The idea of a “science toy” sort of breaks down below a certain age. A toddler who cannot yet read does not need a scientific calculator, for example, and even the most science-oriented second-grader might struggle to make it through the collected works of Stephen Hawking. If you’ve got a youngling to buy for, we’ve put together some gift ideas we think they’ll enjoy: things that will cultivate curiosity and stand up to whatever a kid might put them through, or at least be inexpensive enough to use hard and then grow out of, while respecting the idea that kids can be interested in things they maybe can’t yet do with all the finesse of an adult. Fear is the mind-killer. Don’t let that new microscope collect dust in a closet because your budding biologist is afraid to break it and get yelled at. Remember, kids: the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.
Maybe Star Trek onesies are more sci-fi than actual science, but they’re so cute they make everyone coo and then get distracted talking about redshirts.
Lego’s $40 Large Creative Brick Box isn’t built around any single theme, but contains enough general pieces to let a child build what they like from their own imagination, or extend existing play sets with their own creations. Multiple green base plates, tires, and tire rims are included, and the box does include some basic ideas for structures and vehicles that children can build. The orange box the set comes in also doubles as a container for the blocks themselves. Lego also manufactures a smaller Medium Creative Brick Box ($27.99) if you need a less-expensive alternative, and its Duplo products are intended for ages 1.5 – 5 if you want something for a toddler (Lego’s official age range is 4-99). Duplo boxes start at $22.30. Cultivate their inner maker.
Neodymium magnet toys, marketed as Buckyballs, took kids’ imaginations by storm until the Buckyballs were recalled and taken off the market in 2014 for safety reasons. Goobi is an open-ended construction toy that’s designed to let kids have fun with magnets and magnetism, without the risk of intestinal perforation created when children swallow ultra-powerful magnets. Goobi embeds its magnets in long straight rods that children can’t easily swallow, then uses non-magnetized iron balls for connectivity. All the isogrid fun, none of the emergency room trips.
ScienceWiz’s Energy Experiment Kit includes both a 48-page book and the components kids will need to conduct the experiments discussed within it. The 48-page book contains a list of common household items and a few batteries required for some specific experiments. There are a number of ScienceWiz kits, but this one focuses on energy, and includes projects to build a solar powered car (on the small scale), a supercapacitor-powered car, a battery kit capable of powering LEDs, and a simple flywheel generator. Similar kits explore magnetism, light, physics, and chemistry if you’re looking for a similar product in a different field.
The first time I learned that semiconductors began life as artificially grown crystal ingots, it blew my mind. While they won’t align your auras, cleanse your chakras, or demystify downward dog, crystal-growing kits are a neat way to illustrate how inorganic structures grow and assemble themselves given appropriate conditions. Crystals are a perennial favorite of kids of all ages. Or, for a low-overhead, basically free, edible crystal-growing experience, check out this tutorial from the American Museum of Natural History.
In previous decades, it wasn’t unusual for a proud father to come home and find his son or daughter busy disassembling various power tools, household equipment, or the family car. My little brother, a telecom engineer, started off by taking apart my AM-FM radio. But what’s a budding chip designer or circuit-builder to do? Intel’s plans for a My Little Foundry Industrial Cleanroom Playset (with optional ISO 9001 certification process!) fell apart after the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s refusal to classify its micro-scale 193nm ArF excimer laser as a modified Easy-Bake Oven. Instead of breaking that news to the miniature Mark Bohr running around your house, why not buy him (or her) a Snap Circuit Kit? Snap Circuits are designed for children aged seven and up and include simple circuit designs and components for basic types of hardware, including flashing lights, an adjustable-volume siren, and a working model of a photo sensor. If you have small children who want to explore the basics of circuit design but aren’t quite ready for a conventional breadboard, Snap Circuits are a great way to introduce concepts long before they understand Ohm’s Law. Note: out of all of the things on this list, this is the only one that really makes noise.
Can’t go wrong with Smithsonian kits, too. These are super great presents because at $20 or less, they’re inexpensive enough that you won’t care if your giftee breaks them, and they come in a dozen different kinds. Where ScienceWiz kits explore basic concepts like physics and chemistry, Smithsonian kits let them build a basic robot, turn their room into a planetarium, or even dip their toes into rocket science.
Also high on my list are the Dangerous Book for Boys and the Daring Book for Girls. They’re written for kids, not for their perhaps more sedate and less adventurous parents, but they allow for parents to read along and even join in on some of the fun. Both books are absolutely crammed with stories, facts, ideas and projects that kids just eat up. Their message as a whole is that kids are entirely capable of doing critical thinking and taking measured risks, and they keep the content concise and gently humorous. Neither book gives in to gender stereotyping, so it’s not all princesses and pink things for girls, and it’s not all cars and soldiers for boys. Great for Girl or Boy Scouts, these books cultivate curiosity and make the world just a bit more accessible to young minds. Plus, they’re gorgeous clothbound hardcovers for less than $10.
Mindstorms are Lego robotics kits for older kids or (and let’s just be honest about this) curious adults. These kits include features like ARM9 microprocessors, servos, USB ports and WiFi for connectivity, microSD card slots, and even iOS and Android support on some models. The Mindstorms EV3 kit isn’t cheap, at $349, but the included kit includes instructions on how to build five different robots, and with a little ingenuity or a few bored afternoons there are all kinds of unscripted ways the Mindstorms kit can interact with stuff from around the house. Mindstorms are also great for little codemonkeys. The robots are programmed via a drag-and-drop programming interface (Mindstorms uses LabView under the hood, which is an engineering industry-standard programming language used by, among many others, Aerojet and LockMart) and can be modified wirelessly if you have a supported tablet or smartphone. If you know a child who’s old enough to dream of commanding a legion of rampaging killbots but can’t actually drive yet, the Mindstorms EV3 just might offer what they need to take the edge off that gnawing hunger for world domination.
One of the coolest presents I ever got as a kid was a microscope kit, with some already-prepared slides of various objects and materials, and a booklet with instructions on how to mount my own slides. Buying microscopes for kids can be tricky, though. Really nice microscopes are expensive, while cheap microscopes offer low magnification and may lack even basic features; the $12 Smithsonian microscope kit, for example, felt cheap and didn’t focus well, and perhaps as a consequence, it currently sits collecting dust on its overhead closet shelf. The My First Lab Duo-Scope is meant to bridge this gap. At $64 it’s cheap enough to still be considered affordable, and its 40x, 100x, and 400x magnification modes are sufficient for plenty of basic science. The Duo-Scope can be lit from underneath (compound microscope) or above (stereo microscope), with glass lenses instead of plastic, five blank slides, four prepared slides, blank slide labels, cover slips, non-toxic stains (red and blue), forceps, lens paper, a test tube, Petri dish, and teasing needle. While this product is aimed at a slightly older child than the others on our list, it’s a nice gift for a wide range of ages.
What gifts inspired you to explore the STEM fields? Let us know in the comments!