2016 STEM Toy Gift Guide

Recently I received a Facebook question from a friend:
img_2075

This was such a fun question to answer!  I’ve spent the last year combing catalogs, blogs, and conferences for this very thing in order to stock the STREAM Lab with engaging tools and toys.  I’ve been able to watch how my students react to each of these items, plus what my own kids (5 & 8) choose to play with each day after school.  So in case there’s another mom or teacher out there trying to navigate the multitude of STEM toy choices, I offer you my kid-tested, teacher-approved list:

A Definite YES:
My top 6…

 

 

  • Sphero SPRK Edition Around $80sphero_sprk_edition
    This works with easy to use, free apps.  Don’t ever buy a remote control anything again…buy this instead!  My kids are getting another Sphero product for Christmas, the Ollie, because you can use it outside.  (Shhh….don’t tell them!)

 

  • Ozobot 2.0 Bit Around $50ozobot-bit
    I like this one because not only can kids code using Ozobot’s apps, but it also reads code drawn on paper with regular Crayola markers.  And it’s so darn cute.  Check out what my students created for our Ozobots in class!

 

 

  • Microscope Around $85microscope
    This microscope had great reviews on Amazon when Grandma was picking one out for Chica, and it didn’t disappoint.  We have quite the collection of dead bugs and plant parts in containers around the house thanks to this gift.  These prepared slides turned out to be fascinating too.

 

  • Zoobs $55 or lesszoobs
    Like the Keva planks, these are virtually indestructible and hard to lose.  With a little imagination, you can make almost anything, but hats and glasses are a favorite in our house.  The set I’ve linked is what I have in my classroom, but you could easily get by with a smaller set for home.

 

  • Prime Climb Around $30prime-climb
    I found this game thanks to a tweet for a Kickstarter campaign.  It’s a math nerd’s dream.  If a board game can be beautiful, this is.

 

Yes, But…$$$
These are all highly recommended, but I feel like they are a little pricey.  I would suggest holding out for a good deal.

  • Legos Price Varieslegos
    In our house, one can never have too many.  One of the best deals I have found is Black Friday at Walmart.  They usually have a really big set of basic blocks as a door buster.  It’s worth waiting in the line.

 

 

  • Magna-Tiles or Magformers Price Variesmagnatiles
    If either of these are ever the Amazon Deal of the Day, let me know!  Bubba has a small set, but I want more for the lab.

 

  • Big Ball of Whacks Around $25big-ball-of-whacks-6-colors
    I have to admit, I think I like this toy more than the kids do.  It’s great for anybody that likes to fidget.

 

 

 

  • Goobi $100 or lessgoobi
    Hmmm….do you see a pattern?  Three out of four of my “too expensive” items are magnets.  Stay away from this toy if you have a little one that still put things in his or her mouth.

 

Yes
All of these are things I highly recommend, just not enough to make my Top Six list.  

  • Marble Run Around $40marble-run
    This particular set is good quality and has lots of interesting pieces.  Bubba especially likes this toy, but he still has a hard time building it on his own.  This is a favorite toy to pull out when we have a babysitter or Grandpa over to play.  You HAVE to watch this!

 

 

  • Makey Makey Around $50makey-makey
    If your kids are into Scratch, this is a great add-on.  Chica still needs some help with this one, so I’d recommend it for older kids.

 

  • GeoPlay  Around $25geoplay
    These seem to take a while for kids to get into, maybe because they don’t go together in the same way as other building toys.  I think the longer kids play, the more they like them.

