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Gift Guide 2015: Top Toys for Building STEM Skills

Best toys for building STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) skills - love the range of ages covered here.


With all the talk I’ve been doing on the blog about the importance of fostering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills, I felt I had to include a STEM themed gift guide this year.

I just keep hearing over and over how important cultivating innovation is in our kids’ future success.  So watching both my son and daughter excitedly engage with open-ended toys to construct, engineer, explore and experiment fills my heart with joy. I’m on a continued mission to find the absolute best toys to keep the innovations coming!

Don’t forget – you can check out all 10 of our 2015 Gift Guides here!

Once again this year, I’m heading up each list with my favorites from all the picks – here, in no particular order, are my top 7 Learning Toys for Fostering STEM Skills (scroll down for full details on each):

  1. Snap Circuits $45.07 (8 – 15 years), Snap Circuits Jr $20.55 (5+ years with parental help, 6 or 7+ for independent play) and the Snap Circuits Student Electronics Training Program, down this year from $199.99 to $124.18 (8 – 15 years, younger with parental help).
  2. Robot Turtles Game $24.99 (4 – 8 years)
  3. Qwirkle $19.21 (5+ years)
  4. Hanz Innovations Inventor’s Lab Building Set – $59.95 (8 – 15 years)
  5. LEGO Mindstorms EV3 $349.95 (10+ years)
  6. The Everything Kids’ Science Experiments Book: Boil Ice, Float Water, Measure Gravity-Challenge the World Around You! $8.99 (8+ years)
  7. 3D printer $1,199.00 (10+ years)
  8. Hexbug Nano Elevation 3D Habitat $40.34 (3 – 15 years)

Read on for 40 or so of my top Learning Toys for Fostering STEM Skills, broken down into:

  • Engineering
  • Robotics & Technology
  • Chemistry & Life Sciences
  • Single-Player Math & Logic Games
  • Multi-Player Math & Logic Games

Special Note: In an effort to help you out as much as possible this year, I’ve included both prices and age recommendations for each item.  Please take the age ranges as just that – recommendations – you know you’re child best after all!  

Also, this time of year prices can fluctuate quite dramatically.  So if you see something a little outside of your price range, it might not be a bad idea to click over and check  it out anyway – you may get lucky and catch a sale.

Along those lines, I’m doing my best this year to keep our readers up-to-date on any sales I see on our gift guide items.  To be in the loop, be sure to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter.

Ready for the big list? Here we go…

Gift guide: Top S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) Picks for all ages - engineering


This section was a little tough to narrow down. There are lots of different types of engineering; electrical, mechanical, etc. Furthermore, to me the best way to get kids interested in engineering down the road, is to encourage a lot of open-ended building early on.  So I’ve included some of my favorite picks from the Best Blocks & Construction Toys Gift Guide as well (see that guide for our full list of favorite blocks and construction toys).

