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Ask HN: STEM toy for a 3 years old?
117 points by spapas82 on March 3, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 140 comments
Hello! Can the HN community recommend me a STEM toy (or similar that would educate and entertain him) for my 3 yo boy? He's highly curious but I can't find many things to play with him :( The things that I like bore him and the things that he likes bore me (or are way too messy and dangerous to let him do them)...

Everyone else is suggesting things to purchase, so I'll suggest things you can find or do outside. The last few are from [1], which I came across a while ago.

- Play "identify the waterfowl in the park" followed by "chase!" and (for larger geese and swans) "run away!". [This should satisfy the other comment "play sports instead".]

- Then, collect sticks in the woods and build a shelter. Extra points for using different types of structure, or working out which tree the different sticks come from.

- Collect different leaves and paint them. Or paint rocks.

- (In a year or two, you can get a plant press / heavy books and dry flowers and leaves between old newspaper.)

- Grow seedlings. Grow cress and eat it, or tomatoes, or just flowers.

- Search for fossils, bones, seeds (acorns, conkers, pine cones etc)

- Make a paper or balsawood boat, and float it on a pond

- Look for sea creatures in a rock pool

- Make an insect haven, then look at / identify the insects

When I was 3-4, I had a table placemat called something like "At The Seaside"[2], with typical creatures found on the British coast. My sister had "In the Garden". You might find something like that at a local museum, or some other child-appropriate guide to local flora and fauna. The museum probably has plenty of other STEM toys.

[1] https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/50-things-to-do-be...

In addition to going outside, my dad giving me all sorts of broken things and telling me to take them apart taught me so much. Keyboards, old computers, toys, etc. It may be harder now, but I recall opening up broken toys and you could visibly see or smell out a blown cap. Opening things shows that things aren't magic.

I second this. Although I think maybe 4 or 5 may be a more apt age, my father gave me his old curtis screwdriver set, and let me take apart various electronics they were phasing out at work. Your local recycling center may also provide some good scrap to work with. I know it's less and less common nowadays, but you should try to give him older electronics, as they have larger components, and more obvious traces to follow with a finger. I'd assume there are still plenty of people throwing out old handsets and dvrs at your local recycling center.

Also here is possibly the most influential gift my father ever got for me: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0002LUAL6?tag=duckduckgo-d-20&lin...

Our hardware store carried them, and it comes with solder and an iron. After learning how to solder, I taught myself how to scrap old motherboards, and amassed a sizeable collection of used components which I still reuse now. We weren't too component about this thing when I was little, but you should probably also get him some gloves and a hepa filter hood so he dosen't burn himself or inhale anything bad.

taking things apart is so important. Give him the knack!


Don't chase birds for fun

I didn't mention it, but a search for "waterfowl guide children" brought up 90% American sites about killing ducks. So chasing them seems like a minor issue.

(Adding "site:uk" to the search gives 90% results about feeding ducks.)

I can't find any official advice on whether chasing birds is considered healthy or harmful to either the child or the birds.

> I can't find any official advice on whether chasing birds is considered healthy or harmful to either the child or the birds.

Empathy is a very important skill for children to learn; it's not at all natural. Getting them into the habit of thinking about the feelings of animals is part of the habit of getting them into the habit of thinking about the feelings of other humans as well. Conditioning them to enjoy the distress of animals, by contrast, seems like it would prime them to enjoy the distress of other humans as well.

As far as animals: I think it's harmful for wild animals to be too familiar with humans. If I'm in a park and am approached by any animals begging, I always chase them away -- not for fun, and not even for my own pleasure (since I actually like animals), but for their own benefit.

So ironically, I'd say: Chasing birds is probably good (overall) for the birds, but bad (overall) for the children, unless it's done with the right attitude.

I doubt a 3 year old would chase an animal for killing purpose. At most, it's an attempt to play with the animal. Or am I reading through the lines incorrectly?

>I can't find any official advice on whether chasing birds is considered healthy or harmful to either the child or the birds.

I mean, wild animals generally don't like being disturbed. At best it stresses them. While the domain immediately screams bias, they cite sources: https://www.animal-ethics.org/wild-animal-suffering-section/...

The relevant bit there would be the 'frightening sounds'. A shouting/screaming child running at a bird isn't something that is normal for the bird.

Further reading:

- https://www.citylab.com/environment/2016/06/birds-city-healt...

- https://qz.com/726926/like-people-birds-that-live-in-the-cit...

- https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/jun/29/wildlife...

- https://www.mpg.de/533349/pressRelease20060901

- https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160620112028.h...

When you go to the grocery store, allow a few extra minutes, take them out of the cart and have them help you.

I need three apples. Thanks, that's one. How many more do we need? Now we have three. One Two Three.

It gets you talking with your child more. It gives them confidence that they are contributing to a real task. Kids love to be useful. It's up to you to pick and choose those tasks in the supermarket, and everywhere else where they will be successful. Be patient, step back, and let them do as much as they can.

My area has something called POP club (power of produce?) at the farmers markets. Kids try some sort of produce, decide if they like it or not, and then get $5 of fake money to spend on produce or seedlings. It's really been interesting watching how my kids decide what to get, and how much, and negotiate the transactions. In the spring we often get starter plants for the garden. Even if you don't have such a club you might consider a "produce allowance" when you go to the market.

Not much to do with STEM, so I'll add that my youngest really likes changing the batteries in his toys, especially if a screwdriver is required.

I think human children have likely been chasing birds, much the way puppies would, since long before the dawn of civilization. As long as you teach your children to respect nature when they're older, letting a 3 y.o. chase ducks is as natural as teaching a 3 y.o. to walk. And as much of a threat to duck society as puppies are, as well.

