Buying a new toy for a child should be an exciting and fun experience, but for many parents, friends and loved ones, sifting through a seemingly endless collection of brightly colored and poorly constructed pieces of plastic that will undoubtedly be cast aside after only a few moments of play can be frustrating and expensive. That’s why whenever we search for a new toy for the tiny human in our lives, we focus on STEM toys. Not only are they fun to play with, but they also provide an educational element that can spark a newfound passion for children.
What are STEM toys? STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM toys can be found for all age groups, including STEM toys for babies, STEM toys for toddlers and STEM toys for kids. These toys focus on developing problem-solving skills and critical thinking, while also engaging users in STEM-related subjects. STEM toys often include additional benefits, including helping to develop fine motor skills, color recognition, spatial awareness and reading skills. Many of the toys on our list can be used for independent play or group play, making them ideal for only children and children with siblings.
Coding toys are becoming a popular category for children of all ages. As tech and gadgets are introduced at younger ages, more companies are making a concerted effort to create toys that engage young users and teach them how to prepare for an academic setting that incorporates virtual learning and coding. We’ve included several coding toys that fall under the ‘Tech’ in STEM, with screen-free options included.
Whether the child you’re buying for is academically inclined or not, STEM toys help make learning fun and accessible thanks to the wide variety of age and milestone-specific options available. For toys that both parents and kids will love, check out our top picks for the best STEM toys below.
1. Elenco Snap Circuits Jr.
Future engineers will love the Elenco Snap Circuits Jr. set, which comes with 30 electronic parts. Using the easy to follow and fully illustrated manual, kids can build over 100 different projects including a sound-activated switch, a musical doorbell, a flashing light and a siren with an adjustable volume knob. The electronic circuit kit encourages design and problem-solving skills and provides kids with a tangible finished product that they can proudly show off. Once kids master the Junior set shown here, their building can continue thanks to the several expansion kits available for more advanced electrical circuit building.
2. Adventure Academy
BEST VIRTUAL GAME
This might not be a toy in the traditional sense, but it’s exactly the kind of play modern kids are looking for today. Parents might be familiar with ABCmouse, an online learning platform for kids. Adventure Academy was created by the same team, and it’s a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) for kids and tweens. Adventure Academy is an entire virtual world centered around a Hogwarts-like academy where kids can take classes, play games, go on quests and meet interesting characters. There are tons of math and science-related activities within this world, and kids will have hours of fun exploring. Since kids love their screentime, the best STEM toys of 2020 aren’t necessarily physical. Get the most out of screentime with this educational video game. Right now, an annual subscription costs $60 per year.
3. The First Years StackUp Cup Toys
BEST FOR BABIES
It’s never too early to help little ones explore the fascinating world around them. Although infants might not be ready for coding and circuit boards, they do love cups. These colorful and stackable cups from First Years are an excellent toy for babies, helping them understand early engineering concepts by fitting smaller cups into bigger cups. They also learn math skills by looking at the numbers printed on the bottom of the cups. Plus, one of the cups will inevitably be lost and therefore subtracted from the collection. Parents know that one cup always gets lost. We love that these BPA-free cups have small holes on the bottom, making them fun for water play in the bathtub. Their soft and lightweight design also makes them a great option for toys to use in the stroller or car seat.
4. Tegu Magnetic Wooden Block Set
BEST FOR GROWING WITH A CHILD
There aren’t many toys that can be used from infancy to childhood, but the Tegu Magnetic Wooden Block Set fits the bill. Made with natural wood and free from lead, plastic and all toxins, the Tegu blocks are an open-play toy that encourages building and design. Babies will enjoy holding (and chewing) the smooth blocks with soft edges and older kids will have fun creating buildings, vehicles and anything else they can think up. The Tegu blocks are great for traveling and use in restaurants thanks to their strong magnets. Parents will also likely have fun creating new shapes with the blocks, which double as a stress reliever for tired adults.
5. Melissa & Doug Take-Along Tool Kit
BEST FOR TODDLERS
Kids love imitating adults, so encourage their real-world play with the Melissa & Doug Take-Along Tool Kit, a much safer alternative to the real thing. Not only do kids get to practice their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination with the interactive toolbox, they learn spatial awareness and colors. They also learn how to match shapes by pairing the ‘nails’ and ‘drill bits’ with the correct tools and openings in the box. Designed for kids ages 3 to 5, the toolkit also has storage for all the pieces included, another bonus for adults who are tired of tripping over tiny toys.
6. Educational Insights GeoSafari Jr. Talking Microscope
BEST SCHOOL PREP
If you have a budding scientist that loves picking up plants, insects, rocks, and anything else you don’t want coming home from the park, try the Educational Insights GeoSafari Jr. Talking Microscope. A great indoor rainy-day option for little nature lovers, the interactive microscope comes with 60 images that budding biologists and botanists will love seeing magnified. Kids can set the GeoSafari Jr. to fact mode and hear Bindi Irwin describe what they see through the microscope, or choose quiz mode and test themselves on what they’ve just learned. The microscope has English, Spanish, French and German settings, teaching languages as well as science.
7. Learning Resources Botley the Coding Robot Activity Set
BEST CODING ROBOT
Toys that teach kids how to code are the latest craze and for a good reason. As more schools implement technology in the classroom, engaging kids in tech-based learning is necessary to ensure they don’t fall behind. On the downside, parents’ ongoing struggle to balance screen time becomes more difficult. That’s why we love the Learning Resources Botley the Coding Robot Activity Set, which teaches kids ages five and up how to code without the use of a smartphone or tablet. A remote programmer and coding cards teach kids how to code Botley and deliver commands that will have him racing around obstacles and moving small objects.
