Top 10 STEM toys worth giving away in 2021 | Innovation | Smithsonian Magazine

2021-11-26 09:44:25 By : Mr. Elvis Guo

The gifts recognized by these experts teach robotics, coding, and engineering thinking through stories and games

Every holiday, when people buy educational toys and books to give to children in their lives, STEM-themed gifts will be removed from the shelves. But standing in a toy aisle — or rolling on Amazon — staring at colorful building blocks, robots, and computer games can be overwhelming. 

In order to help people find the best and most thoughtful engineering gifts, students and faculty of the INSPIRE Institute of Preparatory Engineering, Purdue University put dozens of toys, gifts and games released in the past few years into the ringtone. Before 2020, parents and children were invited to test the gifts, but due to the pandemic, the review process has been kept in INSPIRE. Each gift is played and reviewed by three different people, and a ranking is assigned; the gift with the highest score has a place in the annual engineering gift guide, which is now in its eighth year. 

A report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018 stated that learning and play are “inseparable”, partly because children feel comfortable exploring by themselves and can learn without pressure. Although not every toy needs or should be a STEM theme, some gifts are designed to teach specific skills and ways of thinking.

“For many years, INSPIRE’s faculty and staff have been receiving emails, and they’ll say,'I really want to buy some kind of engineering toy for my child. What kind of toy do you like best?'” Tamara, Executive Director of INSPIRE Moore (Tamara Moore) said. Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. "When we decided to start the guide, it was a very cool way to test toys and conduct some kind of outreach to the community, which can actually answer this question we have been encountering all the time."

Moore said that although many gifts are marketed on the theme of engineering, not all gifts are created equal. The best gifts involve children in engineering thinking and design by incorporating iconic skills such as spatial reasoning, coding, problem solving, and design thinking in an easy-to-understand way. In addition, well-designed toys also teach attributes such as creativity, optimism, and learning from failure, which extend far beyond the realm of engineering. In the guide, each gift comes with a description and an overview of the specific skills it cultivates. 

This year, Moore and her student team reviewed nearly 80 gifts; 46 eventually appeared in the gift guide. They specially selected ten of their favorite engineering gifts for Smithsonian readers in 2021, which span three different age groups.

This colorful blackboard features a baby as the protagonist, a toddler who is discovering the skills needed to become an engineer. The author, Lori Alexander, uses simple sentences and colorful graphics to explain the basics of engineering by directly comparing the work of an engineer with similar things experienced by young children. For example, if an engineer builds a tower, Baby can stack blocks.

"It runs through the entire engineering design process, from figuring out how things work to finding the answers to actually building the solution, and then'oh no, the solution doesn't work!'" Andrew Lake, an undergraduate studying electrical engineering, said who is the gift guide Project coordinator. "(Cartwheel Books, $8.99)  

Toggle a switch. Turn a gear. Can a baby be an engineer? Find out in this STEM-themed supplement to the future baby series!

The set comes with 16 wooden blocks of various colors and shapes, and ten accompanying template cards. Each card shows blocks stacked in a specific way, with a 3D view on one side and a 2D view on the other. The cards are simple at first, and the difficulty increases, but children also have their own space to play freely. Although it sounds simple, toys like this can develop spatial reasoning, design, and critical thinking skills. 

"From two-dimensional pictures to 3D structures is called characterization fluency," Moore said. "This is one of the toys that cultivate this skill. This is a skill that children really acquire early in life." She said that toys such as building blocks, shape classifiers, and Lego blocks help develop these reasoning abilities. (Haba, $19.99)

This 16-piece building block set includes four building blocks of different sizes and colors, each with four, providing a large number of building block building options.

With this toy, children can use 18 different plastic parts to build their own robots-such as curved legs, silly eyes, or even a propeller cap-these plastic parts can be configured in infinite ways. The option of mixing and matching to create a one-of-a-kind robot or following a brochure with photos of different models encourages creative thinking, spatial reasoning skills, and independent design, which are all hallmarks of good engineers. (Learning resources, 24.99 USD)

Use this DIY toy to make your own imaginative robot works!

Abby's mother is tired of folding clothes, and Abby wants to help. She thought, if there are washing machines and dryers, there must be folding machines, right? When she couldn't find it, she teamed up with her cousin Miko to build a folding robot. Author and biomedical engineer Arlyne Simon leads readers through the entire engineering process in Abby Invents the Foldibot, from discussing with stakeholders (friendly neighbors) which functions they want in the equipment to brainstorming, and finally building (and rebuilding) the machine. In addition to highlighting engineering principles such as problem solving and design thinking, Abby, Miko, and the diverse roles demonstrate the value of teamwork and learning from failure. 

"This may be the only book I saw here that really covers the entire field of engineering," said Elizabeth Schaaf, head of the review team, who is an undergraduate multidisciplinary engineering. "This book breaks down [engineering principles] to the level of such a child, and puts these things I didn't really learn until college into children's books." (Bella Agnes Books, $18.95)  

Abby Invents is a necessity in every home, classroom and library! Celebrate the STEM and engineering design process.