I recall being chased by birds when i was a kid, i didn’t like it.

One thing I rarely see mentioned but I have found true for both of my boys: give them a bucket full of around 50 of anything and they will find 100 uses for it: currency, counting tool, treasures to hide and find, etc. Latest version of this in our house is a small box of around 30 pencil erasers (the kind that attach to the back of a pencil) which are perfectly small, cheap and safe.

Best yet! Fuck all this consume, buy, waste...

Nice list, thanks

Lots of negativity in this thread and comments from people that either have not had children or have had them so long ago that they don't remember what is age-appropriate for a 3-year-old.

I'll just second some of the common recommendation:

- Magnatiles. There are a lot of manufacturers out there, some brand name, some not. The good thing is that at this point they have all standardized on the tile sizes, so they are usually compatible.

- LEGO Duplo. The standard LEGO sizes are too small for most toddlers. Duplos are perfect. Kids (and parents) quickly tire of the set themes, but the good news is that you can mix and match pieces and let the kids build whatever crooked houses they want to build.

- Trains and other vehicles that go on rails.

- Picture books that you can read to them while they can follow by looking at the pictures. This is tricky, because in my experience most children books are not great. The biggest problem is usually the lack of a story. Many books are supposedly educational or teach kids good values, but they are poor at story telling. If there is no good story, kids are not interested. Many books also don't have a good balance between text and pictures. Too little text and there's not much for you to read, they'll flip through the book in seconds. Or pictures that do not have enough detail to match the text. Anyway, the only solution is trial and error.

Admittedly, none of these are exactly "STEM", but I think that's OK. What's more important to stimulate creativity and make learning fun.

Don't cheap out and buy MEGA Bloks. Kids know they are crap. LEGO Duplo are way better. Duplo also are compatible with standard LEGO blocks as they get older.

I will add:

- Tegu blocks

- sand/dirt toys. Doesn't need to be more than a bucket and a shovel. Little ones love digging in the dirt.

- bath toys that demonstrate buoyancy and propulsion. Wind-able toys are better than battery. Simple is better. There is a lot to learn from just playing with a bucket in the tub.

As with the parent, focusing on "STEM" toys isn't really a priority at that age. Stimulating creativity is far more important. If you want to make it "STEM" create a problem that they have to solve through trial and error. But, don't go overboard. It is more important that you are playing with your children than what they are learning.

I dunno about their take on older kids, but for the young ones I think the Montessori method has exactly the right idea: focus on leveling them up on basic stuff like taking things out and putting them away, and on building intuition for how their bodies and how objects in the world move. Pouring water, building with blocks, that kind of thing. Cleaning stuff (they're terrible at, naturally, and can't be trusted with anything serious it so it's not like it's helpful, but they love wiping things down with soapy water then drying them off at young ages) and assembling simple food platters, especially if it's to share and not just for themselves. That sort of thing. Watering plants. They don't need robots and shit at age 3. Stuff that rolls, stuff that stacks, stuff that pours, stuff that sticks together.

The problem is how fast they learn. We have an 18 months old and she solves the challenges so fast. I should be happy but we struggle coming up with new challenges.

Toy for her age are way too basic. Those are very focused on safety, but due to that there is a giant lack of gameplay value. Duplo so far and a "car track" kind of toy have been the best, with lot of books.

Problem with books is that she requires us to read them. Lego animals have been useful,she take them out of a big lego house we built and call them by names. She learned quite a few words this way!

She likes boxes, plastic bottles, zip bags and such, but she understands the tricks fast and gets bored. Hard!

Obviously playing with mom and dad it's still the best thing

In my opinion Megabloks are better than Duplo. You can build much larger things with Megabloks, and your structures are more resilient because the connectors are stronger. Legos are far better than knockoff legos but for kids small enough to eat legos, the best block-building toys are Megabloks.

I can confirm. Made the mistake because duplo did not have any "lot of blocks" pack available. They didn't stick together, ended up in the garbage.

I bought the duplo education box (100 bucks!), but wayyyyy better.

All great suggestions - can highly recommend Magnatiles and Duplos as well.

Just a word of caution on buying Magnatiles - there are lots of knockoff brands out there, not just for these but almost all kids toys these days (duplos and trains included), and some can be dangerous:

> Last December, Jennifer White of Appleton, Wis., received Imden Magnetic Blocks for her 4-year-old son as a gift. Her son was rushed to the hospital after the toy broke and he ingested some magnets, Ms. White said.

> The worst part? The Imden-branded product was listed right next to industry-leading brands like Magformers and Magnatiles, which meet U.S. safety standards.


I share your experience with books. The books from Daniel Tiger (3 minute stories and 5 minute stories) worked great for us. Also a series of "5 minute (theme) tales" we always find for $5 at Ross worked great too.

In my home country there are comic books for young kids (Turma da Mônica) and my 3y10m loves them. The ratio between text and drawings is amazing, because it's a comic book. I don't know which ones would be equivalent in English. I highly recommend you to try it.

> - Magnatiles. There are a lot of manufacturers out there, some brand name, some not. The good thing is that at this point they have all standardized on the tile sizes, so they are usually compatible.

Seconded. My kids are extremely hard on toys (and everything else... house, clothes. Ugh) and Magna-Tiles brand magnatiles have been heavily played with by all three over ~4-5 years so far (since we bought the first set), with only a couple tiles broken. We've bought a total of three fairly big sets at probably $200-250ish total spent so far (I think we're finally done buying them, they can build some huge shit with how many they have now) but it's some of the best money we've spent on toys. I don't know how the cheaper knockoffs are but the name brand ones are good value, even at the price.

