2016 STEM Toy Gift Guide

Recently I received a Facebook question from a friend:

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.


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!

Please Don’t Make Me Play Barbies

So let’s be honest here…there are some pretty undesirable parts of parenting that we all must endure.  There’s the daily dousing in any number of bodily fluids.  There are loud, obnoxious toys that will invariably come to life when you are trying to creep out of a sleeping baby’s bedroom.  Oh, and don’t forget stepping on torture devices also known as Legos.  (Yes, each of these did, in fact, happen to me today.)

But ranking right up there (er….down there maybe) with these other least favorite parts of parenting you’ll find playing Barbies in my list.  We don’t use the “h word” in our house, so instead I’ll say that I despise, loathe, and detest this obligation as a mom of a four year old girl.

I had an indifferent attitude toward Barbie as a kid.  I owned one metal cookie tin’s worth of Barbies, and my favorite was by far the astronaut.  She had a purpose.  But my Barbies spent most of their time crammed in the tin in the bottom of my closet.  I much preferred my Cabbage Patch doll, Legos, and a Ninja Turtle or two.

My quam with Barbie isn’t the typical body image complaint that most moms get worked up about.  I’m sure one day it will be a deal, but right now that kind of stuff isn’t on Chica’s radar.  For me the problem with playing Barbies is the script.  See, the writer and director of our play, Chica, is seriously in need of some new material.  Every single time we play, it’s all about getting married.  The director feeds me one line at a time that I must recite.  There’s no use trying to use a little artistic license and veer from the script.  We must do it her way.

This afternoon she woke me up from my oh-so-sweet Sunday afternoon nap to invite me to play with my not so favorite toy.  Grrrr.  More than anything I didn’t want to get out of bed yet, so I agreed to play if it meant I didn’t have to move from my cozy spot.  She liked that idea, and so the torture began.  When we got to the part in today’s edition of Let’s Get Married that involved red stuff dripping from Ken’s eyes, I decided this story had to be recorded for your reading pleasure.  Here’s a recap of today’s saga…

As always, the story begins with four desperate Barbies, each begging the prince, Ken, to marry her.  He gives an emphatic, “No,” to each one, but the Birthday Princess Barbie somehow catches his eye enough to give her a second chance.  He again says, “No,” explaining that he is too young to get married, but in the end he just can’t resist her.  It must be the hair.

So he agrees to marry her and invites Birthday Princess Barbie over to his house to play.  They play an exciting game of tag followed by hide-n-seek.   The prince invites Barbie to lie in his bed and look at the stars, but Barbie (played by me at that point) just isn’t ready for that step in their relationship yet.  So the prince and Barbie play more tag instead.

All of a sudden, the prince gets too tired and hot, and red stuff starts dripping from his eyes.  (Seriously…where does she get this stuff?!?)  Barbie, who is more practical than sympathetic, of course insists that he clean it up.  The prince, being a spoiled mama’s boy, calls his mom in to clean up the mysterious red liquid.  Mom seems not at all surprised and agrees willingly.

Time passes and the prince tires of Birthday Princess Barbie and her predictable games of tag and hide-n-seek.  He decides that he doesn’t want to marry her after all.  He wants to marry this one because, “She’s gooder.”

Birthday Princess Barbie responds in the only way she knows how.  She gets mean.  She determines she’s going to be the, “Queen of all princesses,” no matter the cost.

The prince’s wedding to the “gooder” girl begins, complete with an elaborate wedding march song hummed by Chica.  Birthday Princess Barbie can’t take the sight of losing her man, and she crashes their wedding.  “Marry me!” I am forced to beg.  (Here’s where a little artistic license sure could have livened up the story a bit.  There are all kinds of words Birthday Princess Barbie could have used to describe a girl who would show her crack on her wedding day.  I digressed.  Sorry.)

When crashing the wedding doesn’t work, Barbie tries her last tactic…manipulation.  She begins to sulk and then cry, and surprisingly the prince is much more sympathetic than I would have ever been.  He embraces her, and her kiss makes him realize that Birthday Princess Barbie is truly the girl for him.  He says, and I quote, “I haven’t finished the wedding meeting yet, so it’s okay.”

At this point I am actually the slightest bit interested to see if the happy couple will face any retaliation from Gooder Girl.  Regrettably I don’t get to find out, however, because a farty noise making, crawling ogre enters the room.  Yeah, Bubba woke up from his Sunday afternoon nap, and he couldn’t resist getting in on the action.  Playing Barbies with an eight month old is even less fun than playing with a four year old, so I am thankfully rescued from my misery….until next time.

Maybe next time I can convince Chica to let me be the screenwriter.  When I’m in charge, Birthday Princess Barbie won’t meet Ken until she’s had a chance to figure out who she is without him.  She’ll befriend Gooder Girl and they’ll go on all kinds of adventures together.

When they are parasailing in Rio, Barbie and Gooder Girl will meet Ken and his equally smart and handsome twin brother, Kip.  No jealous drama needed.  After a long courtship (which doesn’t involve any smooth, “Let’s watch the stars,” lines from either guy), they’ll get married in a double wedding right there in Rio and live happily ever after.  Oh…and Gooder Girl gets a new dress by then.