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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.

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.



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Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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