I definitely agree with the LEGO Duplo recommendations. Of all the toys, our Duplo's have endured for years.

For a 3 yo, simple wood blocks with different shapes and sizes are great for developing spatial skills and generally provide many hours of fun.

I've tried many other "STEM" toys over the years, but find most battery-operated toys, robotics sets, lose their appeal quickly and go unused. Just keep it simple.

18 months old we still have problems with wood blocks. She tear any building apart. Very rarely she builds something and gets very annoyed when it falls apart. Duplo have been much better, since she succeeded she persisted and got better motor skills

A 3yo doesn't need a "stem" toy. They just need access to safe objects, heavy cardboard or plush books with simple colorful pictures, etc.

In short, they just need access to things they can observe and manipulate.

While a parent can to some varying degree influence the attention and interest of the child, there is plenty of doubt as to whether this will result in a better outcome long term or not.

As other people have said, one of the best things you can give your child is your time (and undivided attention).

> safe objects, heavy cardboard or plush books with simple colorful pictures

I'm not sure if you're joking or just don't have any kids yourself, but those are more age-appropriate for a 3-month-old than a 3-year-old. 3-year-olds generally can make art independently, turn paper pages carefully, pretend and role play, draw by holding pens with their fingers, speak 300-500 words in sentences of six or more words, tell stories, climb, ride tricycles (maybe a scooter!), use safety scissors, and so on.

3-year-olds are far beyond the goo goo gaa gaa phase of life. Simple STEM toys (like what OP is looking for) are totally appropriate for most 3-year-olds. Sure, you're not going to explain tensor physics to them but you can certainly build a bridge with Duplo blocks with them and experiment with different ways of making it strong.

You can read more about basic development milestones here: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/milestones-3y...

Agreed. At 3, literally EVERYTHING is a STEM toy.

Taking care of plants. The first thing my niece (3) and nephew (5) do when they get in the house is check what plants need to be watered by sticking their hands in the potting soil. The plants and taking care of them has achieved peak interest for a few months. Two caveats, 1) they do not live with the plants 2) It is a ploy to get the water spraying can out. They also equate it with working somewhat as a few rules have to be abided by - wear shoes because the citrus plants have thorns that fall on the floor. The floor has to be swept... etc. The concept of state phase changes of water was introduced to the newphew this weekend as there is snow outside where we live. We got to the idea that if he knows the right numbers he can add together how much heat is needed to melt the snow. This is all at the 5 year old level but the conversation got there.

Taking care of plants sounds good, if only I had that skill myself...

Get US grown citrus trees (foreign food is irradiated and seeds become non-viable)... eat them... save the seeds... germinate ... you will have more than enough plants to get it wrong and right with! All you need is some potting mix and solo cups with a hole or two for drainage to start.

Yes! When I was little my mom had my brother and I grow carrots in pots. Later we graduated to zucchini, tomatoes, and strawberries, but the carrots were just in a small pot.

We got this one for our son when he was 3:


It's a great introduction to programming. You have to put in all instructions on the mouse to solve the maze. There's also cards with instructions that you can place on the board to make it even easier.

We also bought an IoT kit from from https://littlebits.com/ when he got older that we started to work on together.

The key here is to do it at a 3-year old level and that you do it together, it's not about finding the right solution or not. Be open to your kid's creativity and don't just follow the instructions.

Also, Magna-Tiles! https://www.lakeshorelearning.com/products/blocks-manipulati...

We bought a starter kit (pretty expensive I know) but my son has been playing with it for at least 1-2hrs a day for a year. They are part of every game he plays, whether it's a car race or playing with dolls.

I think "following the instructions" is a worthwhile skill in itself, and our 4 year old really picked it up.

But you're right, once she learned to follow the instructions exactly, she is having a tough time being creative. At the moment she's kind of obsessed with instruction-following. So there are definitely two sides to it.

I agree, following the instructions is a critical skill to develop.

What I meant was that you can be creative with these solutions. As for the programmable mouse, my son drew his own mazes on paper in the end and placed his toy cars and other things for the mouse to catch.

The basics are still there that he need to program the mouse and understand the fundamentals, but allowed for enough creative freedom to keep it interesting.

Duplo - larger Lego that they mostly can't put in their mouth.

Be prepared for about a decade of being bored with kids toys. Also realize that your child may not be interested in anything you are interested in, its ok. They are their own person.

Duplo is great. The blocks are mostly big, so they cannot be swallowed. You can literally stomp on a block with all your power and it will not break. You have regular blocks but also trains, rails, wheels etc.

* My youngest at 6 months was happy for ~10 minutes just holding a red 4 x 2 block

* Now he's 10 months old and licks the blocks and bangs them together

* My oldest at 1 - 1.5 years old, tried to stack a few blocks together

* At 2 years old he was building large towers, to collapse them

* At 3 years old, I could build something for him and he could "help" and add stuff to the building (with fantasy running wild; stack 20 random blocks on top of a carwash I intricately crafted and that was so "planes could land to be washed")

* At 4 years old, he could build stuff by himself

* Now at 4.5 he's learning himself how to reinforce structures, how to build "bridges", build cars etc.

I have purchased Duplo for three friend’s kid’s first birthday and they have been a hit. Recommended age is 18 months, but 6 months to a year out, they get more use out of my gift than the others. Duplo is also compatible with Lego, which means they can be used as filler, etc. as they get older. Now one couple is having their second kid and I need to find a new present!

Search for 'duplo marble run'. I've found knockoff versions on ebay for ~$5. My 8 & 10 year old still love to play with the set. It's fun to build and fun to send the marbles down the path.

