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11 building toys that helped turn me into an engineer

Erin is a maker, engineer, writer, entrepreneur, designer, and science communicator. She is in her 5th year in mechanical engineering at the University of Florida and has a passion for showing the art and creativity in science and engine...

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys

Growing up, I didn’t know my parents were preparing me to become an engineer, but they definitely were. My dad brought home many Hot Wheels and Lego sets because he really wanted the chance to play with them, too. But I didn’t know this. I just played. I had an overabundance of building toys, aimed at both boys and girls, and junk supplies ranging from paper towel rolls to tissue boxes to make whatever I wanted. I didn’t care whether there was a boy or girl on the outside packaging and directions. I just wanted to make.

More: I want girls to grow up and feel inspired to join STEM fields

So I built Lego towers while wearing crowns and created Mulan-themed marble runs. I credit a large part of my current love of making and engineering with my early exposure to these toys and the freedom my parents let me have with them. I highly encourage all parents to load up their kids' closets with building toys and let them have the freedom to run free.

Don’t know where to start? Here are 11 building toys that you can get today that are perfect for your little engineer or maker.

1. Playmags

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 3+

Playmags are a newer version of the Magnetix that I grew up with. They are the No. 1 best-seller in magnet toys on Amazon. These colorful, magnetic shapes teach patterning and shape recognition in addition to creativity and spatial skills. They are easily taken apart and put back together for endless play. This set even comes with special pieces just for building cars and buildings to give kids guidance on some of their creations. (100-piece Set, $69.99)

2. K’NEX

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 9+

The building toy I got the most fun out of in elementary school was my K'Nex roller coaster set. The Christmas morning that it sat waiting for me under that tree was the start of many roller coaster and other motor-powered K'NEX creations. The accomplishment of finishing a gigantic K'NEX model of your own creation is incredibly satisfying and is extremely fun for kids to show off to their parents and friends. It is a perfect gift for any kids who are also fans of RollerCoaster Tycoon. (100 Model Imagine Building Set, $44.24, Crossfire Chaos Roller Coaster, $32.98)

3. Tinkertoys

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 3+

One of the most classic of building toys, Tinkertoys is a must-have for creative players. These sets are sturdy and come with some great project ideas that kids can branch off from. As a kid, one of my favorite elements was the ability to make creations that move, and this feature is still around today. This 200-piece set includes windmill items, letting kids make something that they can then play with when they are done. (200-piece Set, $36.67)

4. Legos

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 4+

There can’t be a list of building toys without the classic: Legos. Growing up, I was more a fan of the bins of assorted Legos than the building sets, but there are now so many building set options that there is something for everyone. Assorted Lego bins can be more economical because they can be reused over and over again with many more options of things to create. (Lego Classic 790-piece Assortment, $55.99)

5. Toobers & Zots

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Age 3+

Toobers are an extremely unique building toy because they are actual soft, squishy and wearable. As a kid, I had many dress-up sessions that were combined with Zots parties. These sets are made up of four parts: Toobers (foam tubes that hold their shape when bent), Zots (flat foam pieces that slide over the Toobers), Skinnies (flat foam tubes that slide into the Zots, allowing for decoration) and Dots (Small foam cylinders that allow for further decoration). These items let kids create everything from guitars to rocket ships. (1035-piece Set, $49.95, 345-piece Set, $23.97)

More: 9 organizations committed to helping girls kick butt in tech fields

6. Straws & Connectors

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 5+

One of the simplest building toys out there, Straws & Connectors gave me many memories of building forts for my giant stuffed dog and me. They are fun and come with some great ideas but also serve as a great building block to let your kids’ imagination run free. Kids can make simple or complex designs. It is also easy to expand on, as all you need are more straws and connectors when your kids run out. (705-piece Set, $39.99)

7. Hot Wheels

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 4+

To me, the best building toys were ones that let me play with them even after the actual building was completed. Hot Wheels are a great example of this. The tracks could be left up in my living room for days at a time. This let me send tons of cars down the tracks of various shapes and sizes and even race them, seeing what size and weight of cars were the fastest. Again, building sets are also an option for this one, but a cheap starting place is to just get a plain track and connectors. There is more to do with these pieces than you might initially think! (15 Feet of Track and a Bonus Car, $9.99)

8. Roominate

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: PlayMonster

Ages 6+

A newer building toy on the market, Roominate was actually founded by two women who met as engineering majors at Stanford. This toy is specifically aimed at girls and combines building, circuits, design, crafts, storytelling and creativity. It even has a compatible app to allow kids to remote control their new creations. Roominate is trying to close the gender gap in engineering in a cool new way. (rPower Set, $29.99)

9. Snap Circuits

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 8+

Snap Circuits are a unique toy on this list. They focus primarily on building electrical designs, rather than mechanical or 3-D structures. Snap Circuits let you build things like radios, alarms, doorbells and fans that actually work. Kids can create these things with easily combined plastic circuit parts that snap onto a large baseboard. All of the pieces are color coded to make it easier to follow the instruction booklets that come with the sets. I have seen kids from elementary to middle school ages have a blast with Snap Circuits at various STEM outreach events at which I have volunteered. (Building Set, $45.98)

10. GoldieBlox

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: Amazon

Ages 6 to 9

Another amazing building toy aimed at girls, this toy is perfect for girls who also love to read. GoldieBlox combines storybooks with building, letting your children build along with Goldie and her friends. They are releasing new sets with new building challenges, as well as little online videos and content so your builder can get even closer to Goldie and get new building ideas all the time! If you want to see them in person, they are now available at Target as well. (GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine, $16.99)

11. Supplies from around the house

Building sets can be expensive, but money shouldn't limit the fun of building. Maintain a large collection of paper towel rolls to build a marble run. Collect tissue boxes and Amazon Prime boxes, and build a fort. Tape, cardboard and a little imagination should never be underestimated! The important thing is the encouragement of creativity, making and childhood curiosity. (FREE)

More: 10 awesome tech toys for kids of all ages

Want to encourage your girls to join STEM fields? Buy them building toys
Image: SheKnows


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