20 Top STEM Toys
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) Learning Takes Root
Posted: 2013-11-18 08:40:15 By: by Joanne Oppenheim


What is STEM?

STEM is short for science, technology, engineering and math.

What's the big deal?

The statistics in the job market are why it's important to foster an interest and aptitude in these subjects when your kids are still in elementary school.

The stats you need to know.  By 2018 there will be 8 million jobs in the U.S. that will require a college degree in STEM related areas. Yet, the number of students attracted to such degrees fall short of the anticipated demand. Do you have a daughter, a niece, a granddaughter? You should know that girls are even less likely than boys to seek a degree that leads to STEM jobs. In fact, according to the National Council for Women and Information Technology although women fill 50% of all jobs in our economy, they are not moving into engineering, math, technology, or science. They hold less that 25% of STEM jobs and, by the way--it's no surprise--STEM jobs pay 33% more than the typical non-STEM jobs girls opt into.

Why Do Girls Avoid STEM Learning?
In studying the gender gap, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that there is an especially low representation of women in engineering. Although we see some women in STEM jobs appearing in the news, girls tend to have few female role models in these fields. In movies, on TV and in the classroom, girls who are smart are still stereotyped as geeky. The National Council for Women and Information Technology predict that there will be 1.4 million computer specialist jobs in the US by 2020. The question is will 50% of those jobs go to women? The answer is simple - only if they begin signing on for degrees that prepare them for those jobs.

The good news. Young children, girls and boys alike, are by nature little scientists as they explore their world. (see our article on: Top STEM Toys for Preschoolers)

Where it goes wrong. Studies show that by 4th grade a third of our kids are turned off on science. By 8th grade, close to 50% consider it irrelevant to them. This kind of brain drain needs to stop. Our 15-year old students now rank 28th in math literacy and 24th in science literacy. The National Education Association (NEA) is working to prepare students with more rigorous math and science for engineering and other STEM jobs.

What can you do to inspire enthusiasm for STEM learning with the children in your life?

At every stage and age, there are opportunities to enrich their understanding and use of math skills, by talking about what they are seeing and doing. Look for ways to make math and science relevant in real life. For school-age kids there are more complex but entertaining activities that give them the underpinnings for understanding physics, using math, growing their problem-solving abilities with a new crop of playful but smart toys. These are toys that offer real challenges. They are not instantly ready…they have to be put together and require patience, stick-ability. These are the kinds of skills kids need to bring to the classroom and labs of the future.

Traditionally, most of construction and techie toys were brought home to the boys in the family. Even the boxes and ads delivered a gender message that is thankfully out of date.  Recently, toymakers have discovered that girls actually love building sets. In fact,  "girls construction" is one of the fastest growing areas in toyland with almost every major player (including Barbie) vying for a piece of the puzzle.

What's also exciting is that there is a new crop of toymakers, grads from MIT and Stanford creating innovative products to appeal to girls and boys.  Here are our Top Twenty STEM TOYS to grow your child’s engineering, science, math and technology skills.




2013 Award
Deluxe Roominate
(Roominate $49.99 Score: )

Welcome to a new world of doll houses! It's a doll house for kids to design, build and electrify. This one is less about interior decoration and more about engineering. A terrific concept for getting girls involved with problem solving and spatial skills, and building circuits. The deluxe kit comes with a light and motor and tons of building pieces and craft materials. Elizabeth, our 8-year old tester, LOVES Roominate. Her mom reports, "She has created some really cool rooms--and I love that it's so open-ended. She loved hooking up the battery, doing the wiring - and using the paper to design the wallpapers. It's a great toy for girls because it encourages building, electrical and engineering skills and isn't too "girly." I would say that I think age 6 is probably too young for independent play with Roominate. At age 8,  Elizabeth read and followed the directions and had lots of ideas about what she wanted to build and how to do it. "

The company says 6, we agree with Elizabeth's mom and suggest you save this for 8's and up.

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machines
(Goldie Blox  $29.99 Score: )

Designed by a recent engineering graduate of Stanford, this young science kit is designed to entice girls to play around with easy to build machines with playful appeal. The kit comes with a book that guides the young builder, a pegboard base, 10 axles, blocks, ribbon, a crank, washers, five animal characters and 14 clever ideas for making constructions. It combines fantasy play with basic science all done up in colors girls seem to prefer. Given our need for future engineers and scientists, we think this is an entertaining and engaging toy that will hold their interest.  6 & up.