> realize that your child may not be interested in anything you are interested in, its ok.

I've been trying to get my son into STEM (robots, arduino, raspberry pis, everywhere). Alas, he is an artist and enjoys drawing manga, writing stories, and playing guitar. At first I was concerned because none of these are useful employment skills. I've learned to just go with the flow.

Read to him. The number 1 way you can set him up for success is to spend time reading to him.

The cool thing is that you can read content that you are interested in. Even hacker news comment threads.

As far as I remember, and as my parents tell me, I was able to read at the age of 3. I'm from Russia, and the language is easier to read one-letter-at-a-time when compared to English, but I still feel like it's possible (with enough time investment from parents) for a child to start reading by the age of 4.

I strongly suspect that learning to read at an earlier age is beneficial for a child. And it's not too early to start at the age of 3.

I know a 3-year-old that reads English. If your kid shows an interest in reading all you have to do is provide some resources and they will learn. Don't try to force it on a kid who's not (yet) interested though. Different kids will work on things in different orders--I've also known many 3-year-olds who couldn't read but they all excelled at something else.

Don't have kids, so pinch of salt this - but my dad used to make "golf ball runs" for us when we were kids. Essentially long, elaborately set up contraptions that you put a golf ball at the top and it rolls all the way to the bottom, dropping through pipes and rolling down boards.

I'm 40 this year, I still remember this vividly. I guess marbles would be too edible (ha), we always did this outside (fresh air), we were building things, and I just remember it being magical watching the ball _finally_ go down. And then two balls, and then three...

I'll second Duplo - that was my precursor to Lego, which was my entertainment for YEARS (before I found computers, anyway).

Wooden train set, blocks, those magnetic shapes that stick together, a sandpit, k'nex / duplo, an activity board (switches, hinges, moving/sliding bits etc. fastened to a piece of board), a water table with some buckets and things, play doh (home made is fine).

Also let him join in with things you do around the house (cooking? cleaning up the yard?) - just giving them something to carry so they can be part of it will make them so happy sometimes.

Make the play-dough, make the blocks, make the activity board - with your kid.

Time with parents.

As a parent you can turn most any activity into an opportunity to learn math, science reading or whatever. Just asking questions is the core of learning. For example, the start of learning math is gaining a deep understanding of basic numbers. Simple activities go a long way... count things, add them together, split into groups, and so forth.

Also don’t foist your own desires and dreams upon your children. It is good to expose your kids to quality stuff, but be aware when this is more about your desire than theirs.

On the other hand, be aware that you can shape the ambitions and the habits of a young child. Letting them figure out what they want without any guidance is negligence.

I have an 18 month old. The delta that's occurred over the last year is immeasurable. I can't imagine how much more is going to happen between now and 4 years old. I optimize my day to ensure that I spend as much time as possible with him. It's definitely paying off for him, but selfishly, it's the most fun I've had in a long time.

> I can't imagine how much more is going to happen between now and 4 years old.

Just wait until they're school age and can make the conscious decision to learn what they're interested in at a much deeper level. You're just helping them lay the physical and mental groundwork for a love of learning when they're toddlers and pre-schoolers. It really is amazing when all that work pays off (as long as you can deal with the fact that your kids may not be grateful for it until much later in life).

I’m actually seeing it now. He’s teaching himself the alphabet. Of course, we kickstarted it by singing the ABC song, and counting objects/food with him. But he loves it so much, he’ll cry for the song and/or Sesame Street videos of Elmo singing it.

But he taught himself using a talking book. It’s an ABC book that has buttons on the side for each letter and a voice says the letter and some associated word. He loves one button the most, the one that sings the whole alphabet. He presses it over and over again. Sometimes, he misses and hits X, Y, or Z. One day we were playing and he started pointing at X, Y, and Z and yelling it out to me. I was floored because I never taught it to him.

Now he manages to recognize letters and numbers in the real world. Signage on end caps in grocery stores, license plates, etc.

Also, I have video proof so I’m not making this up.

It’s totally crazy. He’s 18 months, been doing this since roughly 15 months.

I can’t wait to see how far he runs with this.

How about a one piece rain and mud suit? Rinse them off with a hose and the clothes stay clean. Best part is you get to say "suit up" any time you're about to do something fun.

PPE like Mom and Dad (should!) wear is a great thing to bring a little one into the activity: it's educational for them to observe, and good habit-forming to wear the appropriate safety glasses, earmuffs, or bike helmet, gloves, or whatever is appropriate.

Do let them help you with the hammer, wrench, screwdriver etc. even if the job takes 10x as long as it could. Be careful they don't get too proficient before they learn discipline and their limits, or they'll have your washing machine in parts when you turn your back...

But essentially everything that's not inherently social, literary, or artistic is a STEM project for a 3 year old.

MAGNA-TILES was the best toy we ever purchased and would be perfect for a three year old.


They are a little pricy but one of our child's favorites.

LEGO and LEGO Duplo is a good choice too.

We used to do science nights too, with simple experiments, answering your child's questions about anything, how does this work, etc.

Once they are a little older Lego Mindstorms (Robotics) are great, check out Lego First Lego League, we coached a team for a few years, great experience.

.. or Picasso Tiles, these are made out of colorful transparent plastic, have magnets on sides and nicely connect into fences, cubes, domes. There's starter set with a wheeled platform.

Another nice detail is combining the colors to yield another color from the set.

I came here to recommend magna-tiles. My son is 9 now, and he still plays with them on a regular basis, and his friends do as well when they come over. He knows what a cube looks like spread out in two dimensions, and a number of other shapes as well. They're just plain fun to play with they, make a really satisfying sound as they snap together, and it's not a big deal when your creation collapses every once in a while.

