13 STEM Toys That Make Learning Fun

by Sasha Brown-Worsham
Sep 18, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Nowadays, we're constantly hearing about STEM studies — but if you still don't really know what the acronym stands for, don't be embarrassed. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and though it's obvious that most children have at least a slight interest in tech (hello, child glued to your parents' smartphone), the sad truth is that there's still a shortage of students who dive into STEM studies by choice.

So how do we change that? Well, we can encourage kids to cultivate a passion for science with these exciting, expert-recommended toys for starters.

Originally published December 2016. Updated September 2017.

1/14 :Spirograph

Tracy Johnston Zager, math coach and author of Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms, says teaching children about STEM through play involves "building toys that have openness. For example, LEGOs are great. LEGO kits a little less so. I'd like kids to be able to use their imaginations."

To help inspire curious minds, Zager recommends the spirograph for its many applications and uses. It may seem like your kid is just making a bunch of  random shapes, but encourage them to turn those shapes into animals or faces. Try different color combinations and let them decide which colors they think work best together. It may seem simple, but it's building the skills children need to develop the ability to think outside the box. (Amazon, $24.99)

2/14 :Wooden building toys

These wooden building toys Zager recommends go a long way to helping children figure out mathematical patterns long before they need to use them for school. (Amazon, $89.99)

3/14 :Jigsaw puzzles

A jigsaw puzzle is another great math toy since children have to see how pieces fit together and also think spatially, says Zager. Not only will this puzzle teach your kids things, it will also encourage them to problem-solve — a necessary skill in all scientific fields.  (Amazon, $14.42)

4/14 :Snap circuits

Zager recommends snap circuits because they are a great way to teach kids about engineering in creative, playful ways. Kids are able to build their own radio circuits, doorbells and alarms while learning the fundamental workings of circuits. (Amazon, $45.99)

5/14 :Dash and Dot

William Mastroe, a chemical engineer in Syracuse, New York, suggested a few different products. First, he recommended  the Dash and Dot robots. The robots come ready to roll, but the child gets to program them, learning all about the coding process along the way. They are super-interactive, mobile and a great learning tool for small explorers. (Dash at Wonder Workshop, $199.99)

6/14 :Kid microscope

A microscope is a great way for kids to observe and then record what they see, says Sarah Rothman, senior research biologist (neurodegeneration) at Merck Research Labs. A simple microscope can open up a whole new world that your child probably never knew existed. (Amazon, $39.98)

7 /14: Sketchbook and colored pencils

7/14 :Sketchbook and colored pencils

Another one of Rothman's favorites? A sketchbook and colored pencils because kids need to record what they observe. Encourage your little one to draw and label their scientific observations to help bolster skills that are used in STEM fields every day. (Amazon, $18.99)

8/14 :Marble run

Rothman also recommends a marble run or "anything they build through trial and error." A tried-and-true method, trial and error has brought us many marvelous scientific inventions throughout the years. In fact, just about every machine or piece of technology you use today is the result of someone's trial and error. (Amazon, $39.99)

9/14 :Magnatiles

Magnatiles are another build-through-trial-and-error toy suggested by Rothman. And they have the added bonus of being add-ons to any other building project. "I've seen my 3-year-old frustrated that the blocks wouldn't do what he wanted so he incorporated a box and some magnatiles to make it work," she says. (Amazon, $74.50)

10/14 :Tiling Turtles

Christopher Danielson, Normandale Community College math teacher, recommends a couple of math toys, starting with the wooden tiling turtles. Young children are engaged by the turtles and don't realize they are also learning all about math. "They'll begin to play with negative space, using missing turtles as essentially a third color for more varied patterning," Danielson says. "Children often notice that the tiling only ends because they have run out of turtles or table space — not because the ideas have come to an end. Every time you add a turtle, you make space for another and in this way, the turtles encourage thinking about infinity." (Talking With Your Kids About Math, $24)

11 /14: Pattern machine

11/14 :Pattern machine

"As children play with pattern machines, they usually begin to notice and use the rows and columns for efficiency of popping all the buttons up and down, or for patterning, or counting. They start with individual buttons, build to pairs of buttons, rows, columns, and even think of a 9-by-9 pattern machine as a unit, which has its own properties. This scaling from units to groups is the fundamental idea of place value," says Danielson. (Lakeshore, $19.99)

12/14 :Telescope

"Astronomy is the branch of science I really love seeing kids take an interest in. Astronomy encompasses biology, geology, physics, chemistry... the list goes on and on. By learning about our universe, kids also gain a better understanding of how life works here on Earth too." To encourage kids to get interested in astronomy, Mastroe recommends a small telescope. "You show them Mars or Saturn through a telescope for the first time and they're hooked. Give them a notepad and encourage them to draw what they see through the telescope too." (Amazon, $135.99)

13/14 :Star wheel

"Well, a telescope isn't going to be much help if you can't find what you're looking for," says Mastroe. He added, "A star wheel is much easier to navigate than detailed star charts and a great way for kids to get a general understanding of where our celestial neighbors are located". (Amazon, $12.28)

14/14 :Pin it!

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