Age: Early School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Awards
LeapFrog Leap Pad Ultra
(LeapFrog $149.99 Score: )

How do you make a good thing better? We loved the original Leap Pad and now the Ultra takes it to a new level. It has a Hi-Res 7-inch light-touch screen, a built in 9- hour rechargeable battery, and is loaded with 11 Apps. It has a front and back camera and has 8 GB of Memory that can hold 40,000 photos or more than 100 Game apps. The Leap Pad Ultra has kid-safe Wi-Fi that will not take kids to the web locations they should not reach, but it gives them access to the Leap Frog library of more than 800 games, ebooks, videos and music that is child friendly and age appropriate. You can download learning games that are suited to you child's skill level. You'll find games to reinforce math, reading, art, science and social studies. This Leap Pad Ultra does it all and should it be accidentally dropped - not to worry. It can do that too and keep on playing. 4-9

Age: Preschool, Early School Years, Later School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Magformers Inspire Sets
(Magformers $24.99-49.99 Score: )

Getting some girls into construction play seems to work by coloring the building materials to their taste. Although we prefer gender free materials, we still think it more important for girls to be building, since this is one of the ways that kids develop their understanding of spatial relationships and basic math concepts. For generations, boys excelled in these areas, in part, because of the experience they had from building models and construction sets. Giving girls construction sets is one way to give girls the mindset and can-do math skills needed for wider career choices. New from Magformers, two gender specific sets of magnetic shapes colored in shades of pink, purple, aqua and blue. Choose a 14 or 30 piece set. Each comes with triangles and squares that can be used to copy models or for open-ended creations and discoveries. All magnets are safely inside the plastic forms. Hands-on experiments help kids discover not only some math concepts, they have to deal directly with the magnetic poles inside the plastic forms, turning them so that they attract. Also see: Magformers Light Show. This combines stealth learning: math, science, visual and manual dexterity, creative problem solving, construction play, imagination, and good fun.  Marked for 3 & up, we think these make more sense for slightly older players.


Age: Preschool, Early School Years, Later School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.





2013 Award
MindWare Q-BA-MAZE 2.0
(MindWare $39.99 & up Score: )

We hade some totally amazing marble maze toys this season. This one made a huge hit with older builders. The plastic translucent pieces can be connected both vertically and horizontally and joined with bendable tubes to create complex pathways for the steel marbles to run through. The rushing marbles make a nice sound as they move through the maze. These are not magnetic marbles, but you will need to keep them out of the reach of kids who are still mouthing their toys. Start with the big box set ($39.99) or you can go straight to the Mega Stunt set ($79.99)  that includes along with a good supply of colorful cubes, a pivot trampoline, marble vortex, coaster tubes, stilts and 30 marbles. This is the kind of toy that builds dexterity, patience, and problem solving. It's a playful introduction to physics as well as pushing those creative buttons. They say 6 & up. We think most 6 year olds will need help. This is probably a better bet for mixed ages, parent and child or for older kids who will enjoy it independently. New for 2014, is a Starter Stunt Set ($49.95).


Age: Early School Years, Later School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2012 Award
Lego Bricks and More Pink Brick Box
(Lego Systems, Inc. $14.99 Score: )

Designed to appeal to girls, this pink storage box filled with 224 pieces comes with building directions for building a house, vehicle, and outdoor area. While we still prefer the traditional tubs and buckets with primary color building bricks that are gender neutral and appropriate for boys and girls, we understand that some girls prefer these colors. Since building is such an important skill for developing spatial relationships and math skills, we would say pink building is better than no building. So, we avoid being absolutists on this subject. Unlike earlier pink block sets from other makers, the themes of most of the new girlie Lego collection doesn't center on malls and beauty shops. This set is marked 4+. We'd say these tiny pieces will be a challenge to many 4's and even 5's.

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2012. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2012 Awards
Creativity For Kids Complete Paper Making Kit
(Creativity for Kids $29 Score: )

Part Science/part art this is a kit with everything needed to turn old paper into new. Kids can make their own paper and decorate it for cards. Comes with shredded paper, but you can recycle the many kinds of paper that come into your home. The kit includes a basin, paper making tray, screens, sponge, paper punch, scissors, stencil and many more goodies. This is a kit that introduces how to create your own tags, cards and even jewelry.

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years, Tweens. Award Year: 2012. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Laser Pegs Sports Car
(Laser Pegs $24.99 Score: )

Builders can make 8 different vehicles that light-up. The Sports Car has 83 construction parts, 4 tire pegs, 2 laser pegs and 1 power block. It requires 3 AAA batteries. Our tester gave the directions a thumbs up for clarity and had a lot of fun with variety of vehicles he could build. 5 & up.