A simple microscope is amazing to a young kid as well.

What about just a wooden horse or a ball? I understand every parent wants the best for their children and every family is different, but I thank my stars my parents did not push to me any "educational" stuff.

Read to him. Nothing will help them become successful in STEM or anything else than being able to effortlessly read and comprehend (e.g., tutorials and advanced materials) and effectively communicate their ideas.

This is actually a question I’m asking myself at the moment as well. I taught older kids (8-16) robotics for a while, and found the younger they were the more harmful failure scenarios were. If they failed, they would get frustrated and gradually disinterested. The more there was a defined success criteria that could be measurably achieved (or not achieved) the more obvious it was to them that they had no succeeded. The more it was just about play the better. Ideally failure states should be learning opportunities and kinda fun.

Littlecodr is awesome for that. It’s just a set of cards with instructions like move forward, turn left etc. get him to program you. It’s funny when the instructions lead you into a wall instead of between the door frame. Failure is fund

Some of the best stuff is also just dumb hands on stuff. Playing with cardboard glue and string. Making spaghetti towers. Folding paper planes. Magnets are awesome. Basically they learn from you, so the more time you spend together the better.

If your looking for low energy investment check out primo (primotoys.com). It’s little wheeled bot you program with simple physical tokens.

Osmo is also cool but I find the iPad platform derails their attention.

Littlebits is also cool, but the parts are a bit small for unsupervised play at that age.

Makeymakey is also rad.

Adafruits circuit python is awesome as well, but the play sessions would have to be quite curated. You could preprepare stuff and just do the wiring together with crocodile clips etc, but in all honesty maybe just a battery would be fine ;)

Looking forward to what pops up here :)

a) figure out how to make the "messy and dangerous" doable.

b) I had some success by playing boardgames (even Carcasone) at this age, with some rules-simplifications

c) sometimes we played games on my phone, Monument Valley, I love Hue, Chuchel ...

d) Buying and launching a model rocket was a success, if he'd enjoy watching from the distance and then trying to find the rocket again :-)

e) in simmilar fashion, building a kite (or buying ... tbh I usually do both, because building is fun, but the store-bought actually works :P ) ... but you need good wind-conditions to fly it

f) museums are surprisingly good these days, especially modern technical museums can often entertain both 3yo and 30+yo

+1 Monument Valley. Also Love You to Bits, and (now defunct) Tiny Thief. We are playing Gris now.

For board/traditional games, we like Robot Turtles (easier version of Robo Rally, which you can upgrade to when they are older), Yahtzee, Backgammon, Stun. Yeah, for over 3, but the younger ones like to watch.

And no one mentioned Snap Circuits Jr.!

Snap Circuits Jr. look more 5+? My cousin has that, and likes it, but he is well into school.

I found backgamon to be fairly complicated and never really got my kid to play anything abstract, closest I got was with Hive, but that quickly devolved into stacking cute little bugs on hexagons into stacks (not that I am complaining)

It either needs to be fast, reflex games like Hali Gali, Dobble, e.t.c. work well, or with interesting enough theme, i.e. she actually likes to attempt to build a giant sprawl in Carcasone :D

But I will definitely check out robot turtles :)

I don't yet have kids, but I have this abstract principle of how to raise them to learn STEM and generally become curious: don't give them anything until they build something similar.

This principle can start at a very basic level, like don't give them a ball until they find a small round rock to play with or let them use a chunk of charcoal to draw with before giving them a pencil.

It goes further:

- give them a few batteries and LEDs before giving them a flashlight

- give them some logic gates before giving them a calculator

- make them come up with a problem that can't be solved on a calculator before giving them a computer

- giving them a text-based computer, and make them create something that generates ascii art before giving them anything with a GUI.

- force them to create some sort of networked application before giving them social media.

Etc., etc. I know that in practice, the above sounds ridiculous: kids will grab that iPad as soon as they can use their fingers. However, the point is that there must be an incremental way to introduce kids to technology that forces them to learn, and rewards that learning with more sophisticated technology and learning.

I think any age-appropriate "building blocks" toy is an excellent STEM toy.

Three is really young to even think STEM. That does not mean you can’t go there, but one-on-one involvement on your part is absolutely essential.

When my kids were that age, frankly, it was more about mommy than me.

Still, we built an awesome wooden train table (Thomas trains, tracks, etc.). I also gave them an old IBM keyboard, the kind with the keys that click. They loved sitting on the floor next to me while I was on the computer.

I also got them involved with any project I did in the shop (so long as it wasn’t dangerous). For example, I’d have them help build model airplanes (hand me tools, parts, hold things, etc.).

I also took them to the flying field and had them fly with me using a “buddy box” (two transmitters linked for teacher-student control of the same plane).

And fishing, even if it is using a lure without real hooks that looks like a little fish (after I clipped off the hooks). Definitely fishing, nothing compares to quality time fishing on a kayak on the lake.

The common thread is 100% personal involvement. That’s the only way it works, even if all you have are cardboard boxes (which should not be underestimated, BTW).

That really depends on what he and you like. My 3yo likes duplos, blocks, drawing tablet, trains, play kitchen, alphabet tablet, and matchbox/hotwheels car sets.

I don't think you need to worry about anything STEM specific, just find ways for him to practice dexterity and imagination. If you want to push for STEM stuff, he'll be much more capable around 5-6 years old (my 5yo loves Legos, puzzles, math, reading).

