Looking for a toy that can pry a kid away from a screen? I’m always on the hunt for products that can bring my kids back into the real world and keep them engaged — and dare I even say, get them to learn something. Below are some of my favorite gift ideas that fall squarely in that STEM space — that’s science, tech, engineering and math. Putting an educational twist on playtime doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Below are my suggestions for hands-on activities to get kids building, blending, and exploring, to help light a spark within.
Circuit Explorer is kind of like Lego, but it teaches the very basics of how a circuit works in programming. Kids learn that they need to connect the lines on the side to complete a circuit and make things light up or move. Choose from three different sets with rocket ships, Mars rovers and space stations or mix and match parts to invent your own monster machine. They can even connect with Lego bricks. Circuit Explorer is for ages 6 and up, but my 4-year-old picked it up quickly.
Thames & Kosmos
Making your own robot doesn’t need to require programming skills. This is the Kids First Robot Factory by Thames & Kosmos, and it’s good for introducing kids to basic engineering concepts. The manual is an illustrated storybook that guides youngsters through building eight different battery-powered motorized bots. Kids can also make their own contraptions, and as they go through the story they learn why each robot moves in its own way.
Here’s another take on a DIY robot. Kids can build anything they can imagine out of plastic with this 3D printing pen. The 3Doodler Start melts sticks of plastic so you can draw them into any shape, but the nozzle and melted plastic aren’t hot, so they won’t burn little hands. Draw on paper or even directly on tables as the plastic pops right off. There’s also a “Robosumo” 3Doodler Start pen kit that comes with vibrating mini robots to suit up for battle.
Want something more tasty? Draw it in the kitchen with chocolate with Skyrocket’s Chocolate Pen. A warming tray keeps chocolate gooey as your battery-powered pen sucks up the sweet stuff into the cartridge. Draw, eat, repeat. It comes in various colors and little hands will have an easy time filling up the molds. You can also draw whatever shape you want on wax paper and it’ll cool in 10 minutes. Sure, this activity is more of a creative art — but there are chemistry lessons you can teach with cooling confectionery. And that makes desserts science!
There are easy ways to get kids crafty even if you aren’t the crafty type. I subscribe to KiwiCo Crates, which are hands-on learning activities in a box. Packed with a few science and engineering lessons, they come in the mail and cater to different age groups. The box I get is for little ones, and I like the quality of items. But older kids can tackle advanced tasks, and there are even problem-solving engineering boxes for adults.
If you’re stuck trying to find screen-free activity ideas, well, just look to the old-school screen. Lite Brite is back. The machine slimmed down a bit but it’s still got the pegs you loved to punch into holes. All that pixel art may just inspire tomorrow’s game programmer.
This cute robot for ages 6 and up teaches basic programming, has various challenges and is screen-free with no phone or tablet required. Botley can detect objects and move around them, follow looping commands, navigate obstacle courses and follow a black line your kid designs. And with an included 77-piece activity set, there’s plenty to keep kids busy.
Even the wee ones in your life as young as 18 months can learn STEM with these magnetic foam builders. Soft blocks connect effortlessly and rotate so you can build creatures with head, wings, elbows and other body parts. And don’t worry about the blocks getting dirty as they’re dishwasher safe and bath friendly.
The latest historical figure doll from American Girl is an ’80s gamer wiz named Courtney. Her storybook talks about her love of Pac-Man and how she wants to someday design a video game with a girl hero. And this character has the coolest doll accessory ever: a working Pac-Man video arcade cabinet. (Sorry parents, that’s an extra $150. Yeah, we know it’s really for you.)
Of course the doll won’t teach a child programming, but exposure at a young age to these concepts can help empower girls to not think about games or programming as a “boy” thing and inspire change within culture.
Read more: Best kid’s electric ride-on toys for 2021