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Ask HN: What are the best STEM toys for kids?
43 points by arikr on Nov 28, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments
Especially interested in reviews from parents who've seen kids playing with these various toys and have a sense of which ones are engaging and which aren't

My random parenting advice from the internet: if it's not a good toy, it doesn't matter how STEM focused it is. If it's a good toy, then it won't hinder a young STEM oriented mind and it will still be a good choice for a non-STEM oriented mind.

My experience is that most STEM toys are designed to appeal to adult anxiety over their child 'not getting ahead' more than to appeal to children's play instinct. Most educational toys sit in closets unloved. Actually that's true for most toys with an adult agenda.

Part of it is that 'not getting ahead' anxiety encourages buying toys that are more likely to appeal to an older child than the child for which they are purchased: A chemistry set for an eight year old is going to work for a one in a million chemistry prodigy (or maybe as a shared experience for the 1:100,000 kid whose parent is passionate about coplaying with a chemistry set and the passion extends to the child.

Anyway, some children grow up to be artists, authors, insurance adjusters, real-estate brokers, etc. They lead happy productive adult lives without finding much joy in STEM. Like previous generations, a lot of people in STEM come to find they enjoy it all on their own during adolescence and/or early adulthood. A few come into the field as full on adults.

Good luck.

Yeah, it needs to be a toy first. Otherwise it will be boring. Toys are meant to be fun. Thats why we play with them.

Ive tried different ones and only those that are actually fun and interesting get used enough to become broken. Then we have more fun fixing them.

Just be open to trying new things and dont force shit on your kids. Sometimes they just dont care about STEM.

Check out The Dad Lab, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc_-hy0u9-oKlNdMKHBudcQ/vid..., for chem fun. There are also a few gems hidden in 5 Minute Crafts, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_gcGnN5dwQhpPCsZ5H5-4Q. Put the fun back into chemistry for kids, young and old!

  - legos
  - magnifying glass
  - microscope
  - chemistry set
  - pocket knife
  - big card board boxes
  - bicycle
  - a yard
  - shovel
  - rock tumbler
  - ant farm
  - breadboard for simple circuits
  - a tent and sleeping bag
  - play-do
  - baking bread or making pasta
  - telescope
This is where STEM begins.

Edit: added more STEMy things

Great list. To add to this, basic (de)construction tools:

- screwdrivers - hammer - clamps / workbench with vice - hand saw - rulers / measuring tape - hand drill (w/ bits) - random assortment of screws, nails, bolts & nuts, glue, wood pieces, dowels, string, wheels, whatever. encourage dumpster diving.

Also, some inspiring literature, like: https://www.amazon.com/American-Boys-Handy-Book-Centennial/d... and/or https://www.amazon.com/Dangerous-Book-Boys-Conn-Iggulden/dp/...

Oh, and it helps to have a partner in crime for encouragement, troubleshooting, etc. (siblings/friends/parents)

These days I'm an engineer, but that's how the passion starts, no doubt about it.

I agree with those emphasizing that it needs to be fun and engaging before it can be anything else.

Lego has a great path to go from basic Lego up into programming and robotics. And Lego Technic is just great.

Lego -> Lego Technic -> Lego WeDo -> Mindstorm -> Scratch/ Raspberry Pi

For example I'm now helping my son "activate" his store-bought Lego castle sets by connecting Scratch programs to Lego Technic motors via the Lego WeDo USB hub. With that we can sense the cat walking by, automate machine gun fire, etc. The cat is really happy about that.

Great list - I had all of them growing up. Be mindful of the age though. My uncle (an IBM engineer) got me a breadboard/ciruit kit when I was way too young to understand it, and it was frustrating and turned me off of electronics for awhile. Lego mindstorms was similarly frustrating, though also fun.

Very young children: a set of cheap measuring cups and jugs of various sizes. You start with "bigger" or "smaller", and work up to estimating how much water / sand / salt / etc is in this box, and some mental arithmetic of subtracting or adding various quantities together.