In fact, your child is probably more likely to be interested in STEM stuff by watching you than you buying stuff for them. My older son got into Legos because my wife did, he likes video games because I play them (helped me build a RetroPie), and he helps me build/fix stuff around the house to spend time with me. At 3yo, he's probably dextrous enough to want to do cool stuff with you, but clumsy enough to get frustrated, so I think it's more important to build confidence and imagination than to push them in any given direction.

My kids loved this 'learn binary' toy: https://www.quercettistore.com/en/toys/educational/1014-rami

Site is in Italian but I ordered it off Amazon, the box is in Italian but that wasn't a problem.

Quercetti is great. We got a lot of mileage with Tubation. https://www.quercettistore.com/en/toys/buildings/4175-tubati...

"12 Awesome (& Educational) STEM Subscription Boxes for Kids" https://stemeducationguide.com/subscription-boxes-for-kids/

Tape measure with big numbers, ruler(s)

Measuring cup, water, ice.

"Melissa & Doug Sunny Patch Dilly Dally Tootle Turtle Target Game (Active Play & Outdoor, Two Color Self-Sticking Bean Bags, Great Gift for Girls and Boys - Best for 3, 4, 5, and 6 Year Olds)"

Set of wooden blocks in a wood box; such as "Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Blocks"


https://sugarlabs.org/ , GCompris mouse and keyboard games with a trackpad and a mouse, ABCMouse, Khan Academy Kids, Code.org, ScratchJr (5-7), K12 Computer Science Framework https://k12cs.org/

I have a 6 yo girl that is very Math oriented, and she always loved playing with magnet building tiles:


While toys are always fun, in case of STEM I would focus on developing active attention. That is not just immerse but also observe the result (success or failure), think of ways to make it better. Basically developing the cause-effect pathways, letting kid identify and solve a problem. Tons of chances for this with everyday objects.

Once kid is able to scribble, make him take "notes" of observations. Say, kid plays doctor and receives teddy bear as patient, asking what bothers him and taking notes of that. Measuring temperature with beeping thermometer, then deciding if there's fever and "prescribing" teddy bear some remedy or regimen.

Look around your house, there lots of safe objects that can be used as functional "toys". After all kids want to adapt to the "grownup" world.

My kid of this age loves the Brio Builder range: https://www.brio.net/products/all-products/builder

Our kids liked the Robot Turtles board game. The kids are the programmers, playing cards to give instructions. The parent is the computer, executing the instructions (while making silly sound effects).

My kids loved that one. I was sad when they outgrew it.

Have you checked out Robo Rally? Similar but more advanced play, so for older players.

I recommend reading Seymour Papert's Mindstorms: https://www.amazon.com/Mindstorms-Children-Computers-Powerfu...

It gives you a powerful framework to think about learning in children (and adults), how they can learn programming, and how they can learn many other STEM and non-STEM topics using programming.

Try the local kid's museum and see what he gravitates to.

Get this book and do some of the activities in it, there's enough that it should last for the next 5 or so years too.


I had a copy given to me by a teacher when I was 7, and I think with parental guidance you could do some of the activities with toddlers.

The fisher-price learn to code caterpillar is pretty good IMO. My friend's 3 year old seemed to really enjoy it, although I think it'll take her another year or so to understand the programming side of it. https://www.amazon.com/Fisher-Price-Think-Learn-Pillar/dp/B0...

My wife and I are building videos you can actively watch with young kids, around crafting things. https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCpL1E-yK38HGsNaIfVPdc8w

(We only started a couple of weeks ago but the idea is that the format is attention grabbing and it encourages co-creation and a jump off point from screen time)

My kids adored this and have had a good few goes out of doing most of the experiments and making some up too Galt Toys Science Lab Kit https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XDD3K8Z/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_... thojfh my 5yo gets it a lot more than the 3 yo

For all our 3 kids (youngest is 4 now), their favorite toys by far were either duplo (the electric train set is awesome!) or playmobil junior (not sure if they sell that in the US).

Tangentially, these are also the only toys that survived thirteen years of abuse. My girl was pretty gentle with them, but our two boys... they just wear out anything you hand them.

Duplo works well. Get an educational pack to maximize the basic bricks you get with it. Otherwise specialty sets can get old quickly.

I love the "Turing Tumble" for teaching boolean logic as well as other electronic/computing/programming lessons. With an expansion kit or two you can build some pretty sophisticated components! - https://www.turingtumble.com/

One of my issues with tit is that the marbles run slightly too quickly to get young learners to analyze what's going on.

Hmm ... I guess it could have been designed with a stand that tipped it back to almost horizontal? Try going flatter than 30 degrees and you'll really slow it down!

Outdoor ready vehicles, sticks or other outdoor objects, sand/dirt - have fun!

Focus on playing with your son, don't worry about the education bit so much at 3yrs. Focus on having fun, he will learn and not even realize it. Don't expect a 3 year old to spend a lot of time on a single activity, mix it up.

LEGO! Either traditional Lego (they have some Junior sets that are perfect to have them build along with a parent at that age) or Duplo. It's led to hours and hours of fun with my 2.5 year old. Even larger Lego sets he enjoys helping me build. And then he builds his own creations after!

> It's led to hours and hours of fun with my 2.5 year old.

This is important ingredient, playing with your kid is the most stimulating environment for them to grow.

As a parent of a soon-to-be three year old, I can relate. I’ve been thinking a lot about this exact issue. I’ve become aware of how horrible I am at staying “present” with him when we’re playing. I’m seriously struggling with the guilt that when I’m playing with him, I’m always thinking about other things (work, personal interests, chores, etc.)