Teddy Bear Moqi plans to jump from one planet to another in his space rover. He only needs some budding engineers to guide him through the universe using interactive programming sets. The kit is equipped with a stuffed mochi, supplies for building a wooden mobile rover for him, a large floor mat with a planetary map, a programming board, a story book and various coding blocks. Through a set of enticing instructions in the form of a story, children learn how to place coding blocks on a programming board—basically a screenless computer—to write the commands that Mochi will follow. Using the blackboard, children can tell Mochi to move in a certain direction as he jumps in the galaxy.  

"When I came to Purdue University, I never did coding in my life," said Sydney Cooper, a bioengineering undergraduate. "[Mochi] explains it in a very easy-to-understand format so that children can understand how coding works. I hope I can really learn it when I am young." (My Creative Box, $219.00)

Mochi engages your children in calculations and problem solving through hands-on code, interactive storytelling, and DIY assembly. Children learn at their own pace and challenge themselves by designing their own characters, trying to code commands and exploring new topics.

STEM Apple Factory is a colorful and interactive package with 6 instruction cards and 12 apples, including three colors and a specific number of seeds. These cards provide a set of simple instructions to move the apples to six stations, from cleaning to sorting to packing them. The open design allows children to use the objects they find around the house to represent each site, encouraging creative thinking and iterative design. For example, Moore said that she would use a rolling pin to move apples to a conveyor belt station. The children follow each site until they have a fully operational Apple factory. By playing again, children will discover new and creative ways to complete the challenge. (Skoolzy, $39.99)  

This colorful and versatile apple allows you to enjoy early learning fun. Using the right educational toys, children can acquire basic life skills and build smart minds!

Coding Charms is the perfect way to teach programming to cunning kids. It combines the code with the classic and beloved fuse bead (placed on a nail plate and melted together) to make a keychain. Each kit includes 2,000 fuse beads, a square peg board, a 44-page activity manual and some other tools. For each spell listed in the activity manual, there is a page of code for children to learn, telling them to skip a space, move to the right, place a specific bead or move down to the next line, and other commands. If they follow the instructions correctly, they will end up with a small accessory such as a narwhal or a fox. This is a screenless way of introducing coding and teaching concepts, such as functions (a set of instructions) and debugging (finding and removing errors in the code). Children are also encouraged to write their own code and come up with a unique keychain to clip on their backpacks. (Hand2mind, $21.99)

No need to use a computer to understand coding! While creating our coding charm, your children will learn algorithms, encryption, puzzles, sorting, variables, puzzles, binary and more!

Snap circuits are classic engineering gifts because they show how electricity works, but all the lights, sounds, and gadgets in this particular kit caught the attention of critics. This 55-piece set contains a circuit board, an instruction manual containing 101 items, and various gadgets. Children can easily start by using switches and batteries to light up different parts of the circuit board, and then the model becomes more and more complex. They can connect a circuit board to sound an alarm, play music from a speaker, activate a helicopter-like fan, or conduct their own light show. In addition, children don’t even need to use instructions; once they have mastered how the circuit board works, the possibilities are endless. 

"It uses standard components, so the resistor components are the same type of resistors I use in the lab. They are easier to handle for kids [and] these effects make it so dynamic and fun," Lake said. (Ellenco, US$98.00)

Use Elenco Electronics Snap Circuits Light to provide your child with an exciting, hands-on introduction to electronic products.

Marble slides are another time-tested gift; children love them because they can build different architectural wonders every time they play. This set of 214 pieces comes with a tower, rails and two skirting boards; these parts are compatible with Lego bricks, so children can add vitality to their structure with new functions and colors. The instruction manual explains how to build a marble slide with winding tracks, towers and tunnels; in order to play more, children must create their own, which will develop creative thinking, spatial reasoning and iterative design skills. Most marble running suits are geared towards younger children (4 to 7 years old). They have larger and easier-to-operate components, but the complexity of the suit poses challenges for older groups. (Hubellino, $199.99)

Indi aims to teach children the basics of programming using a car-like robot that can perceive colors. Children can let Indi drive on any combination of 30 colored silicone pads. For example, if Indi drives over a green mat, stops at the red place, and then spins at the purple place, it will accelerate. The kit comes with an illustrated challenge card, or children can play freely and set up their own lessons. 

The INSPIRE team likes Indi because it is a screenless coding toolkit that teaches programming in a simple, fun and hands-on way. Specifically, Indi teaches block coding-instead of writing code, block coding follows a "drag and drop" type model to move instruction blocks. When children are ready to change things, they can download the free Sphero Edu Jr app with the help of adults, which allows them to change the actions assigned to each color block. In addition to teaching the basics of coding, Indi also cultivates logical thinking, spatial reasoning, and iterative design skills. 

"Sphero's Indi likes it very much," Moore said. "It promotes logical and computational thinking without the need for formal code, [and] has the ability to grow with children because it can be coded using the application's block coding. It also has many additional free resources, parents and education Workers can access to create new and more challenging things for children from its website and let them do it with Indi.” (Sphere, $99.00)

Children will discover how to use color cards to convey instructions to Indians, solve puzzles, and guide Indians through their dream maze.

Rasha Aridi is a science reporter in Richmond, Virginia. She has written for "Science" magazine and "Student Science News". You can find her portfolio on

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