See also kitchen balance weigh scales with a set of weights.

You can buy good quality magnifiers very cheaply. You'll want to start with a table loupe style magnifier, and then move on to pocket microscopes.

You can buy Pound o Dice - this is about half a kg of dice of various sizes. These can be used for various games (Button Men is quick and fun https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Button_Men) or for probability stuff.

Cuisenaire rods are simple and fun. You can get plastic or wood, and they help with fractions and arithmetic. Watch out for some of the work books. I'm not sure learning "green plus blue equals red" is useful.

Laser pens can be used for water-drop microscopy.

Packets of cress, then radishes, then carrots and potatoes and bell peppers are great.

STEM is everywhere, so really you can build it into any activity. Most importantly is that the parents give the child time to explore things and to ask (and answer) questions for themselves. You can find recipes for a bunch of play-dough like substances, so mixing different batches with different ratios and asking "What will happen?".

I know it's really dangerous but, when I was 3yo, a friend of my father bought me the most awesome gift I have ever got: a tiny set of tools. Since I was a really curious kids (about the inner mechanisms of stuff), my toys would always get broken. With my set (and my father's guidance), I begin to fix things up. Three broken gi joes and a horse? Praise Quiron, the three-torso centaur. A broken rc car "engine" is, now, a boat "engine". Today, I'm a mechatronics engineering intern and really thankful for those - dangerous - tools I've got.

I am against this approach at all cost. You are putting too much pressure on yourself and will doing the same on your kids (assuming this question isn't for market survey). Just leave them as they. You already labeled them as STEM when have no idea what does it even mean. Relax.

You should read biographies like Surely You are joking Mr. Feynman. You will know how Novel prize physicist are brought up.

Just let your kids be what he wants to be. Give him equal of every world. Music instrument, base ball bat, lego, Raspberry Pi, Screw Driver, swimming pool etc. Whatever you can afford. Kids have natural curiosity and they will play with anything which is around them. I used to play with ants and chase them wherever they go. I am physicist now, along with my foot in neuroscience and music.

Legos. (And not just a single, focused kit, in isolation.)

You inevitably start designing/building/designing (a chicken and egg perspective) your own constructs. You can do it together with others including peers. And it provides strong stimulation in 3D (and even 4D -- zoom... crash!) perspective.

Depending on their age and if they are interested in robotics then the VEXIQ robot stuff. Biggest kit is this http://www.vexrobotics.com/super-kit.html with motors and sensors you can find smaller sets online. Program in C, a version of Scratch or Python. Built robots are more durable than the Lego versions. Plus there is a competition around them for elementary and middle school students (ages 8-14).

Otherwise the list by sheraz is pretty good.

Given all the recommendations for Lego bricks (with which I concur), I thought this bit of advice might be useful:

Try to stay away from the themed and/or branded sets. They are full of special parts that exists only to make bricks look like something else, and are not (generally speaking) particularly useful in any other sense (certainly not for developing a kid's imagination).

Instead, try to get the large sets of ordinary bricks, and sets with the special parts that are generally useful. You should start (on Amazon or other retailers) with searches like "Lego Classic", "Lego Creative", and "Lego Education".

If they are interested in progressing to the sort of mechanisms the Technic sets enable, those type of parts can also be found in various "Lego Education" sets as well as using search phrases like "Lego Simple Machines", "Lego Simple Mechanisms", "Lego WeDo", and "Lego Pneumatics" as starting points.


That used to be the case in the nineties, maybe, but today there are virtually no special parts that can only serve one purpose (like the one-piece hull of some ship from years ago).

Creativity isn't solely found in blocky builds. Special pieces are still mostly an abstracted shape that can be many things.

Still, Lego Creative is fantastic (especially those 3 in 1 sets). Also look for Lego Technics if the child is a bit older. I loved my pneumatics set back then.

> today there are virtually no special parts that can only serve one purpose (like the one-piece hull of some ship from years ago).