Age: Early School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Crayola Marker Maker
(Crayola $24.99 Score: )

Imagine being able to make your own markers and even blend the colors to make your own unique choices! That's what this innovative toy can do. It comes with a good supply of ink, marker barrels, plugs, tips, and cores. The process is relatively simple. You put the filler core ito a holder and pour ink into the holder. When the core absorbs the ink you use the giant tweezers to place the core into a barrel. Then the "machine" lever puts the plug in place with two snaps. Next, the tip goes in place and you let the marker continue to absorb ink up to the tip. There is a color chart that shows how kids can combine colors to get custom blends that make their markers better than any they could just go out and buy ready made. There are refill kits available. A word of caution: these are not washable inks, so protect clothing and work surfaces. The kit is marked not for children under 3, but we think this is a more appropriate choice for kids over 5 with adult supervision.

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2012 Award
Primary Science Mix and Measure Set
(Learning Resources $29.99 Score: )

Learning about measurement equivalencies comes built into this clever set of measuring tools. For starters you want to give kids a chance to explore how many cups it takes to fill the bigger containers and to discover that the tall and short two-cup containers are the same. The 12-piece set includes measuring spoons and 1/4, 1/2, and 1 cup measures, 2-cup and 4 cup beakers. A small scale is included along with some clever activity cards to use with your child. These science activities are recipes for creating bubble solution, puffy paint, clay, trail mix, slime stencils, mystery goo and other more basic measuring experiments. The well made materials and activity cards add up to a wealth of entertaining parent and child explorations that make early connections to science. 4 & up.

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2012. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Clifford the Big Red Dog Kitchen Science
(Scholastic $19.99 Score: )

One of a series of science kits for preschoolers. This one uses things found in the kitchen to make a volcano explosion, slime, crystals, fungus and more. The items in the kit include plastic test tubes, mini-volcano form, a small tank for making slime and other props. Best of all there is a wonderful step-by-step experiment book that will walk you through all these together activities. In the past, most of these experiments were more typically done with kindegarten, 1st and 2nd graders. That said, there is nothing in this kit that preschoolers will not enjoy trying. Clearly, this is not a solo toy, but rather a chance to explore together. They have also done a Bubble Science Kit and Rainbow Science. These are available at PBS Kids site and the Scholastic site. As of this writing they were not elsewhere. Marked for 3+, we think they make more sense with 5+.

Age: Preschool, Early School Years. Award Year: 2013.


LATER SCHOOL YEARS 9 & up, up, up



2013 Award
K'nex Education - Investigating Solar Energy
(K'nex $69.99 Score: )

Talk about going green, this is a construction set that runs of solar energy. Kids can make six different models with the 128 piece Knex set comes in a good size tub for easy storage. It is designed to give them a hands-on experience of building a working machine from scratch. In an age when science and math are so vital, this is one of those smart toys that will both entertains and educate without turning kids off. It's challenging but rewarding. Our tester was especially taken with the "crank man" that she built and put on a sunny windowsill. Designed originally for the classroom, this is one of a new series of construction toys with a scientific edge that will entertain as well as enhance their understanding of renewable energy. This amazing animated construction set comes with detailed instructions and is sure to be a hit for kids. 9 & up. Also see, K'nex Exploring Wind & Water Energy. Both good choices for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) learning.

Age: Later School Years, Tweens, Teens. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Thames & Kosmos Gyrobot
(Thames & Kosmos $50.49 Score: )

Did you know that there is a gyroscope in your smart phoe, your tablet, the video controllers, airplanes, space telescopes...you name it. But how about building one? Does that sound like a challenge? In fact, following the directions in this amazing new set, kids can explore the world of physics as they build 7-motorized models that give them hands-on playful experiences as they learn about the jobs gyroscopes do in our world. In an age when science and math are so vital, this is one of those smart toys that is not instantly consumed, but rather invites repeated exploration. The well-written 24-pg manual gives them 7 experiments: the gyroscope goes into a robot, gyrocompass, flight simulator, balance game, gyro horizon, personal transporter, and a tightrope walker.  A good choice for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) learning.


Age: Later School Years, Tweens, Teens. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Magic School Bus Weather Lab
(The Young Scientists Club $40 Score: )

A bus-shaped science kit features the clever Ms Frizzle's weather experiments that our testers were eager to try. They made a tornado in a bottle, constructed a barometer, used a sun-dial and more. They learned about tracking and keeping a log of the weather with a thermometer, rain gauge, wind vane and compass. There are 28 experiment cards, weather station base, wind vane, plastic cup with rounded top, measuring cup, sponge, thermometer, pinwheel, 3 pieces of clay, peat pellet, paper plate, string, dish, 2 cardboard circles, bar magnet, 3 plastic tubes, straw pencil, index card, petri dish, weather chart, data notebook, snake model, anemometer, bottle connector, and 2 sticker sheets for budding meteorologists.

