STEM toys for children are excellent resources for having fun, supplementing a school curriculum and designing your own home education set-up. Playing with STEM toys encourages your child to learn skills that are essential to their future such as design, critical analysis, logical reasoning and teamwork. The term STEM can feel a little daunting at first, but is very simple. So, what exactly is STEM?
This is a guest post by Laura McCartney of www.curiouslittlemonkeys.com, qualified teacher and founder of Curious Little Monkeys gentle learning group.
STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. This abbreviation is used to describe a type of curriculum used both in schools and a home education environment.
The merits of STEM based education are widely accepted and promoted by the home education community, and increasingly schools are moving towards a more hands-on approach with these subjects. Children will undoubtedly need these skills for the job market when they are adults. The future is technology!
At Curious Little Monkeys learning group, we facilitate learning rather than ‘teaching’ the children in traditional ways. We help them learn how to think, not what to think. We love to place (strew) wonderful resources and challenges around our facility and let the children discover and explore them by themselves.
We recommend that when you use the STEM toys for children recommended in this article, you take a step back and give your child space to explore the resource in their own way, instead of directing them. Here is a picture of our learning group’s STEM base- children can select from a huge range of activities, use books if they need inspiration and get stuck in!
Of course, as parents and learning facilitators we are on hand if they want our involvement or encouragement, but the key to effective learning and development is allowing them the space and time to explore in their own way. Adults (even without meaning to) tend to steer things a certain way or make an activity very prescriptive. When children are given the opportunity to investigate and explore freely, wonderful things happen.
By facilitating the use of these STEM toys for children, you encourage the development of an excellent skill set. These subjects require children to be hands-on (a learning style that works for most children, particularly those with additional needs) to effectively solve problems. This grows an inquisitive mind.
STEM toys for children encourage six key processes that move them towards becoming an independent, critical thinker. These processes are:
- Considering a problem objectively
- Designing a solution
- Building prototypes
- Testing their prototype
- Improving on original designs
- Moving towards a successful resolution
STEM toys for children also help to nurture a can-do attitude and build resilience.
Things rarely work first time, so the act of constructively criticising your own or someone else’s work is a very valuable skill to learn. So too is working collaboratively and being part of a productive team while using effective tools for communication.
So, what would we recommend for your child to have at home in order to harness some of these skills? Here are our 10 most recommended STEM toys for children that are all durable, long lasting and amazing value – they are the toys that will be handed down to grandchildren and are excellent investments for long term play and learning, all the way through from early years and into high school.
The electric circuits sets that we have include lights, switches, motors, buzzers and various other components. They also have booklets with step by step instructions that children carry follow independently.
Once children have understood the basics of putting together electric circuits, they can then use their imagination to create all sorts of fun arrangements. Our personal favourite brand is Snap Circuits, although they are a little more expensive than the cheaper brands they have loads of extension packs that are great for progressing your child’s exploration and skills as they get older.
This Snap Circuits kit is the one we would recommend as a starter with a lot of activity options; they hold their value so if your child doesn’t love it you can always sell it; however if you would prefer to start with a more basic kit then this smaller one is great as an introduction.
Sets like this are brilliant to introduce children to the concept of coding; a skill that is becoming increasingly sought-after as we develop new and innovative digital technology. Coding sets have a tool into which children can program instructions, and then have a robot follow those instructions.
The skills developed using coding set STEM toys/resources include design; logical reasoning; problem solving; teamwork and emotional management (it takes work to channel frustration into a practical solution!)
This particular coding set (picture above) comes with a super cute mouse and cards to show how to set up the course and where to place the cheese. It’s very satisfying for children to complete the challenges by instructing the mouse to make a sequence of moves. Really fun and at times frustrating- but in a good way! They can of course design their own layouts and create tasks for a friend to undertake.
We recommend the Learning Resources Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set. It is suitable for ages 4+ and the 11 year olds at our homeschool group still love it; you can increase the complexity as your child progresses.
These water canal sets are so much fun and easily accommodate several children working together. Children get to learn all about the properties of water and other physics concepts through water engineering.
The sets come with suggested set ups but there are mulitple possibilities for children to design their own. We have few versions that can be combined to make huge waterways, with working locks, pumps, cranes and paddle wheels. A firm favourite on a warm day for hours of fun and educational play!
Aquaplay canals are our favourite water canals- they are extremely durable and tough, have lots of extension options and many locks, barriers and other options for children to divert water and make their own waterway! For young children (preschool) we recommend this Aquaplay starter water box and for multiple or school age children we recommend this Aquaplay water world.
Science Lab Kit
Children love experimenting! There is now a lot of excellent research about how a toddlers’ inclination to drop things, tear things, draw on things etc is actually their inbuilt desire to learn about the world around them through experimentation (rather than simply being destructive). It’s wonderful to encourage this natural curiosity in a supported and manageable way.