Not really true. If you look at the Bionicle line, for example, each set is chock full of custom molded parts. Certainly nothing quite as egregious as a one-piece spaceship hull (since it is possible to mix and match a bit between Bionicle sets), but nevertheless not particularly useful if you want to make anything other than a hybrid Bionicle mash-up.

On the other end of the scale, yes, many current branded sets like 75156 (a Star Wars Imperial Shuttle) are technically built out of general purpose pieces, but how useful are those particular parts (eg. the 2x2 left and right side plates with a 27 degree angle), when trying to build something different? You need to have parts from many different sets to have a usefully broad selection.

Interesting toy to get introduced to Arduino programming: https://www.amazon.com/Thames-Kosmos-Workshop-Android-Compat... using a video game to teach programming. A bit pricey, though at $135.

On the STEM size I would suggest the following:

* A microscope never gets old, I bought this one (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000NOU54O) and was surprised by its quality at a very low price. Never buy these from ToysRUs or similar store, those are junk. To jumpstart the fun, I suggest you also buy a set of prepared slides, e.g. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0055DZ3EK

* An adequate spectroscope (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00B84DGDA) can be bought for under $10! I bought this for my 9 year old and he had a lots of fun with it.

* My son also loved the Zome kit (https://www.amazon.com/Zometool-Creator-1-Construction-Kit/d...). We had funs discussing how to build a 4-D cube!

* Walkie Talkies: I would have killed for these when I was a kid. I bought this pair (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00GH7TKVK) but in this age of iPads and the like didn't really entice my son much. He likes to take them with him when we hike, though.

* Make your own soma set: Using this supercheap set of cubes (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007F0UQR0) and a glue gun.

Ive had good success with the boe bot (basic stamp version). Its like the c64 of robotics and comes with a similarly brilliant user manual. Costs about $150. https://parallax.com

It depends on the age you're looking for, but at around ages 6–10 ours enjoyed Snap Circuits: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B00CIXVIRQ

(1) Another vote for Sphero. I bought Sprk+. I like seeing the innards and doing the simple blocky programming to make it move around the floor. {Hey you can even look at the C code behind the blocks.)

It needs a mobile phone with Bluetooth. There are some example programs already written that allow you to get it moving from the get-go.

(2) Has anyone tried Piper Computer Kit? Would like to know pros & cons. I have never got into minecraft? {Please don't hate me for this.) Is it hard? Am I just too lazy, or is it that I prefer chess?

I'm a teacher. No kids myself, but I like to try out and introduce STEM toys to my class.

A new product that won't be shipping until March is Play Impossible Gameball: http://www.playimpossible.com If you sign up for the email list you will be given a discount in the first shipment.

My boys (7, 9, and 11 yrs) have access to an early version and play with it almost daily. It gets them active and has basic math and physics games.

This isn't answering your question but I think it is much more important for the parents and the people around the child to be interested in STEM than to buy STEM toys.

What age are you referring to? A 10 year old needs something different than a 15 year old or a 3 year old.

For young kids, blocks and just letting kids play and build stuff from whatever they find outside is great.

For older kids, Scratch and Coderz (http://gocoderz.com/) are great.

http://littlebits.cc/ is a great start

My 4 year old loves assembling these somewhat randomly (usually while I'm playing with them.) For her, the most interesting behaviors are when she seriously stresses a circuit by adding jitter - like forcing a servo to a new position. She'll sit there and I can tell she's trying to figure out why what she's doing has an effect on an unrelated part of the system.

I'll add Flexeez (US name) or Wammy (European name), a geometric construction toy originally from Japan, I think. My 10yo figured out all of the Platonic solids using it, and then moved on to hyperbolic shapes. Also made lots of hats and belts and bandoliers, etc.

Get a foldscope for $20 from their Kickstarter project. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/276738145/foldscope-the...

My wife is starting a stem group at our local primary school and the kids (aged 6-11) got most excited about the vinegar in bottle + balloon + baking soda experiment.

try Sphero, its a fun robot to learn with.

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