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
(Lego Systems, Inc. $49.99 Score: )

One of the intermediate builds from the new Star Wars collection for 2013, the Headhunter got high marks from our testers even though it's not from a major scene or have a famous minifig. Our tester reported: "We've built a number of the starships and most of them are not sturdy and the wings fall off and need rebuilding when you play with them. This one is impressive and sturdy." The build comes in four bags. Our tester loved that three of the bags included a minifig - keeping the interest going as the build progressed. Comes with a Jedi who has 4 arms and 2 double lightsabers. This is not your father's Star Wars!

Age: Later School Years, Tweens, Teens. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Little Bits Deluxe 18 Bit Set
(littleBits $199.99 Score: )

Just as the name says, this is the biggest, deluxe version of a clever kit that allows kids to snap together a spectacular array of library of electronic modules. This kit has 18 color coded modules that budding engineers can explore to make sound, light, buttons and sensors without having to use wires, solder or programming. There is an excellent project book with instructions for 15 projects and many, many more projects on the littleBits website. Testers were amused with making a Tickle Machine, Prank Handshake, Auto Greeter, Truck Crane, among others. A science toy with a sense of humor. THere are smaller less pricey sets. The Base Kit $99 is a good introductory kit with 10 bits, a project book and a button, dimmer and buzzer to make a doorbell for your room. The Premium Kit $149 and has 14 bits and a good number of accessories to spark your child's creative circuits. Additonal base projects are are available online. Another good choice for STEM learning.

Age: Later School Years, Tweens. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Sifteo Cubes Intelligent Game System
(Sifteo $129.99 Score: )

Sifteo Cubes is a revolutionary toy that looks to change how kids, and tech-loving adults, play with blocks. Co-founder David Merrill's 2009 TED Talk originally opened our eyes to the possibilities of Sifteo blocks. Each Sifteo Cubes set comes with one home speaker, three cubes, one USB cable, and a carrying pouch. Additional cubes can be bought separately to enhance the learning and gaming experience. New games can be downloaded by plugging the home speaker into a computer and purchasing games from Sifteo's website. Although the cubes are still a new product the games are innovative, educational, and most importantly, fun.

Sifteo Cubes sets come with four games, Cube Buddies, Code Breakers, Word Caravan, and Chroma Splash. Each game presents different learning challenges to young users.

Word Caravan is a word puzzle game that utilizes the tilt and neighbor-awareness of the cubes. The goal of the game is to create a specified number of words from the letters displayed in the cubes; each cube shows two letters whose order can be switched by tilting the cube in each direction. Word Caravan is a fun and thought-provoking game that requires young readers to creatively access the situation and make words on the spot. For more experienced readers the cubes do not always recognize advanced vocabulary, and simply ask for low-level words to complete the level.

Chroma Splash is a challenging puzzles game that incorporates the tilt, touch, and neighbor-awareness capabilities of the cubes. The game asks that players match colored bubbles on neighboring cubes and then pop the matching bubbles to move to the next level. Each level has different color and positioning combinations that require gamers to think through the puzzle before starting.

Code Crackers proved to be a great mathematics puzzle game. The objective of the game asks players to combine the numbers displayed on the cube using different mathematical functions to make the target number at the end of the equation. Beginning levels test basic addition and subtraction skills. As difficulty rises the equation lengths are extended and multiplication and division are added to the game.

Cube Buddies tests the facial recognition abilities of players, and asks gamers to recreate the scrambled faces of various cartoon characters. It uses the familiar neighbor-awareness function to match the various misplaced facial features together.

In addition to the four games sent with every Sifteo Cubes set, we tested two additional games, Sandwich Kingdom and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Ninja Slide, as well as two smaller color and sound programs, Bliss Bomb and B!

Sandwich Kingdom quickly proved to resemble many of the old Sega Genesis and Gameboy RPGs such as Shining Force and Golden Sun. Like the beginning of all these games Sandwich Kingdom has long-winded dialogue and movement motions. Unfortunately the redeeming quality for all of those old games, the turn-based fighting, is not included in Sandwich Kingdom. Despite the lack of fighting the method used to move throughout the maze-like levels is spectacular, and redeems Sandwich Kingdom as a top-notch puzzle-labyrinth game. The use of multiple cube displays to reveal the level layout by laying them next to each other is ingenious. It allows players to investigate multiple routes before moving the character by tapping the display you wish the main character to walk to.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Ninja Slide is my favorite game of the Sifteo Cubes set. It is reminiscent of Rush Hour with the addition of slight cartoon violence. Each stage asks the player to tilt and click Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, or Rafael to a specified end point. The player slides through the puzzle-like courses, ranging across multiple cube displays, occasionally dispatching enemies with one of the four ninja turtles' unique weapons.

