What are STEM toys? The simplest definition: they are toys related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) concepts.
But, what are those?
Full descriptions would take more than one post for each, but here are some short(ish) definitions:
Science concepts: Scientific concepts is a technical term: it means an idea or model that explains a natural phenomenon. Specifically, as it relates to STEM, science focuses on natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) and formal sciences (e.g., logic, statistics).
Technology concepts: Technology is an important of STEM learning and development. Typically, technology either refers to its function as a tool for supporting the other areas (science, engineering, and math), or the embedding of technology into those areas. In either case, technology’s overarching role is to encourage students to innovate and develop critical thinking skills.
Engineering concepts: Engineering is, quite simply, the use of math and science to create or design new things. The incorporation of engineering concepts is important to foster critical thinking skills an challenge students to re-think what can be (i.e., design new approaches to existing items/problems).
Mathematics concepts: Math used in STEM can range from algebra to calculus. No matter which area, math serves as the backbone of many science and engineering projects and designs.
So, STEM toys can be any toy that incorporate any concepts from these four area. Toys can range from marble mazes to robots, or microscopes to building blocks. What they all have in common is that they can sparks kids’ curiosity.
Sometimes you will also hear the term STEM educational toys. In essence, there is not much difference (if any?) between STEM toys and STEM educational toys. If anything, the difference could be in how they are used (e.g., free-play vs. structured learning).
What are Some Examples of STEM Toys?
The categories, and toys listed in them, are not meant to be exhaustive. Consider these a sampling of what is available if you’re looking for STEM toys for your kids.
Chemistry sets have been marketed as educational toys since as early as the beginning of the 20th century.
Microscopes are great for kid as young as five years old, and even younger with close supervision and assistance. And as we all know, they are excellent for making the unseen world visible.
Lab kits are mostly designed for younger kids, and they come into two basic types: completely toy (no real science possible) and mostly toy (simple projects available). Either can be fun and help develop STEM interest.
The cousin (?) of the microscope, aquascopes allow you to do much the same thing, but underwater.
There are a lot of different robotic kits on the market right now: Cozmo, Osmo, LEGO Boost, Sphero, and so on. Most of these kits (and others) have a few things in common: programmable features, kid-friendly interfaces, and easy-to-build setups.
If you’re looking for more advanced robotic kits, then those exist as well: various Meccano products, LEGO Mindstorms, and MakeBlock are some of the more popular. While these can be enjoyed by younger kids, it is often better to have more adult supervision than is needed for the others.
There has been an ever increasing focus on helping kids learn how to code. This has not gone unnoticed by toy manufacutuers and game producers.
If your child(ren) is into board games, then you can pick up Robot Turtles or Qwuirkle (or one of several other coding board games available).
Or perhaps your child is younger, then Fisher Price’s Think & Learn Code-a-pillar is fun choice.
If, instead, you’re looking for a coding kit, then Kano or littleBits are great places to start. These kits provide an experimental space for kids to learn coding. LittleBits, for example, uses a block-based coding environment. This allows learners to use simple drag-and-drop elements rather than typing out code syntax. For example, you can take a look at Scratch.
Animation kits are a great way to start spinning children’s creative gears. Recent conversations about STEAM (adding Art to STEM) encourage the combination of technology skills with artistic activities, like creating an animated story.
Two animation (or movie maker) kits you can start with are Hue Animation Studio and Lego Movie Maker Building Kit. You can also look at our list of mini stop motion kits for kids.
Many people think of computers, smartphones, or other electronic devices when they hear the word technology But, the original technologies were basic man-made tools.
A great example of a tool-based toy is Brightworks Drill and Learn, which I reviewed after my daughter received it at Christmas.
But even something as simple as a basic toy tool set can be all it takes to spark interest in STEM.
Gears, all i really want is gears! (ok, apologies to the Beastie Boys).
But, in all seriousness, gears make for pretty awesome children’s toys. Not going into detail here, but check out our post on gear-based toys for kids.
I have an electrical engineering background, so circuit-based toys always take me back.
Snap Circuits were the first toy I came across when I was looking into STEM toys for my daughter. She can do more with them now that she is a little older (six years), but even when she was three, she enjoyed the thrill of connecting the last wire to light up an LED necklace. You can read a little more about my thoughts here.
You can also find a little more advanced circuit-based toys like . With Circuit Scribe (a conductive ink pen), you can bring drawings (eh, circuits) to life with motors, lights, and buzzers.
When I think building sets, I immediately picture LEGO and K’Nex.
LEGO in some form has been around since 1932, and over 19 billion elements are created each year. And sometimes it feels like we have almost all of them in our house! Building the sets using the instructions is great for kids to practice being detail-oriented and learn the basics of building. But, what’s even more fun, is watching her now start to create her own creations (MOC’s).
Our household is not much into K’Nex…only one collection of interlocking plastic bits, thank you. However, they can be just as much fun. And remind me of LEGO technic bricks to some degree. I think K’Nex definitely have more of an “engineering” feel (whatever that means).
A lot of the toys on this page have younger kids as the primary audience, but electronics kits are great STEM toys for teenagers (and even as young as 10 or so).
You can pick up kits (e.g., this 130-in-1 kit) that provide all components for simple electronics projects. In the linked set, you can build an AM broadcast station, LED strobe light, electronic organ, and more.
Once children are ready to progress past kits, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis are great additions to the electronics collection.
There are more fun and exciting toys, but the abacus is a classic that has been around for thousands of years.
Children as young as 5-6 years old can learn how to use one, and it can help understand basic math knowledge.
And if you’re a fidgety person like me, there is a certain soothing effect one can get from moving the beads back and forth. But, the same thing can help young children develop fine motor skills.
Math-Based Board Games
Yes, they really do make a board game for everything. And that includes math!
Most math games revolve around basic arithmetic. For example, our daughter enjoys Dinosaur Monopoly. It bears a basic resemblance to Monopoly, but more importantly the math is kept simple; which is great, since it allows her practice her adding and subtracting skills.
Or, you can always go with roll-and-move games like Chutes and Ladders. Especially if you make it less fun by asking how many spots are lost when they slide down. One last game: the appropriately named Sum Swamp, which makes it clear math is involved.
Designed for preschoolers, counting toys are great for helping engage younger kids with math, and help them begin learning the basics
There are counting cubes, colorful bears, and lots more available. Cubes/blocks are my preferred choice, since they can be used for many different math activities. And block play is valuable for development.
Learning Resources’ Pattern Blocks may not be the first thing that comes to mind for a math toy, but they help promote spatial awareness and provide children with an understanding of shapes and how they are constructed (e.g., two triangles can be the same as a square).