Whether I’m looking for a Christmas present, or a birthday gift, I always try to give gifts that help kids become interested in Engineering. But I don’t really like giving the standard “STEM” type toys or kits, but always find something that will allow the kid to explore a STEM concept. Many toys, not advertised as STEM toys, expose kids to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. I love these kind of toys because first the kid falls in love with the toy, then you surprise them by teaching them the concept behind the toy. Some toys for toddlers even allow young children explore concepts like gravity, energy, and fractions. Here are a list of some of such toys that are great STEM gifts for toddlers.
15 Unexpected STEM Gifts for Toddlers
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I loved playing with wooden bead mazes when I was little. Something about the spins and turns reminded me of roller coasters I wasn’t allowed to go on with my big sister yet. I pushed the beads up, down, and around for hours, imagining how fun it would to ride a roller coaster someday. What I didn’t realize was that I was also learning about gravity. When I pushed the beads up, I had to use my strength. But as soon as the bead were over the peak, I could just let them go and let gravity do all the work! In the loop the loops, I was exploring centripetal forces as the bead moved in a circular path. Its not always necessary to explain the concepts while kids play with their toys, but when they are older and learning about gravity and centripetal forces, they’ll be able to recall a real life example from their childhood to relate to the concepts.
My toddler loves to play with his big brother’s Legos. But since he’s only 18 months old, he doesn’t really have the fine motor skills needed for small Legos. Thankfully, we have a set of mega bloks, and he’ll sit in the living room for quite awhile, and build just like his brother. It can be a little difficult for him to build on the carpet, so sometimes I’ll also bring out this fire truck for him to build on. The fire truck gives him a firmer base to stack blocks upon blocks upon blocks. He loves building tall towers, and then knocking them down. I’ve recently learned that knocking structures down is part of toddler development, and is called destructive play! Though it sometimes annoys his brothers when he knocks down their structures, we all love hearing his belly laugh right after he knocks one of his towers down!
All three of my sons love baseball! But did you know that baseball and tball are teaching kids about Newton’s Laws of motion? Newton’s first law of motion states that an object will stay still, unless another force is applied to it. That is exactly what happens in tball! The ball sits on top of the tee, until a bat hits it off. I also love that kids can explore angles by seeing how far the ball goes is they hit it on different parts of the ball. We bought this exact t-ball set for my nephew, and he’s loving it!
Its important as an engineer to be familiar with the tools used to build the things you design. That is why I love any toy that will teach kids about hammers, nuts, bolts, wrenches, and screwdrivers. My oldest two sons love playing with their take apart dinosaurs and cars. Through play, they both have learned to tighten by turning screws right, and to loosen them, turn screws left. The VTech toolbox teaches children the same concept, plus adds gears in. The simple combination of gears on the box lets children see how all three gears will spin when they only spin one. This exact same concept was used in a diaper plant I worked in as an engineer!
The Melissa & Doug Deluxe Pounding Bench reminds me of one of the first toys we bought my oldest son. I think most of us had a similar toy as kids, but I bet you never realized it was a toddler STEM toy! When kids play with a pounding bench, they are learning how to hammer in a nail, without having to hold a nail (and possibly smash a finger!). A critical skill for design engineers is to understand how their ideas will be built. Imagine a design where part of putting it together requires a nail and hammer. Think about how a nail is hammered in. First you pull back your hand holding the hammer, then you hit the nail with the hammer very hard. What if the design didn’t allow for room to pull your hand back? Then you wouldn’t be able to put the item together. But if the engineer remembered how a nail would be hammered, then they would have a completely different design. The pounding bench is teaching little ones the movements needed to hammer in a nail, a skill that will help them later on!
Every morning when my two-year-olds enter into our class, my lead teacher has various toys set out for the kids to play with. The other day, she brought out a Skoolzy Peg Board Set, a toy I’ve never seen before. I watched as our toddlers kept placing peg on top of peg, until the peg tower finally fell down. One little boy was able to build really tall towers by slowly adding one peg at a time. Each time he added a peg he would make sure the peg was balanced, then find another peg, and slowly add it. Without knowing it, the precious little boy was playing with center of mass, and gravity. When the pegs’ were all aligned, so were their centers of gravity, so it was just like one peg. But once the tower leaned, the centers of gravity were no longer aligned, and they fell to the ground. OH and how much all of them squealed when it fell!
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My kids love to help my husband and I cook. They love making eggs in the morning with dad, and baking dessert with me. We also have a small kitchen set that my middle son loves to “make” food for mommy and bring it to me. To be honest, he usually just makes me coffee. The kid knows I love coffee! When I saw the LeapFrog Oven, I thought it would be a great addition to the kitchen set. I love toys that sneak STEM education into playing. The oven not only helps kids with number identification, but also exposes them to simple fractions.
