10 must-have STEM toys that are backed by science

A gift guide of the hottest educational toys for your budding scientist, engineer, or mathematician.

Children playing with tablet and smart robot toys.
Photo by stem.T4L on Unsplash
  • STEM toys help children build important science, technology, engineering, and math skills.
  • From fossil kits to programmable robots, there are lots of great options for kids of all ages.
  • This STEM gift guide will set you on the right path this holiday season.


When it comes to shaping how the world will look in the future, the power of learning through play can not be overstated. From brain-teasing puzzles to fun experiments, there has been a widespread push for learners of all ages to have access to products that are both stimulating and engaging. According to industry research, 91% of parents believe that STEM/STEAM-focused toys can help their children develop skills like cognitive reasoning, critical thinking, and design, but what exactly is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEAM adds an "A" for the arts). Building from a decades-old idea that these were important tools for helping humanity understand and interact with the universe, Judith Ramaley (former director of the National Science Foundation's Education and Human Resources Division) coined the term back in 2001. Since then, educators, scientists, and parents have been developing new ways to incorporate the elements into classrooms and play dates. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education invested $540 million to support STEM educational programs. The demand for STEM toys is high, but there are a lot of great products out there, so here are 10 that you should add to this year's shopping list.

Newton wishes he had this creative tower building game.

The ThinkFun Gravity Maze is part marble run and part logic game. The brightly colored pieces make constructing towers fun, and there are 60 challenges ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert that will teach your builder planning and spatial reasoning skills.

Inspire future software developers and programmers with this adorable coding robot.

Artie 3000 makes coding fun by adding in a bit of artsy flare. Beginner and more advanced coders can use programming languages to turn the cute Wi-Fi-enabled robot into a tabletop Picasso. The designs range from pre-coded geometric shapes to more complex mandalas, or whatever your young coder can come up with. No internet connection is required! All you need is 4 AA batteries and a phone, computer, or tablet to connect to and Artie 3000 is ready to draw.

This activity kit takes rock collecting to the next level with genuine gemstones and real fossils.

This activity set from National Geographic takes the chance out of rock and mineral hunting and replaces it with loads of educational material about the over 200 specimens included in each set. Armed with a magnifying glass, an identification sheet, and an identification guide, young geologists can spend weeks studying rough and polished minerals, cracking open geodes, and learning about prehistoric sharks and other sea creatures.

Discover how ecosystems work with this glow-in-the-dark terrarium.

Rated ages 6 to 96, this cool terrarium kit allows young scientists to build an ecosystem and watch it grow. Complete with a plastic jar, potting mix, chia and wheat grass seeds, figurines, sand, stones, and glow-in-the-dark stickers, the only ingredients needed to bring the terrarium to life are water, time, and an inquisitive mind.

A colorful building game that involves math and fine motor skills.

What sets the Mathlink Builders game apart from other building toys are the activity cards and uniquely shaped pieces. Children are asked to count pieces according to color as they build and are challenged to think critically as they attempt to solve more complex puzzles. The 100-piece toy also allows children to create from their own imaginations.

Toddlers build cognitive and motor skills with this train puzzle game.

Using instructions in the Challenge Booklet, children ages 3+ have to connect wagons to the Brain Train and fill them based on the shape and color of the available pieces. Each of the 48 challenges has one only possible solution, which means that players have to concentrate and problem solve to figure it out. When they do, they have a cute and colorful train to roll around!

An augmented reality globe that turns geography into an immersive experience.

A sneaky way to turn screen time into learning time, this app-based globe connects to smartphones and tablets to make discovering monuments, animals, and cultures around the world more interactive. 3D animations, hundreds of entries, and over 1,000 fun facts equal hours of productive play and a greater appreciation for the planet.

Turn a Nintendo Switch into so much more with this DIY variety kit.

The Nintendo Switch is great as a gaming console, but it has the potential to be so much more. The Nintendo Labo Variety Kit includes projects for building RC cars, a fishing pole, motorbike handlebars, a house, and a piano. The kit is great for collaborative engineering projects, and the pieces are made of cardboard so you won't need any special tools to get playing.

A fun, safe way to learn about circuitry and electrical currents.

Harnessing the power of 3 AAA batteries (not included), this logic game teaches the fundamentals of electronics in a way that is challenging and dynamic. There are 60 maze challenge cards included in each set. The goal of each is to build a closed circuit, and the reward for doing so is a beacon that will light up almost as brightly as your future electrical engineer.

These colorful tiles use magnets to form just about any 3D structure.

Magnets! These clear geometric tile sets are popular because of the limitless possibilities they afford creative thinkers. From architectural structures to fictional creatures, children learn to use color, shape, and space to form three-dimensional objects. They also learn about the polarity of magnets and what it takes to keep a structure from toppling over (gravity, etc.).

When you buy something through a link in this article Big Think earns a small affiliate commission. Thank you for supporting our team's work.



This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
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