2016 STEM Toy Gift Guide

Recently I received a Facebook question from a friend:
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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!

Currently Us

Eating
Chica:  Her new-found love is shrimp.  I think the kid could exist on shrimp and mac and cheese alone.  Since school only serves these most favorite foods about once a month, she mostly packs lunch.  Emphasis on she.  Yay for eight.
Bubba:  School lunch.  Thank the Lord for one less thing to do in the morning.
Me:  Also school lunch.  Again…one less thing.

Reading
Chica:  Upside-Down Magic, a book she got at the book fair.  This is slightly better than the Pokemon library book she’s been attached to lately.
Bubba:  Pup & Pop.  It has been so interesting to observe the differences in how the two of them learned to read.  Chica was a whole language girl, guessing most of the words by context and the beginning letter sound.  Bubba wants to sound out ev-er-y-th-ing.
Me:  Teachers’ Knowledge and Its Impact, an article for my VT class.  I’ve wanted to write a blog post all day, but I told myself I had to finish my reflection on this article first.  It hasn’t happened yet, but here I am.  Oh well.

Listening
Chica:  Hamilton.  Right Hand Man is her most frequent request.
Bubba:  Hamilton.  While waiting for the bus, he was singing, “I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.  Dadadadadaaaaaa….”  Jay sent him off with reminders that this was a line that he could not sing at school.  Fingers crossed.
Me:  Hamilton.  Today may favorite song is Dear Theodosia.  “You will come of age with our young nation…”

Watching
Chica:  Pokemon.  I admit I’ve never watched it.
Bubba:  Pokemon.  Tonight while Jay and Chica made dinner, I asked him to explain it to me.  I heard about gyms and battles and the league and…well….that’s pretty much all I got.
Me:  Jimmy Fallon clips on YouTube.

Saying
Chica:  She’s going to make her Halloween costume.  We’ve got one more day to figure that out.  Ugh.
Bubba:  Yes to more things.  Like this week he said yes to helping me sort recycled materials at school.  We spent an entire hour working together happily.  Who is this new kid?
Me:  I’m going to run the RNUTS.  Yes, I’m pretty sure I AMNUTS.

Playing
Chica:  The violin.  When I remind her.
Bubba:  Anything his buddy Westin is playing.  I love our sweet neighbors.
Me:  The how-long-can-I-keep-my-house-picked-up game.  I’m going on one week.  Chica asked me if this was a record.

Hoping
Chica:  She will finish her Girls on the Run 5K next month.  I am amazed at the confidence she has gained by participating in this.
Bubba:  We will go anywhere but home every day after school.
Me:  I can make it through another week without dropping one of the too many balls I’m juggling.  Last week I turned in my homework late.  I don’t like that feeling, but, realistically I’m on the other side saying, “So what?”  The world keeps turning.  I’ll still pass the class.  Life happens.

Learning
Chica:  Focus and responsibility.  I’m thankful for her teacher who is incredibly patient and understanding.
Bubba:   Ants.  We had an oh-so-engaging dinner conversation this week about how many body sections ants have.  His teacher is always doing something to get that guy thinking!
Me:  How to use tools.  Last week it was a band saw.  Today I watched Jay use a miter saw, and I’m pretty sure I could do it by myself.  Tomorrow I’m going to use a dremel.  Sharon Bulson would be proud.

In case you enjoy looking back as much as I do…
Currently Me 2014
Currently Bubba 2014  (I guess Chica got missed….sorry kid.)
Currently Me 2013
Currently Chica 2013
Currently Bubba 2013

I Needed the Pep Talk

“This. This is why I write. Because even a half-written, well-intended dispatch from a southpoint in time is better than a vague, distant memory evaporating into the Heavens.” Charlie Capen

I have a confession to make. Actually, I have about ten to make from this day, but let’s start at the beginning:

I was more nervous about Day One of soccer camp than she was.

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I had checked and rechecked the list of things we were supposed to bring.  I lathered on the sunscreen extra thick.  We completed at least three pep talks about not giving up and being a good sport.  Who knew I would be the one needing the real pep talk?

I’m still not sure what I was so fearful of.  I guess mostly that she would do her melting routine the second that she missed a ball or even felt like she might miss a ball.  I so want her to be tough.  Resilient.  Determined.  Persistent.  But she’s just not there yet.  She’s sensitive and tentative (and also stubborn!) and needs someone over and over to help her pick up the puddle and remind her, push her, to keep going.

So Bubba and I sat on the sidelines and chatted it up with one of those moms that makes it look easy.  After a few minutes, Chica ran off to join her coach, carrying her soccer ball (yeah…she’s real new).  Deciding it was now or never, Bubba and I made our exit.  And as we drove to our “something-fun-to-do-while-sister-is-at-soccer-camp” destination, I apologized to all of those mommies that I had judged:

To the mom who had to walk her kid up to the cabin on summer camp drop off day when she was supposed to say goodbye at the bottom of the hill, I’m sorry.  I get it now.