 

 

  • Snap Circuits $18 and up
    The fourth grade science teacher in me loves these sets.  The mom in me worries about the pieces being broken or lost.  I would recommend them for at least 8 and up, and check out this adapter that lets you bypass the need for batteries.
  • Sewing Kit, Price Variessewing-kit
    I taught Chica how to sew by hand a couple of years ago.  Then she kept wanting to borrow my stuff and leave it all over the house.  If I ever wanted to use my materials again, I knew I had to get her her own.  I didn’t find a pre-packaged set that I really liked, so I put one together for her.  It included a sewing box, good quality scissors, thread, needles, pins, big scraps of fabric, a seam ripper, measuring tape, pin cushion, and a yo-yo maker.  (That last one was thanks to our CrossRoads friend Peggy!)
  • Root-Vue Farm Around $30root-vue
    This is not exactly a toy, but it’s such a neat contraption for learning about germination, roots, and how plants grow.

 

 

  • Qwirkle & Blockers Around $20 each
    blockersqwirkleThese are two strategy games that our family likes, but they’re definitely best for older kids or adults.

 

 

  • Drill Around $50drill
    I’m a fan of letting kids use real tools as soon as they are able to do it safely.  Papa built Bubba his own mini workbench, and he received a hammer, measuring tape, and screwdrivers that he uses with supervision.  He’s used my cordless drill from school recently too.

 

  • Hot Wheels tracks  Around $60hot-wheels
    A few years ago I stumbled upon an offer for a free classroom set.  I pulled it out for two different classes this week, and I remembered again how much kids like it!  The exact set I have is not available anymore, but you could create something similar with the one I’ve linked above plus these extra track pieces.

 

  • Tumble Trax Around $25tumle-trax
    This is probably the most used toy in the STREAM Lab.  We mounted a huge piece of metal that we got for less than $40 from BMG Metals, much like this tutorial, but a big fridge would work well too. Together with this folding stool, you have hours and hours fun.

 

Quality toys….but not our favorite
So many times I pick out something just knowing that my students or my own kids are going to LOVE it, only to be surprised when they quickly lose interest.  That’s the case with each of these final 4 toys.  Your kids might love them, but they haven’t gotten much play in our house and/or my classroom.

  • Goldibloxs  $15 and upgoldiblocks
    I love the idea behind this toy, but the kit we put together seemed difficult to modify beyond the design offered in the instructions.  I like toys that encourage kids to keep trying new things.  We had one of the very first kits made, so it’s possible that newer models have improved.

 

  • Gears! Gears! Gears! Around $40gears
    This toy seemed great for little guys, but it turned out it was harder to make interesting designs than I had expected.  By the time kids are able to really build with it, I think it seems more like a baby toy.

 

 

  • Q-BA-Maze $25 and upq-ba-maze
    These look SO cool, but both my kids and I find them hard to manipulate.  Because the connections are a bit confusing, the most interesting pieces seem to get broken easily when kids try to force them.  This is definitely geared to older kids.

 

  • K’Nex Price Variesknex
    I bought a bunch of these at yard sales over the summer.  Now I know why I could find K’Nex and never Legos…..kids are so much more drawn to Legos.  I have a brand new classroom set that I plan to break out soon in a small group…maybe I can change a few kids’ minds!

One Final Suggestion
Haven’t we all witnessed the fact that some of the best toys are not toys at all?  They’re trash…..shoe boxes, wrapping paper rolls, bubble wrap, etc.  Check out a leftover Kindergarten small group project that kept Bubba busy most of the afternoon one day this week:

So if you haven’t already, you may want to consider collecting a bin of supplies that could be your kid’s own mini engineering kit.  For tools I’d suggest tacky glue, glue stick, low temperature glue gun, hole puncher, small scissors and big scissors, a ruler, masking tape, Scotch tape, and duct tape.  I’d also get a box cutter, but store this away for only supervised use.  For basic materials consider popsicle sticks, string, cotton balls, rubber bands, clay, straws, and pipe cleaners.  Finally, get a big empty tub where your budding engineer can store all sorts of interesting recycled materials until they’re ready to create the next project.

Then sit back and watch.

How about you?  Which STEM toys are your family’s favorite?  Which weren’t worth it?  Which toys are you considering but aren’t quite sure yet if you’re going to pull the trigger?  I’d love to hear from you!