  • Gears! Gears! Gears! $39.94 (3- 9 years) – This is another great set for those kids who love to tinker and figure out how things work. This one has won numerous toy awards and it’s not hard to see why. Kids can put their mechanical engineering skills to the test to build a myriad of working 3D structures.
  • Snap Circuits $45.07 (8 – 15 years),  Snap Circuits Jr $20.55 (5+ years with parental help, 6 or 7+ for independent play),and the Snap Circuits Student Electronics Training Program, down this year from $199.99 to $124.18 (8 – 15 years, younger with parental help). – This clever kit is another multi-award-winner that takes advantage of kids’ natural interest in building toys like LEGOs to teach the principals of electricity.  The components aren’t intimidating, snap together simply, and can be used to create a bunch of cool projects. The standard set comes with over 60 pieces to create over 300 different electronic projects. The pieces include snap wires, slide switches, an alarm circuit, a music integrated circuit, and a speaker and are numbered and color-coded to make identifying them easy. These components combine to create working circuit boards just like the ones found inside televisions, radios, and other electronic devices. For bigger kids, you’ll definitely want to check out the reduced priced Snap Circuits Student Electronics Training Program as well as Snap Circuits Lights. Just connect any MP3 player and be amazed as your music creates a mesmerizing light display. No two songs will ever produce the same light show. Includes prepunched patterns for motor, strobe light, and color-changing LED, lighted and glow-in-the-dark fans, strobe integrated circuit, color organ controlled by MP3 player, voice, or finger. Builds over 175 experiments.
  • WEDGiTS Deluxe Set $29.50 (3 – 7 years) – I put these in our gift guide the last two years and had to return them again for 2015. I once talked to the owner of a local toy store about them for over 30 minutes. He couldn’t stop raving about what great, open-ended building toys they are and he totally sold me on them.  If you have younger kids around, get the Wee WEDGITS (1+ years) – they’re softer and don’t hurt when stepped on. For bigger kids, be sure to spring for the design cards to help extend the quiet time play even more!
  • Magna-Tiles $120 (2 – 12 years) – I discovered magna-tiles last year and they were the big present under the tree for the kids. They’re definitely more of an investment, but have been totally worth it. The kids have played with them multiple days a week for the last year straight. Teachers absolutely rave about these blocks and the play possibilities are endless. Because they join together using magnets, kids can create elaborate structures (often taller than they are) without becoming frustrated by crashes. They’re also great for use with other toys. They can be used along with blocks and LEGOs to make elaborate structures, with marbles and cars to make tunnels, bridges, and marble runs, or even with dolls to create doll houses.  We splurged for the 100 piece set and got hours of rainy day fun with these. If you have the space/budget for a personal light table to use them, the translucent pieces would look fantastic lit up from underneath.
  • LEGO Ultimate Building Set $24.59 – A basic set of LEGOs is a must-have for any child, boy or girl. Start early with a basic duplo set and transition around age 4 to a standard sized set. This is a good one to start with.
  • Erector Super Construction Set $44.99 (6 – 14 years) – The age range on this set is actually 8 – 14 years but our son got his first Erector set at age 4 and loves building these creations with his dad.  Now at age 5, he’s almost ready to take on some of the projects alone. This highly-rated and comprehensive set comes with a 6V battery-operated motor as well as 640+ parts and a handy carrying case.  It can be used to create 25 different models.
  • GoldieBlox & the Spinning Machine $29.99 (6 – 9 years) – I remember a friend of mine sending me a link to this toy when it first appeared on Kick Starter.  It’s been great to see the massive success this engineering toy built with girls in mind has enjoyed since then. GoldieBlox is a series of interactive books and construction toys starring Goldie, a curious girl with a love of engineering. Goldie’s stories leverage girls’ advanced verbal skills to help develop and build self-confidence in their spatial skills.
  • LEGO Architecture Studio $179.99 (12+ years)- More architecture than engineering, I still had to include this fabulously open-ended LEGO set. Described by some as “not really a toy, more a beautiful design set”, reviewers rave about the 270 page “Create your own architecture”  book that accompanies the 1200+ LEGO pieces. A well laid out introduction to architecture, as well as a guide for getting starting with building things with the LEGOs. It includes lots of pictures and lots of drawings as well as a number techniques, features, and intuitive hands-on exercises endorsed by leading architects.  Tips include things like getting different effects using some of the special pieces in the set, i.e. making windows look inset into a wall. What it is NOT is an instruction manual for constructing specific buildings – instead the point of this entire kit is to teach about architecture and then inspire users to take apply what they’ve learned to make their own creations.  I love the endless possibilities for innovation grounded in solid architectural principals here.
  • HearthSong Domino Race Set, 255 Pieces in Bright Colors and Fun Patterns $49.98 (4+ years) – I wasn’t sure whether to include this in our construction & building gift guide or our S.T.E.M. gift guide, so I put it in both! These brightly colored wood dominos are a retro toy that are as good for building creativity and critical thinking skills today as they’ve ever been. This set includes brightly colored and patterned pieces along with a few extras like ending and starting gates, pyramid steps, a bridge set, and a carrying case. Would-be engineers of all ages will spend hours set up chain reactions all over the house.
  • Midware KEVA Contraptions $45.38 (6 with help and up) – Mindware is one of my favorite brands (they’re the makers of Qwirkle, one of the top toys on our list every year) and contraptions lives up to the high standards I’ve come to expect from them. Designed to help foster an understanding of proportion and balance while teaching the basic principles of physics and engineering, this seemingly simple package of 200 identical wooden planks can be used to create ramps, funnels, chutes and crazy contraptions like the “Black Hole” and the “Bounce Plate”. Two specially designed lightweight balls and an 18-page project book are also included.

Top toys for building S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) Skills: Robotics & Tech - detailed info. including appropriate age ranges - awesome resource!