Just a few days ago, I had a bit of a break through though. We went outside and played in the mud, found bugs, climbed a tree, and made a tire swing. If I wasn’t inside, I had a much easier time blocking out all the distractions. It might not be STEM by today’s standards, but I feel like he learned a whole more than a screen could teach him at this age. Honestly, I learned a lot about myself in the 3 hours we spent hanging out and being a kid again.

I don’t want it to seem like this is the first time that I’ve gone out and played with my kids outside or anything. It’s just the first time I’ve gone about it and become aware of all of these feelings.

It’s tough to write or even talk about this because the stigma of today’s society on raising kids in the era of iPads and YouTube. I feel that there’s an expectation that our generation is going to raise our kids with screens glued to their faces. Every piece of me wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to my kids. But I feel awful that I lack the interest when it comes to playing with kids toys.

TLDR: I took him outside and played. Lol.

The three my daughter likes the most are:

+ Trains. Especially bridges and self-moving trains.

+ Cups. Water, sand, playdough, etc.

+ A robot that takes a series of instructions, and then you hit go. This is the most advanced, but she's worked out how to make it spin on the spot, and that is apparently hilarious.

A magnifying glass, a prism, etc -- things that look cool and inspire questions about the world


The Baby University series is pretty interesting.

The titles go like Bayesian Probability for Babies, Neural Networks for Babies and Rocket Science for Babies.

I'm astonished to see nobody has mentioned Duplo (aka junior Lego) yet. My 3yo loves hers and 3 is about the right age because at 2 they're not quite dextrous enough to handle the blocks and build anything more than square blocks.

I don't believe 3yo need specifically STEM toys, but to add on the other good suggestions -

Keva planks or just plain wooden blocks in all sorts of sizes.

Marble run (if your kid won't eat the marbles)

Spirograph (there is a crayola version thats easier for smaller kids)

Cuisenaire rods


I credit these with helping me develop mathematical intuition from a young age.

My school had these, but only 1cm and 10cm lengths. They're were also 10×10cm squares, and a 10×10×10cm (1L) box.

We called that version "hundreds, tens and units".


My 3 year old loves snakes and ladders. It reinforces numbers, how to follow the rules of the game and how to move about. We also have a floor sized version with two dice that allows him to practice adding.

There is a set of 4 toys that can be assembled and dissassembled using a supplied plastic screw driver. 3 are dinosaurs and one is a horse. I forget the name though.

It's not a dinosaur, but I always liked the Take-Apart Plane [0]. It comes with a directional "power drill" with multiple sockets.

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/Battat-Take-Apart-functional-battery-...


I also second the suggestion of reading to your kid. There are plenty of child-friendly stories that are still engaging and fun to read for an adult. e.g. The Hobbit.

as a father of a 12yo boy, 8yo girl, and 3yo boy, I have some experience here. Anything where he can take apart and reassemble which requires trial and error, and creative new ways of doing things is great. I love Thomas train tracks, legos (yes not duplo, actual legos because my kids never put things in their mouth), Lincoln logs, puzzles. All of that play leads to things like Snap Circuits, etc.

Play domino. Gently introduce him to maths. But in general - let the child play and engage it develop an explorers attitude.


When he’s a little older, I highly recommend Fisher-Technik kits, they were by far my favorite toy growing up (but aren’t cheap!)

There are some LEGO Education products that may be relevant.

Maybe something like the STEAM Park set. It uses DUPLO bricks.

Disclaimer, I work there.

Don't overthink this. Hand the child a basket full of blocks (Duplo would be my choice) and walk away.

Shrug my head. Be a responsible parent and let your kid enjoy their childhood. Play sports with him instead


Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries.[1] Symptoms may include behavioral problems, mood problems, and problems with thinking.[1] Symptoms typically do not begin until years after the injuries.[2] CTE often gets worse over time and can result in dementia.[2] It is unclear if the risk of suicide is altered.[1]

Most documented cases have occurred in athletes involved in contact sports such as boxing, American football, professional wrestling, ice hockey, rugby, and soccer.[1][4] Other risk factors include being in the military, prior domestic violence, and repeated banging of the head.[1] The exact amount of trauma required for the condition to occur is unknown.[1] Definitive diagnosis can only occur at autopsy.[1] Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a form of tauopathy.[1]

There is no specific treatment.[3] Rates of disease have been found to be about 30% among those with a history of multiple head injuries.[1] Population rates, however, are unclear.[2] Research in brain damage as a result of repeated head injuries began in the 1920s, at which time the condition was known as dementia pugilistica or "punch drunk syndrome".[1][3] Changing the rules in some sports has been discussed as a means of prevention.[1]

How is offering your child toys that they can learn from stopping them from enjoying their childhood, and what does it have to do with sports?

I grew up loving k'nex, I don't see how that i wasn't enjoying my childhood

You know they aren't mutually exclusive, right?

Spend as much time with your kid as you can. The rest are details.

Wooden train tracks, such as Thomas the Tank Engine, are usually popular. They also make a smaller set if you don't want the railroad to take up a whole room.

The popular brand is Brio. I enjoyed that as a kid. https://www.brio.us/

Three seems a little young for STEM. Maybe something like Playskool Explore 'N Grow Busy Gears? Or the larger size legos (Duplo)?

I have 1, 3 and 4 year olds, and I have to disagree. We actually have the Busy Gears you mentioned and they are excellent for the 1 year old. But the 3 year old can handle complex tasks if they are interested (that's a huge "if") and can really understand and talk about things. The 4 year old can follow picture-based directions, etc.

Sure. YMMV. I have several kids and had a different experience.

Pens, paper, boxes, wooden bricks, some backyard junk. Simple things that will spark his imagination and make him design and invent.