This is the perfect stem toy for 2 year olds! My sister gave my toddler the VTech Go! Go! Smart Wheels Raceway for his first birthday. At one he didn’t have a lot interest in it, but my 3 year old did. He would play with it while baby brother just watched. Now that my baby is almost 2, I thought I would bring it out again. Now he LOVES it! The raceway easily sets up to two elevations. Now my toddler and preschooler can explore energy the same way their big brother did with his hot wheels tracks!
Our library has a set of these magnet toys. Every time we go to the library my toddler and 3 year old head straight to the back of the library, and immediately pull out the magnetic building set. While they build, they’re playing with magnetic fields, and figuring out how to turn an idea in their head into reality. They’re also exploring how putting together different shapes creates structures, which is another great skill for design. Most software used in design work involves using standard shapes, then cutting away or adding other shapes to the base shape. The magnetic tiles allows kids a hands on way to explore the same concept used in complex design.
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I found out about the Tree Rings Sets at the preschool I teach at. The outdoor learning teacher gave them to me for my class to play with. I immediately loved them because of the rough and smooth parts of the rings. One thing I’ve learned from training is how important it is so provide young children with a lot of sensory exploration. And since the circular surfaces were level and smooth, they are also great for building! When we set up the tree rings as a play station, one of the little girls darts to play with them first. As soon as she’s stacked the tree rings as high as she wants, she knocks them down and lets out a big squeal! Because the rings are made out of real tree limbs, they’re not all exactly the same size. So when she builds using larger circular rings, she learns the tower can be taller than when she builds with the smaller rings. And knocking them down (also called destructive play) teaches her about cause and effect (she hits the blocks, they fall down).
Large Cardboard Blocks are in every preschool class I can remember. They were in my oldest son’s rooms at daycare. They are in our church’s preschool rooms. I can even remember them being around when I was a preschooler! Similar to the wooden rings, the toddlers in our class love to play with these blocks. But since they’re so big, the kids must use they’re entire body to build, which is great for gross motor development. Plus, the blocks can used three different ways to build towers: lengthwise, widthwise, and depthwise. When our students play with these blocks, they’re learning what makes a more stable tower, and how to make the tallest tower. When I join in with them, I’ll prompt them with questions like “Can you build a tower as high as my hand?”, and then watch as they move the blocks in different arrangements to reach my hand. I can just see their little minds working!
I recently came across Chris Ferries’ books when looking for simple ways to explain physics. I loved the idea behind his books, as we share the belief that much of science can be boiled down to very simple concepts. I bought my toddler “Quantum Physics for Babies”, and have enjoyed reading it with both him and my middle son. The great thing about the books is that they are covering complex concepts that have never before been presented in preschooler books, so even my second grader has enjoyed reading the book. He recently learned about matter in school, talking to him about the structure of molecules was a nice flow from what he was learning at school.
When I was in college, there was a group of mechanical engineers who would compete each year in a Rube Goldberg competition. If you’re not familiar with Rube Goldberg machines, let me explain what they are. Rube Goldberg machines overly complicated systems that take several steps and tie them together to complete a task. The marble run game reminds me of a simple Rube Goldberg machine. Toddlers can build a bunch of towers, tie them together, and have a marble run through funnels and wheels just for the marble to get to the end of the run. While this toy may involve some work on our part, the parents, I think it would a fun game to play together!
Recently I’ve been working with my 3 year old on number recognition. I’ve used magnetic numbers, number matching games, and read him a lot of books with counting. While I thought my toddler had no idea what we were doing, one day I was practicing with my 3 year old, and all of the sudden I hear my toddler counting along with us! That’s when I realized he was absorbing a lot of the activities I was doing with his big brother! I’ve been looking for other ways to practice number recognition, and I found these Vegetable Counting Cans. Each has a specific amount of a certain vegetable in them. So first the child empties the can, then counts the vegetables as they put them back into the can. Once all the vegetables are in the can, they can look at the can, and recognize the number the just counted to. I love that it is a hands on, tangible way to practice number recognition!
After reading numerous counting books to my three year old and toddler, I found the Match it Number Puzzle. I took one look at it, and thought it would be a fun way to practice counting and numbers. While my toddler is only able to count to 5 right now, he can watch his 3 year old big brother count the items, then find the matching number. If you have an only child, this is a great game for you to play with your toddler. You would pick up a counting piece, then count the items together. After counting you would tell them what number you are looking for, and then make sure to repeat the number to your toddler once you find it. You may think your toddler doesn’t understand what you’re saying, but you would be surprised. I know I underestimate how much my 18 month old can understand.
The main idea behind these 15 STEM gifts for toddlers is to work on basic math skills and science concepts through play. And remember, the best toy you can get you toddler is YOU! Try a few of these gifts with your toddler, and see how much fun they have, and how much they end up learning!
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