We have a kit of lab jackets, safety goggles, measuring cylinders, thermometers, pipettes, various chemicals and specific items like solar-powered robotics and stomp rockets. Each time we focus on a particular topic we add a few essentials to our resources. The children love to come up with their own investigations and ‘proper’ equipment adds to the authenticity of their experience.
We would recommend investing in a few items that make your children ‘feel like scientists’- kids love role-playing at adult jobs and this is a great way to do this while learning science. This lab kit is super affordable and is a great way to start your science lab, while a clipboard and lab coat will complete the look!
Simple Building Blocks
This must be the epitome of simple resources. We have at home several versions of what would be considered building blocks. In the picture above is a giant Jenga set (ideal for garden games in warm weather!), we also have multi-link cubes and 3D wooden shapes from when the children were younger. All of which are wonderful for the children to construct with. Seeing what the tallest tower they can build is, leads to an afternoon of attempts and a lot of fun!
Get the giant Jenga set here, and consider these brightly coloured multi-link cubes that double up as an excellent resource for teaching primary maths (each side of the cube has a different shape ‘clicker’!).
STEM puzzles are an excellent way to learn about the concepts of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in a fun hands-on way. A Rubik’s Cube is perhaps the most well-known of STEM puzzles (if your child is interested you can learn how to solve a Rubik’s cube here) and there are many more like it. The puzzle above (The SmartGames Penguin Pool Party) is a great example; there are over 60 layout options in the accompanying booklet and children are challenged to fit the ice blocks around the movable penguins.
Some of our other favourite STEM puzzles include:
- This pack of four 3D wooden puzzles by Professor Puzzle (an anti-gravity puzzle; the robot transformer; the number challenge and ball bearing test).
- The Genius Square– ideal for ages 6+, there are over 60,000 possible combinations of where the blocks can go on the grid, which makes it a great game to play against opponents!
Another simple classic. Of course, you can follow the instructions and build the run exactly as it was intended (which is a skill in itself) but the real value comes when children design and build their own formations. Trial and error is a fantastic way to improve design skills.
We have a set large enough for balls and set sized for marbles. Both are played with over and over, by all ages! This brightly coloured marble run is lovely for all children; the Gravitrax STEM track looks a little more stylish and is aimed at ages 8+.
K’Nex has been a favourite STEM toy for children for generations, and this timeless classic can be combined with motors to add that extra level of challenge for children. Building moving vehicles, robots and even roller coasters are all possible with this brilliant STEM toy. This K’Nex starter kit is great value and more than enough to begin with model building for any age.
Lego is the ultimate, classic STEM resource. Playing with Lego encourages fine motor skills, imaginative design, engineering and understanding of maths and physics concepts. We have a large number of Lego books which help children with ideas if they feel the need for some inspiration.
For older children there are fabulous remote controls, motors and codable sets too. Check out our home education fun learning packs for a different Lego Master Challenge each week. Children absolutely love these! Although there are a lot of themed Lego sets, a classic box of bricks is all your child needs to get started.
Magnetic tiles are a simple and effective way of introducing STEM concepts to children. They are brilliant for construction and there are countless ways of connecting them to build houses, vehicles, letters and 3D shapes.
While playing with this STEM toy, children will gain an understanding of magnetic forces and how shapes tesselate. We love to challenge children to work with a friend to build something epic! Grab a set of magnetic tiles and see what your child discovers!
How To Utilise STEM Resources At Home
Here at Curious Little Monkeys we have installed a cabin which is our permanent STEM base. We have some brilliant resources as well as a large corkboard, white board, wall mounted Lego boards, tuff trays and relevant books to create an environment where children can be creative.
Adding STEM resources to your home doesn’t have to be on a large scale to be effective, however. You may have a room or outbuilding that would make an excellent setting but equally a desk, corner of a room, under the stairs or a large box integrated into your current storage solution will work too. You may not even want to create something discrete and might just consider adding some fabulous STEM equipment to your existing resources.
Of course, we didn’t acquire all our equipment overnight. We’ve been building our collection over time. Always looking for products that will be durable (as lots of children come through our doors), provide open-ended learning opportunities and specifically help build the skills associated with STEM-centred learning.
These top STEM toys are perfect for children to create valuable (and fun!) learning experiences. These types of resources and associated activities are perfect for weekends, school holidays and playdates with friends. Have a look at our Curious Little Monkey weekly homeschool activities for more ideas:
More Fun Homeschool Activities For Children
10 Brilliant & Easy Homeschool Activities (includes rainbow dough recipe, Lego challenge, density science experiment, literacy challenges, ‘telling the time’ activities, Aboriginal ‘dot art’ activity and more!)
7 More Easy & Brilliant Homeschool Activities (includes slime recipe, gentle literacy tasks, underwater Lego challenge, abstract artist study, pancake restaurant activity and more!)