Bliss Bomb and B! are two interesting additions to the Sifteo Cubes set. Bliss Bomb is a strobe color program that allows users to combine the different cube displays to create different colored and patterned shapes on the screen. Unfortunately this can be a bit irritating to look at after an extended period of time. B!'s function as a interactive sound system is a interesting concept. Each screen displays a different pattern that has it's own color and sound. When the cube screen is tapped a sound is emitted and the pattern changes. Overall both of these programs are not the most engaging additions to the otherwise stellar Sifteo Cubes set. They would likely only keep users occupied for a matter of minutes before moving on to the one of the more extensive and lengthy puzzle game programs.

  - review by Matthew Weinstein

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years, Tweens, Teens, Adult. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Educational Insights Even Steven's Odd Game
(Educational Insights $19.99 Score: )

A rapid fire dice game that reinforces addition, subtraction skills. The game comes with 40 2-level challenge cards, four dice holders, and 24 dice in red, yellow, green, blue and white. Everyone plays at one time, rolling his dice again and again to be the first to complete the challenge and fill his dice holder playing board. First one to win 10 challenges is the winner. For 2-4 players ages 7 & up.

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Spy Gear Panosphere 360 Spy Cam
(Spin Master $59.99 Score: )

While we're not big on spy toys per se or suggesting that your child train to become a spy, the technology of capturing 360 degree videos with audio is thrilling. Until recently, such equipment was extremely expensive and complicated. Once you've captured the video, you can choose different angles to view. On the full site, spygear.net, kids can then edit their original videos. One of the most innovative toys we've seen this year!

Age: Early School Years, Later School Years, Tweens, Teens, Adult. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.




2013 Award
Mindstorms EV3
(Lego Systems, Inc. $349.99 Score: )

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.  We are waiting for our testers feedback. This toy made our Platinum Award list in 2007.

We sent it to a family with 4 builders (14, 12, 10 and 9 years old). The 9 year old let his brothers fill us in. They did a great job reviewing this product. Here's what they reported:  

Mindstorms is a really fun robotics set. It is really awesome because you can program it to do anything you want. The programing itself is very easy. You just click and drag, and it is very intuitive. There are more advanced setting if you want to be more detailed. The directions to build were easy to follow even though they were online. The robot that we built could track its remote and then when it got close enough, would shoot it with a ball. It could usually hit it within two or three shots. The set is made of Lego technics, which are a slightly more complicated Lego. But it makes building moving parts very easy. It comes with a touch sensor, a color sensor, and an ultra sonic sensor, so it can see where it is going. The sensors are really fun to work with, and you can make things you can't usually make. Over all it is a great robotics kit. One of the best I've ever worked with.
-14 year old

Mindstorms is easy to use and is appropriate for ages 10 and up. It comes with directions to make certain robots, but you can also make things you want. The directions are easy to follow, and the parts seem really durable.
-12 year old

...each robot has a specific mission. For the humanoid, you could set it up to find and shoot the remote control. And that was really cool. Also you could switch it to a mode where you can control it with the remote control. Each side of the remote would control a side of the robot. Or you could switch it to channel two and when you press forward, he would shoot low, and you press backwards it would shoot high. The remote control has 4 buttons and 4 channels. Which makes it pretty easy to use.
-10 year old

Here's what their mom wanted other parents to know:

The technic legos are more difficult to work with than regular lego blocks. The kids really had to pay attention to which piece they were supposed to take (a 6cm rod vs an 8cm rod to connect things made a big difference). I found the directions on the website a little trickier to follow than the ones in a physical book. But the kids didn't have as much trouble as I did. Also, some of the directions were harder to actually do like when you had to flip some pieces around that you had built to connect it to the wires. They were able to get them, but the 9 year old had to ask for help occasionally from the older boys.
They built the trickiest humanoid robot first...but were excited about all the different choices. I think they will make most of them over time. After they took the pictures, they were going to take it apart and try something else. Overall, very well done. But definitely for the older set of kids.

A picture from our testers:


Age: Later School Years, Tweens, Teens. Award Year: 2013. Click here to purchase the product on Amazon.com.


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