This. Three years old is a good time to build an intuitive understanding of the simple machines (lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, screw). Hands-on play with this kind of thing will set up a solid foundation for more complicated STEM when they're older, and the kid won't even know they're being educated.

Mannnnn remember getting a new large appliance and anxiously waiting for the box to be empty so you could go climb into it and turn it into a spaceship or submarine or something else?


A stick and a puddle.

Let your kid play and be patient

Kinetic sand

Large legos

My boy turned 3 in Feb this year, and he spends weekends with me since me and the mother have broken up. Disclaimer: I havn't read all the literature out there on how to best parent but took a few pages out of my own upbringing (both good and bad). As a kid my parents were far from rich, so i didn't have a lot of toys and the one i had were often handed down to me.

On my Do-list:

- overwhelm my kids with all toys appropriate for the age (+1 year) but supervise him when playing with them. I keep giving him things until we don't have any more room for toys and then force him to pick out stuff he no longer want, which we give to less fortunate kids. Teaching him empathy at a early stage seems appropriate to me.

- Teach him that everything can be modified. I bought him a ride-on car that we progressively have modified with proper tires, disc-brakes, carbon fiber spoilers and details, wrapping. He loves his car, and have developed a love for vehicles. He can now name most common and some exclusive cars as we walk down the streets. He can also spot the difference between steel, aluminum, brass and his interest in powertools have caused me to buy kid versions of many of the tools we commonly use when we rebuild his car.

- I got him Duplo that he loves (trains, cars and generic blocks). People will downvote me for this but I reached out on facebook for Lego a month ago and we received a lot. I've explained that if i ever see a piece in or near his mouth i suspend his right to play with it for the duration of the weekend, and since he is with me only on the weekend i keep an eye on him every second. So far, so good. At this point he is building and adding to stuff we build together and i see clear improvements in his ability to place even the smaller parts every week. Initially he kept asking me to put pieces together as soon as it didn't work the first time but now he tries 6-7 times before i have to pry it out of his hands to do it for him :)

- i tried to explain our solarsystem and he is showing extreme interest in videos about space, rockets, moon/space walks so it's become a small tradition that i replay SpaceX latest achievements and failures when there is any news.

- I have avoided only selecting toys/areas of interest/gender-based toys and try to give him everything from musical instruments, balls, frisbees, toy-kitchen, dolls. Whatever he chooses to play with and show interest in, he gets to do.

- music-wise i expose him to everything from classical music, rock, hiphop, children music to break-core and classic EBM/EDM. Lucky for me he sidetracked into EDM, so to sponsor this interest in dance music i got some vintage synths, sequencers and drum-machines he loves to play with next to his acoustic instruments.

My Don't-list is short and basically just contains stuff i don't want him to see when he has screen-time:

- i try to avoid the most brain-dead stuff, like repetitive viewing of the same videos. Videos about counting and colors are all good stuff but at the point when he knows it, it makes little sense to show it to him again, and i try to find interesting videos that drives a conversation about what we are watching, as we are watching. I avoid endless playlists and allow him to tell me what he wants to see, as i help him search for appropriate videos.


I have 1, 3, and 4 year olds. The best directly STEM-related activity we've done so far is a soap making "science experiment" kit. The 3 and 4 year olds absolutely loved it.

It was super simple. The kit comes with soap cubes, dyes, fragrances, and glitter. You follow the instructions to melt the cubes, add the dyes and fragrances, pour them into a mold, then let it set. Then you've got a bar of soap.

I was surprised at just how many useful things they got out of it:

- Basic lab safety: Wearing gloves, goggles (if you have a set that fit), wafting to smell the fragrances, staying away from a heat source (the stove), etc.

- Basic mechanical skills and techniques: using a scale to measure the ingredients, using using a butter knife to cut the soap, double boiling, using graduated pipettes to measure the colors and fragrances

- Understanding of colors: The kit comes with a chart about how to mix the dyes to get different colors. The kids got excited to try out different combinations. If you have a mixing palette they can try out different things.

- Phase transitions and heat: You can explain how heat and phase transitions work when the soap melts. Plus they love to watch it melt (safely, using goggles and staying away from the heat). I encouraged them try different things to make the soap bars solidify faster - a small electric fan, putting it in the freezer (very carefully), etc.

All told it was super rewarding for me and they really enjoyed and got excited by it. They are still using the soap bars and asking to do it again weeks later. I'm sure my little discussions about things like heat and phase transitions won't stick, but I'm hoping if we do it a few times having the terms and techniques bouncing around in their heads may help them a bit in the future.

The 4 year old got the most out of it, but the 3 year old was right there with her in the mix. The 3 year old couldn't handle things like reading the scale and pipettes, but I felt like she still got a lot out of it.

Other recommendations:

- Marble games and legos. Get sets with directions and encourage them to follow the directions. My 4 year old can now build pretty complex marble games and lego sets by carefully following the directions. She started when she was about 3.5 yrs old. Personally I think they get more out of the small legos (not duplos) once they hit about 3 and aren't going to just eat them.

- I agree with the magnet tiles, those are nice.

- They never seem to get much out of puzzles. They require too much self-direction, it's too easy to fail, and they just don't hold their interest. Maybe when they are older.

- Hydroponics kits like AeroGarden. Make them do all the work (plug it in, add water, add plant food, add seed pods). Explain what's going on. My 3-4 yr olds got very excited to watch the plants grow day-by-day and enjoyed adding water/plant food when needed. I would use an aerogarden type thing because at this age failure = no interest, and you basically can't screw up an aerogarden absent adding too much plant food.




Lincoln Logs and Duplo.

Macbook and XCode.

Nintendo switch

Clay modeling

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