To the mom who came to class to help her (big) kid unpack on his first day in a new school, I’m sorry.  I get it now.

To the mom who’s afraid to leave her kid in the nursery with a sea full of faces she doesn’t know, I’m sorry.  I get it now.

I think each of those mommies just needed her own pep talk too:  You’ve done your very best to prepare her for whatever lies ahead.  And if when she screws up, the adults around her will remember that she is, in fact, only 6 (or 2, or 10, or however old).  They won’t be thinking about you, Mom.  They’ll be thinking about how to get her back on track, and it will happen.  And she’ll remember to go to the bathroom, and she’ll make a friend or three, and she’ll. be. fine.

So she was fine.

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And the report I got from her is that soccer camp was “fun” and she did “pretty good” in in the not giving up department.  Turns out, as best as I could gather from her, that this means she sat out a few times because she was afraid of losing, but there were no tears involved.  Over lunch I was working hard to convince myself that this, in fact, was a victory, when she came out of nowhere to tell me that she shared her snack with a friend who didn’t like what his mom had packed.

Thank you, Chica, for reminding me that being tough and resilient and determined and persistent isn’t the only goal.  I admire your generous heart.

——————————————————————

So I began by saying that I had about ten more confessions to make from this day.  I’m out of time for details, but here are the other nine:

2.  I asked Jay if swimming in the pool could count as a bath for the kids.  He said no.  I’m still going with yes.
3.  I ate more Hot Tamales today that I care to count, each time digging into the bag stashed in the cabinet hoping that the kids wouldn’t notice.  I think I have a problem.
4.  I’m trying hard to limit the amount of time my kids spend in front of a screen, but I don’t follow those same rules myself.  Not cool.
5.  I got all kinds of aggravated at Chica because she continues to show no interest in learning how to swim for real.  Scary Mommy made an appearance at the YMCA this afternoon.
6.  This afternoon I worked on sorting and throwing out kindergarten papers that came home on the last day of school.  I’ve learned the hard way to burry this kind of thing in the trashcan several layers deep.  (This one is barely a confession…doesn’t every mom do this??)
7.  Bubba was more fun this morning without Chica.
8.  I bribed Chica to do housework with Hot Tamales.  I’m not sure if I mentioned this part to Jay when he thanked me for all the work I got done today….
9.  I bought Bubba a pair of shoes even though he said they didn’t fit right.  I’m over it.  After trying on 15 pairs with no luck, I finally decided he didn’t know what he was talking about.
10.  Err….I actually can’t think of a tenth.  But ten sounded better than nine, so I left it.  I lied. Sorry.

Eighteen Gifts Before Nap Time

70.  Accidentally sleeping in.
71.  Nana, who was keeping the kids, so that I could accidentally sleep in.
72.  Leftover pizza for breakfast, washed down with buttered tomato biscuits.
73.  My Saturday morning running group.  So. Fun.
74.  A new friend who slowed down to run with me while I (slowly) pushed my clunky stroller.
75.  Chica’s sweet spirit as we walked from the Depot to the Market.  “Mom…It’s just like we are on a play date.  I like being with you.”
76.  The zigs and the zags.  As we walked the new Lower Bluff Walk up from 9th Street to Commerce, Chica said, “Now we’re on the zig!”  And then we’d make a turn, and call, “And now this is the zag!”  Thanks to the zigs and the zags, we got up a really steep hill very quickly!
77.  The Community Market.  I can’t say enough how much I love that pace on a summer Saturday morning.
78.  The two tiny little kids eating some great big peaches on the back of a farm truck while their momma worked.  The older of the two was double fisting it, and the little girl had juice just pouring down her bib.  What I wouldn’t have done for my camera in that moment.  It was so perfect.
79.  The guy with the goat cheese.  Man, he is one friendly dude, even when I sample his stuff every week and only seem to buy it every thirteenth visit or so.  I’m thinking next week’s the week.  I’m might go for the spicy pimento flavor…it’s a winner.
80.  That extra $20 I found stashed in a pocket of the diaper bag.  The $4 I found in my wallet wasn’t going to make it very far.  My kitchen table is still loaded with tomatoes, new potatoes, green beans, zucchini, squash, an onion, Gala apples, and cucumbers.  This summer is going out with a bang.
81.  The lady who piled my bucket of apples til overflowing.  We had already devoured three of them before we were even home.
82.  A calm moment to just sit at the fountain and watch Bubba gnaw on an apple core while Chica hunted for pebbles.  The music, the little kids dancing, the bigger kids rolling down the hill…grabbing my kairos moment for the day right there.
83.  Living room picnics.
84.  Bubba’s giggles and giddiness when I finally convinced him to swing with me.
85.  Free hotdogs at Miller Park.  And that orange paste that can only be a result of kids eating Cheetos.
86.  Pre-K teachers that are (and always will be) magical.
87.  Nap time.  I’m certain I’ve probably already listed this somewhere in my list of 87, but I’m also certain it’s just that good of a gift to mention multiple times.  I know this won’t be the last.