Advertisements

A Note to Self: The Wish List

Note to self:

Please, for the sake of your own sanity, ask the kids for their Christmas wish list in November.  Preferably before the day you go shopping.

Sincerely,
A Tired Santa

——————————————————————-

photo5Every year it’s something.  At two it was a Spider Man ball and at three, a skateboard.  Last year it was a scarf.  This year, we got a handwritten list the last week of school.  As in this week.  As in after Santa has completely finished all the shopping.

And every year Santa manages to pull it off.  Barely.  The tiny finger skateboard instead of the full size one she was expecting didn’t go over so well, but it happened at least.  Rose’s in the Plaza turned out to be a great place to get a scarf on Christmas Eve….while she waited in the car.  This year the list has been a bit more challenging.  Here’s the rundown:

1.  Spider Girl Costume:  So, who knew there even was a Spider Girl anyway?  Chica, apparently.   I considered making one.  For about 17 seconds.  Ha.  Hahahahaha.  I owe all my thanks to Jay and Amazon for this one.

2.  Rainbow Dash:  The list says, “Pegasus.”  I sure hope this is the same thing as Rainbow Dash…??  Anyway, during one of our stops at Michael’s over the last month, Chica spotted a stuffed version of her most favorite pony.  Despite multiple methods of coercion from her (begging, whining, shaming, etc.), we didn’t walk away from the store with this toy.  Thankfully she has a gracious Nana who was willing to go back to the store and rescue Rainbow Dash this week.

3.  Wishbone:  Seriously?  Where does she get this stuff?  She wants a real wishbone.  Like from a turkey.  This week we happened to buy a whole chicken already cooked from Fresh Market when my mom was here visiting.  When I saw the list, I thought I had the wishbone covered.  Welllll, Jay never saw the list.  So, while fixing leftovers one evening, he called her in the kitchen to offer her the wishbone.  They broke it together, and she  made a wish.  Still not sure whether I can count this list item as covered.  We’ll see.

4.  Elements of Harmony:  Definitely didn’t know what this was.  Her first couple of attempts to explain it to me were rather vague too.  So, like any other clueless Santa, I took to Google.   Turns out the Elements of Harmony is some sort of book of necklaces from My Little Pony that contain magical powers.  There are six different elements, each with a different color and symbol.  Amazon failed me on this one…this is not something I could buy.  (Second note to self…I need to pitch this idea to some toy maker and get rich so that next Christmas I can afford a personal shopper to pull off this increasingly difficult Santa stuff.  Errr…I digress.)

So I realize full well that at some point Santa can’t pull off every wish that will be on the list.  But my wheels started turning, and Nana’s wheels started turning, and we knew Rachel would be here soon to help.  We decided to just make the crazy thing.

I’m not going for a Pinterest-worthy how-to post, but in case you ever need to pull off a similar stunt, here’s how we did it:

1.  Pour a glass of wine.  Or in our case, three glasses.  Put the extra in the downstairs refrigerator because you’ll probably need it.
photo1
2.  Gather the materials:  A box disguised as a book, fake jewels, Velcro, scrapbook paper, scissors, ribbon, felt, glue, paintbrush, etc.
photo7
3.  Get your husband to use fingernail polish remover to rub the shiny finish off the back of the jewels while he watches football.  He won’t fuss as much about having to participate if he’s distracted by the game and manly conversation.
4.  Get your mother-in-law to search her amazingly huge collection of scrapbook papers for the necessary shapes:  star, diamond, lightning bolt, balloon, butterfly, and apple.  Be prepared, however, that even if she has 1,290,387 pieces of paper, you may still have to draw a few freehanded.
5.  Get your sister-in-law to cut out the shapes and modge podge them to the back of the jewels.
photo3
6.  While they do the hard parts, you can work on creating the necklace from felt and ribbon.  You can also line the box with more cool paper from her huge collection.  Then you can do the dangerous part of hot gluing the Velcro to the jewels and the box.  Be prepared to get burned.  It’s obligatory when using a hot glue gun.
photo4
7.  Remind yourself many times that, in spite of how much fun you’ve had creating this one of a kind gift, your five year old may open the box and immediately pick up on one important fact:  the real Elements of Harmony have 6 necklaces and hers has one with interchangeable jewels.  Be prepared for the worst reaction, and then you can be happily surprised if she loves it.
photo2
8.  Be sure to hide all of the evidence of your late night craftiness.  This includes deleting the pictures from your iPad after you blog about it!