Robotics & Technology

  • Robot Turtles Game $24.99 (4 – 8 years) – As one of the only products out there with the real ability to get preschoolers and kindergartners interested in programming, this is the new toy I’m most excited about adding to the gift guide this year! The most backed board game in Kickstarter history, it sneakily teaches preschoolers the fundamentals of programming, from coding to functions, while making silly turtle noises! Takes seconds to learn, minutes to play and provides endless learning opportunities. This game has been featured by NPR, Bloomberg, Make: Magazine, Boing boing, TechCrunch, Reddit, Geekmom, Geekdad and essentially lets kids write programs with playing cards. One reviewer wrote, “There are no winners/losers. (You could make a competition out of it with several kids, seeing who can make the shortest program/have the fewest bugs/etc., but it’s not set up that way.) But it does teach kids the basics of how computers think… Once he got the hang of it, we just let our son go nuts with it. He makes up his own boards and then “writes” a program to solve it. Finally, something he can play by himself that doesn’t have a ton of annoying noises/beeps/music!”
  • Robot Claw $9.99- I picked this up on impulse while birthday shopping for my son a few years ago.  So glad I did – it was a HUGE hit. I’m not sure why I included it on this list exactly, except that the kids love it and it seems like a natural gateway toy to wanting to explore robotics.
  • Hexbug Nano Elevation 3D Habitat $40.34 (3 – 15 years) – Hexbug Nanos are robotic creatures that behave like real bugs.  These simple little guys run on vibration alone and are a great introduction to the world of robotics.  Beyond that, the flexibility of the multiple tracks allow for unlimited building options that will flex your kids’ engineering skills.  Reviewers report that any kid who loves train tables, hot wheels, and the like will get hours and hours of fun out of this toy.
  • 3D printer $1,199.00 (10+ years) – Ever since hearing Wired editor and bestselling author, Chris Anderson, speak on the new industrial revolution that’s under way and what it’s going to take to raise the next generation of innovators, I’ve had the idea of buying my kids a 3D printer percolating in the back of my head.  Although definitely an investment, Anderson quite convincingly argued that buying our children a 3D printer is tantamount to our own parents buying us our first computer. Why? Because with this one device anything our kids can imagine, they can literally create. Anderson effectively convinced me that this thing could open up a whole new world of innovation and possibilities for my children.
  • Hanz Innovations Inventor’s Lab Building Set – $59.95 (8 – 15 years) – This Dr. Toy Top 100 Toy is another great find that integrates building and technology. Invented by world famous Innovation Expert Nicholas Webb, the Hanz Platform motivates children in creative problem solving, innovation and imaginative development. It combines a construction toy with computer interaction through ever-changing building challenges posted on the Hanz site each month. Kids can even post their creations to the community gallery. The Inventor Lab contains 8 Wheels, 40 Beams and 20 Brains all made in the USA of 100% recycled materials.
  • OWI Robotic Arm Edge $38.00 (10+ years, younger with adult supervision) – For the kid who is starting to get serious about robotics, this is a great staple kit and a really good price. It’s also a great project for kids and parents to do together.
  • LEGO Mindstorms EV3 $349.95 (10+ years) – This set is beyond my kids ages right now but it recently won an Oppenheim Platinum Toy Award and I found their review compelling so I’m going to quote it here, “LEGO is rolling out a completely revamped version of the robotics kit for a new generation of kids. Knowing how essential smart phones have become, the new design enables them to operate their robots via their phones. The set comes with 17 suggested builds with three different levels of programming. Comes with a hefty price tag – but if you think of this as an after-school program in robotics, it seems more approachable.”  If your school doesn’t have a robotics program and your have interested kids in robotics and programming, I like the idea of getting together with a few like-minded parents and buying this as a joint gift for your child and a few of their friends to share.
  • Sifto Cube Intelligent Game System $129.95 (7+ years) – Called “building blocks for geeks” by Wired Magazine and “a kick in the imagination” by The New York Times, Sifto cubes are a tactile and interactive game system that allows kids to play tech games and puzzles in three dimensions. The multi-award winning cubes sense each other and your gestures, display full-color graphics, respond to touch, and communicate wirelessly. Great for family or individual play – tilt, shake, neighbor, press, scootch, wiggle, slide, flip, and stack the cubes for lots of hands-on play.
  • Stopmotion Explosion: Complete Stop Motion Animation Kit with Camera $79.00 (8 – 15 years) – Stop motion is such a cool way to get kids interacting with technology without being stuck behind a screen and this all-inclusive kit is the prefect way to get them started. This is a great way to foster open-ended creativity, especially in older kids who can work with this kit all on their own.
  • LittleBits Electronics Cloud Starter Bundle $99 (12+ years/ younger with help) – New to our list this year, LittleBits is kind of revolutionary. I highly recommend you watch the video here to get the full idea, but basically this starter kit will let your child operate any real world thing using the internet (one of my favorite examples was a balloon with the word “ego” that inflated a little more every time an instagram account was liked).  This is an amazingly open-ended tech toy and the possibilities for older kids are quite literally endless.
  • Makey Makey $49.95 (8+ years/ younger with help) – Invented by a couple of MIT students, the Makey Makey can turn virtually anything into a remote/game controller for your computer. Again, the video explains it best but think using your entire staircase to play a piano program or playing a videogame with a controller you made of paper and play dough. Just use the alligator clips and the Makey Makey to connect whatever you can think of to your computer and go!

