, for the kids who are more interested in building, having books that connect to those interests help them become stronger readers.”
“I love to pair a book with a toy—for example, a book on the Curiosity [Mars rover] along with a rover toy,” Gajdzik says. “It gets kids thinking about the engineers’ thinking and design constraints, and then they can play with their own ways to design and code.”
To help gift-givers find just the right present for their loved ones, Cardella and Gajdzik narrowed their list down to a roster of top recommendations—and a few honorable mentions for each age category.
“This is a toy that any time we brought it out, it was well-played with, from three-year-olds to undergrads,” Gajdzik says. Compatible with other Magformers sets, the kit features a “sky shuttle” that kids can send adventuring on a customizable monorail-like course. A special spin track lets the shuttle do a 360-degree roll, and a lift track that raises the car from a lower track to the upper rail. The variety of possible configurations encourages creative play, while kids put their spatial reasoning skills to work to build the accompanying booklet’s suggested designs. (Magformers, $129.99)
Penned and illustrated by Ashley Spires, this story’s everygirl is the embodiment of the kind of perseverance that often leads to surprisingly gratifying ends. “The main character has this idea to create the most magnificent thing, but she can’t get it out into the world the way she wants it to be,” Cardella says. Trying, failing, finally getting mad, then looking at her previous attempts with new eyes, the central character demonstrates the iterative nature of science and discovery. (Kids Can Press, $16.95)
Though multiple products from toymaker HAPE’s Flexistix line made it into the 2018 Engineering Guide, Cardella and Gadjzik both recommend the Multi-Tower for its many pieces and sheer creative possibilities. Kids can build a variety of architectural forms by joining bamboo sticks with flexible silicone connectors – easy for even young builders to do as an independent activity. In the testing lab, kids built dinosaurs and helicopters as well as towers; environmentally minded families may appreciate the company’s use of sustainably sourced, eco-friendly materials in all their toy offerings. (HAPE, $34.99)
Get cheese, win game. Easy, right? Not quite: for young players to claim victory with the biggest pile of cheese in this classic-style board game, they must first chart a course via sequences of “code” from game cards drawn at each turn. Strategic thinking and problem solving skills abound to figure out how to get to board-jumping warp zones and around walls other players program into their path. “Kids really love the 3D cheese and mouse pieces,” Gadjzik said. “Parents liked that the game is screen-free, and that each game is different every time you play.” (Learning Resources, $18.39)
Though this toy is also screen free, it definitely comes with the cache of moving parts: the wide-eyed Botley robot. Using the included remote clicker, kids can program the little wheeled robot to move through a sequence of up to 80 moves at a time. The set includes materials kids can use to build pathways for Botley to follow, obstacles to navigate, and toys to play with. Though kids can plan out their pathway with the included coding cards, testers at the INSPIRE lab enjoyed tinkering and learning to guide the robot through trial and error. (Learning Resources, $79.99)
This page-turner by Andrea Beaty follows beloved picture-book character Rosie Revere in her first chapter book volume of the Questioneers series. Along with friends Ada Twist and Iggy Peck, Rosie takes on the challenge of inventing a solution to help a friend participate in an art contest in spite of two (!) broken wrists. Illustrated by David Roberts, the tale demonstrates the power of perseverance, creativity and teamwork. Parents said they enjoyed the diversity of characters in the book, Gadjzik says, and that the main character is a “strong, smart female.” (Abrams Books, $12.99)
The most-played-with toy out of any in the testing lab, this set has all the hallmarks of becoming a timeless classic like Lego and Knex, says Gadjzik and Cardella. This 30-piece beginner kit includes a booklet with 100 circuit projects, but like other free-form building toys, users can easily improvise to come up with their own electronic designs. The large, color-coded pieces are easy to snap on and off of the grid board, and Gadjzik notes that even young kids understand when they’ve made an error: “The project doesn’t light up or make noise, so they know immediately to go and look for where they went wrong. They want the reward of getting it to work.” (Elenco, $34.99)
This colorful 48-page book by Markus Motum tells the story of NASA’s beloved Martian rover—from its design, build, launch and extraterrestrial journey, but all from the robot’s point of view. Mokum told Space.com in an interview that he was inspired by the entire process of creation, and that the “human element was just as inspirational in telling the story as the science behind it.” Gadjzik says that after reading the book with her five-year-old son, he recognized Curiosity in a different resource—and even undergrads in the INSPIRE testing lab reported learning new facts from the book, as well. (Hudson Booksellers, $22.99)
Cardella’s favorite logic game among this year’s offerings, Asteroid Escape is a riff on the classic sliding-tile game. Playing as a spaceship stranded in an asteroid field, players must shuffle the ship around to free it from the field while avoiding the protruding asteroid tiles. The game includes 60 challenges that increase in difficulty, but that incrementally teach strategies for planning how to get around future obstacles. (Smart Games, $14.99)
Turing Tumble is part Plinko board, part mechanical computer, and a whole lot of creative logic. Using a series of customizable switches, ramps, gears and other parts, players work through increasingly difficult design challenges to run the computer and arrange a set of red and blue marbles in a specific order at the bottom of the game panel. The challenges thoroughly absorbed players of all ages in INSPIRE’s testing labs. “It was a huge hit with kids in the target range, but there were also undergrads asking us if it was weird that they wanted it for Christmas,” Cardella says. Users can create and share their own unique puzzles and solutions on a Turing Tumble community website. (Turing Tumble, $69.95)
Having trouble seeing our list of STEM toys? Turn off your ad blocker and you'll be all set.
A Note to our Readers
Smithsonian magazine participates in affiliate link advertising programs. If you purchase an item through these links, we receive a commission.