——————————————————————————

SO excited about Christmas morning now.  I know that the gifts are not what it’s all about, but I just can’t wait to see her reaction.  I know that there is this small window in her little life where the magic is still very real.  I plan to enjoy that with her as long as I can.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oh…and Lynchburg friends…

I’ve still got one more thing to check off the list so that Santa can be 4 for 4.  Anybody cooking a turkey before Christmas?  : )

On Gifts and the Giver

Last week it was Jesus the Baby.

This morning at church it was Jesus the King.

Tonight it’s Jesus the Gift.

……………………………………………..

IMG_1646If you’re getting a gift from me this Christmas, I’ll go ahead and tell you where it is.  If you’re one of my kids, it’s under the bed.  If you’re anybody else, it’s in one of those bags along the wall of my bedroom, in the same place I dropped it when I came home from my marathon shopping day on Black Friday.  I had great visions of wrapping everything that night or that weekend and putting them under my tree to admire for the month of December.  Well….exhaustion and a stack of ungraded papers and Facebook and previously aired episodes of the Voice overtook me.  So there they still sit, and I’m sure they’ll be there until school is out for Christmas break.  And one night, with the help of a glass (or two) of wine and more episodes of the Voice, I’ll get it done.

…………………………………………….

One day this week while driving to school I heard the song, ”What a Glorious Night,” by Sidewalk Prophets.  It left me thinking about that night.  The night.

“I hear the angels singing, hallelujah.  Let the earth receive her king.”

I couldn’t help but think that the earth didn’t know what a gift they were getting on that night.  God knew, the angels knew, and Mary had some small understanding.  But God chose such a quiet way for our Savior to enter the world.  It was a glorious night, but no one around them knew just how glorious yet.

All of this left me thinking about God, the Gift Giver.  As much as I hate the wrapping, I am eagerly awaiting my night to be gift giver.  I’ve picked out things that I know my kids will like.  I can’t wait to see Chica’s reaction to both the things she asked for as well as the things she didn’t know she wanted.  Bubba…well, he doesn’t know to want and ask yet, but I anticipate he’ll be just as excited, if not more.

So I imagine that God had some of those same anticipations as the Gift Giver that night.  He knew that the Gift he had picked out was exactly what we needed.  It was exactly what we wanted (a savior, a king), but the form it took was unlike anyone had expected.  So as the earth slept, he delivered the Best Gift and waited for us to discover it.  Some days, most days, I feel like I’m still discovering it, still unwrapping it.

“I know that love has come.  Singing it out:  Jesus Christ is born!”

Just like the shepherds, I’m amazed.  Just like the shepherds, don’t let me hide it.

…………………………………………

So one more thought about the gift and the giver.  Can I just confess that a small part of my joy as a gift giver is the price at which I find my gifts?  I start my Black Friday shopping with a fairly tight budget, and I mostly stick to it.  I found Chica’s one “big present” this year at Ollie’s for $10.  Woo-hooo!  And Jay snagged Bubba’s during Cyber Monday on some fluke, two hour deal.  As much as I know this really isn’t the point, it sure has made the giving sweeter for me.

But what about The Gift Giver?  I keep rolling over and over the idea tonight that his gift was at full price.  The biggest price.  I wonder if his joy that night was also mixed with tiny pangs of sadness as he knew just how much it would cost him in the end.

Let the earth receive her King.  I eagerly await that glorious night.

Oh, what a glorious night.