This is just one section from a great S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) gift guide

Chemistry & Life Sciences

Experimenting with the kids at home is a great way to sneak a little learning into your bonding time and kids absolutely love it. This section is packed with books and lists to get you on your way.

  • Primary Science Set $19.83 (4+ years) – This kit of real science tools is perfectly sized for little hands. It comes with 10 double sided activity cards, beaker, magnifying glass, funnel, eyedropper, flask, tweezers, googles, large 6″ test tube and stand, and 2 small test tubes.  The authenticity of these items will have your little scientists dying to experiment.
  • Mind-Blowing Science Kit $14.41 (4+ years w/ adult supervision) – Performing some basic science experiments at home is a great way to inject a little learning into your quality time with the kids.  This set gets good reviews from parents and comes with step-by-step instructions for each experiment. There’s also a detailed science guide that provides adults with “mind blowing science secrets” that help to answer questions about what’s happening in each experiment.
  • The Everything Kids’ Science Experiments Book: Boil Ice, Float Water, Measure Gravity-Challenge the World Around You! $8.99 (8+ years) – This is kind of like Mr. Wizard in a book. Written by a highschool science and math teacher, this guide will help school-aged kids explore scientific topics with themed chapters broken down into accessible experiments of varying difficulty levels.

  • Squishy Human Body $23.22 (8 – 12 years, younger with adult supervision) – This 3D, interactive model of the body comes with all sort of squishy organs for kids to take out and examine.  It’s a great toy for kids to see how the human body works and the slightly gross factor will make them all the more enthralled.

  • National Geographic First Big Books $10.76 (4 – 12 years) and Smithsonian: The Animal Book: A Visual Encyclopedia of Life on Earth (3rd – 7th grade) $17.99 – I’m a big fan of leaving books all over the house for the kids to discover pretty much from birth.  My pre-readers will spend up to an hour perusing engaging picture books trying to glean information from them on their own or making up their own narratives.  I love these beautiful books for school-aged children as well as toddlers and preschoolers.
  • DK First Reference Series starting at $14.43 (4 – 12 years)  – This is an amazing series of books full of interesting facts and close up pictures that kids will find fascinating. There’s one for virtually any topic your child is interested; animals, atlases, space and more. Get the First Human Body Encyclopedia to use all on its own or as a companion to the squishy human body kit above.

  • Discover with Dr. Cool Kits starting at (6 – 12 years)- If geology, paleontology, and archeology are more your child’s thing, then check out these award-winning kits.  The hands-on sets come complete with real geodes, gemstones, etc. as well activity books that invite kids to partake in hours of exploratory play.  I especially like the Geode Science Kit, the Dinosaur Dig Kit, and the Real Bug Digging Kit.

  • Learning Resources Primary Science Plant and Grow Set $28.47 (3 – 8 years) – This is a 12-piece kit with see through rooting trays, pots, observation jar with vented lid, watering can, trowel, plant markers and a series of 10 activity cards that invite kids to grow a variety of plants. Perfect for burgeoning botanist, the activities encourage kids to use found materials like the pineapple tops as well as traditional seeds in their miniature garden. The round observation jar with a lid can even become a small terrarium. Check out this company’s primary science magnetic kit and their primary science mix and measure kit as well.
  • Backyard Safari Field Scope/Insecto-Scope $9.99 (4 – 12 years) – This scope’s large, easy-to-handle design is perfect for little hands. Kids can trap whatever they want under it, then use the light and knob for 6x magnification.
  • The Magic School Bus LabTM Series – Weather Lab $30.29 (5 – 12 years) – An award winning set that will serve as a nice introduction to the study of weather. Young Scientists learn by making a tornado in a bottle, recreating the water cycle, creating a rain cloud, using a sun dial, constructing a barometer, catching a rainbow, and learning about the greenhouse effect. A great pick for any child who loves to gaze at the clouds.

This is just one section from a great S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) gift guide

Single Player Math & Logic Games

I stole all of the picks in this section from parts of our Best Learning Toys for Quiet Time and our Best Picks for Family Game Night guides – check both of them out for even more options.

  • Educational Insights Design and Drill Activity Center $23.99 (3 – 8 years) – This toy has been a big hit in our house since Santa brought it last year.  It’s a pattern building toy disguised as a construction toy that has a very cool and easy-to-use working drill.  Both my 3 year old and 5 year old will spend lots of quiet time occupied with this toy.
  • Castle Logix $24.99 (3 – 8 years) and Camelot Jr. $24.99 (4 – 8 years) – The entire line of single player puzzle games from SmartGames gets such stellar reviews that it was hard not to recommend all of them!  The bold colors of these two 3-D wooden castle puzzles especially caught my eye. Assemble the wooden blocks and towers to match the challenges included in the booklet. With simple challenges for inexperienced builders to complex puzzles that will challenge skilled architects, these puzzles serve to develop logical thinking skills and spatial reasoning abilities.
  • Color Code $19.99 (4+ years) – Another beautiful game that helps develop logic and spatial reasoning skills, the unique layering action of this game really stands out.  This set also contains increasingly difficult challenges, 100 in all.
  • eeBoo Design Tiles an Exploratory Activity for Creative Visual Play $28.99 (5 – 15 years) – eeBoo products have always been a favorite of mine (we especially love their color-based Go Fish game for younger kids). Their stunning graphics make them super appealing to kids and adults alike.  These design tiles are certainly no exception. They can be used to complete challenging puzzles or in an open-ended fashion to make all new creations. Critical thinking AND creativity –  that’s my kind of toy!
  • IQ Twist $9.99 (6+ years) – This compact, award-winning multi-level logic game contains 100 challenges suitable for all ages. It would be ideal for car rides and perfect to slip in someone’s stocking this year.
  • Perplexus Maze Game $18.00 (6 – 12 years) as well as Perplexus Rookie $17.70 (6 – 8 years) for younger kids and Perplexus Epic $23.81 (6-12 years) for experienced players – Perplexus looks like one of those games that you just can’t help but pick up and play when it’s sitting on a table in front of you and, judging by the massive amounts of positive reviews, it is.  This one is great for developing fine-motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Plus I love that it’s battery-free and completely self-contained so there aren’t any pieces to get lost.
  • Laser Maze Logic Game $28.95 (8 – 15 years) – This one uses a real life laser. Your kids (and your husband) will think that in itself is pretty rad. Players will build sequential reasoning and planning skills while working on reflecting and splitting the laser beam using mirrors and targets on a puzzle grid to reach their goal.
  • Colorku Solid Wood Game Set $31.49 (8+ years) – This beautiful puzzle game uses colors instead of numbers for a new version of Sudoku – Colorku.  This would be a lovely addition to your coffee table, along with a great way to pass the time for anyone sitting nearby.

Multi-Player Math & Logic Games

  • Qwirkle $19.21 (5+ years) – My son got this strategic domino and scrabble-like game for his 5th birthday and asks to play it during our one-on-one time or as a family several times a week.  Although we’ve altered the rules and points system a bit to adjust for his age, this Parents’ Choice Gold Award and Mensa National Competition winner is still fantastic for working on shape and color recognition as well as pattern perception and spatial and critical thinking skills. This is one that our family is sure to be playing for years to come.
  • Blokus (and Blokus Jr.) $15.00 (5+ years) – Similar to Qwirkle, this is another strategy board game that challenges spatial thinking. Kind of like 3D tetris, but not exactly, this game moves quickly and doesn’t require any score keeping. It’s also a multi-award winner and gets rave reviews.
  • Swish Junior Card Game $11.43 (5 – 15 years) – The unique layering action of the transparent cards in this game make it stand out. A Swish is made when two cards (or more) are stacked on top of each other so that the solid shapes fill in the matching shape and color outlines. In order to make a Swish, the cards may be rotated and flipped, but must lay on top of each other in the same direction so that the blue borders on the cards line up. This is another game that develops visual and spatial thinking skills, but in a whole new way.
  • MindWare Q-bitz – In this challenging game players race against each other using cubes to create patterns. Round two adds luck to the equation, as players roll their cubes to match the pattern and round three really tests brain power, as players must re-create the pattern from memory. This is a game that doesn’t take too long to play and, as one reviewer put it, “take a minute to learn and forever to master”.

*Post contains affiliate links.

If you like these recommendations, I encourage you to pin or bookmark them for later when you’re ready to start shopping.  I would also love it if you forwarded the list on to your parenting friends or shared it on facebook – trust me, your friends will thank you for the help and you get to be the cool mom (or dad) with all the best resources. It’s a win-win.

Also, don’t forget to follow us on facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for even more recommendations and alerts when we spot our gift guide items on sale!

P.S. See all 10 of our 2015 Gift Guides here.



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