8. Yellow Scope Foundation Chemistry Kit
BEST TOY GEARED TOWARDS GIRLS
We are typically not fans of gendering toys, but study after study has shown that girls are rarely encouraged to pursue STEM subjects, often dropping these courses in later years even if they show an aptitude and an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That’s why we like the Yellow Scope Foundation Chemistry Kit, which can be enjoyed by any child but is specifically targeted towards girls. The kit teaches important basic science concepts like chemical reactions and molecular motions and does so in a fun and engaging way. Realistic lab equipment like goggles and beakers are included, as is a detailed 32-page notebook that includes fun facts, quizzes, and room for important notes from future leading scientists.
9. littleBits Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit
BEST FOR STAR WARS FANS
If the force is strong with your little one, they’re going to love the littleBits Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit. Kids first get to work on their problem solving and engineering skills by building their own Droid. Little Jedis can use all the pieces included in the kit or customize the Droid with their own add-ons. Next, kids can help their Droid explore this galaxy by using a coding app that teaches them how to instruct their Droid to move or ‘speak’ using authentic sounds from the Star Wars films. The electronic blocks can be rearranged in several configurations to help the Droid perform more than 22 ‘missions.’ The app features step-by-step tutorial videos, which means kids can build their Droid and operate it without the help of a parent or adult, which is good because parents and Star Wars don’t always have good results. We mean you, Darth Vader.
10. LEGO MINDSTORMS Robot Kit
BEST FOR TEACHING ROBOTICS
Build a robot, teach it to walk, then take it apart and build an entirely new robot with the LEGO MINDSTORMS Robot Kit. Designed for kids ages 10 and up, the kit includes over 600 pieces that can be used to build 17 different robotic designs. Combining engineering and tech, the Lego Mindstorms set includes instructions to teach kids how to code their robot to walk, talk, grab items and shoot targets. Once the robot is built, kids can go online and access the Robot Commander App, which includes building instructions for more robots as well as learn-to-program tutorials and an online game.
11. LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox
BEST FOR YOUNGER CODERS
While the LEGO MINDSTORMS Robot Kit is a great option for older kids and teens, it does come with some major sticker shock. We also like the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox, which employs many of the same basic concepts of coding with robots. Designed for a slightly younger age group between seven and 12 years old, the kit comes with 847 LEGO pieces that users can piece together to create five unique robots. Using the companion app on a smartphone or tablet, kids will learn how to write code that will make their robots walk, dance and even play the guitar. The LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox boasts several important STEM properties, including engineering, design, problem-solving and the technological know-how required to learn the ins and outs of coding.
12. Magna Tiles
BEST FOR BUILDERS
Magna Tiles have been a staple on ‘best of’ lists for toys and STEM products for years and for good reason. The 3D magnetic building set comes with BPA-free plastic pieces designed in a variety of colors and shapes that kids can use to build, well, just about anything. A quick Pinterest search will reveal hundreds of images of creations young builders have constructed using Magna Tiles. Magna Tiles are safe for users ages 3 and up and encourage development in engineering and mathematics, as well as spatial and tactile skills. The company has been copied by several competitors over the years, but no one has been able to match the quality and durability of the original building toy.
13. Fat Brain Toys Squigz Starter Set
BEST FOR BATH TIME
Fat Brain has an impressive lineup of tactile toys for all ages that promote fine motor skills, color recognition, engineering, building and sorting. Even adults find their toys undeniably soothing to play with (we recommend the Dimpl for stressful days). With the Squigz, little learners can continue their education from the playmat to the bathtub. The water-friendly toys suction to each other as well as other surfaces, making it fun for kids to build structures in the bathtub, sort the Squigz by color, get an early understanding of addition and subtraction and improve muscle strength in their hands. And yes, the Squigz are also fun for adults to play with. Who says bath time toys are just for kids?
14. Coogam Wooden Blocks Puzzle
For a toy that promotes creativity, problem-solving, engineering and design, we like the Coogam Wooden Blocks Puzzle. Designed for toddlers and older kids, the wood puzzle is finished with brightly colored, non-toxic paint that makes it a great introduction to sorting for young users. As kids get older, they can practice their fine motor skills and problem-solving by completing the Tetris-like game. Coogam also includes instructions on how to create various figures and kids can explore their own creativity by using the pieces to design their own masterpiece.
15. JOYIN Play-Act Counting Sorting Bears Toy Set
BEST FOR EARLY MATH LESSONS
By 18 months, many babies can distinguish between different colors. By age 3, many toddlers can name one or more colors and have begun to show an interest in sorting, counting, and identifying shapes. JOYIN Play-Act Counting Sorting Bears Toy Set touches on several important milestones for toddlers, with the set of dice encouraging kids to sort the bears by numbers, colors and the shapes displayed on the honey jars. A set of plastic tweezers included in the kit also help children develop their fine motor skills and hand strength, which is imperative to developing the muscles necessary for holding crayons, markers and eventually pencils. As toddlers get older, parents can also use the kit to help develop an understanding of basic math, including addition and subtraction.
16. Viahart Brain Flakes 500 Piece Interlocking Plastic Disc Set
BEST FOR ENGINEERS
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s just about anything kids can dream up. Using the Viahart Brain Flakes 500 Piece Interlocking Plastic Disc Set, kids can design and build countless shapes and real-world items. The brightly colored discs are BPA-, lead-, heavy metal-, and phthalate-free, making them safe for little ones, and their strong snap and go design make them tough enough to handle large-scale builds by older kids. Viahart includes an instruction booklet with the discs as well as several additional instructions online to help get kids started on their path towards falling in love with engineering.
17. Creativity for Kids Grow ‘N Glow Terrarium Kit
BEST FOR NATURE LOVERS
If you have a budding nature lover but not enough space to allow your little one to start their own greenhouse, we suggest the Creativity for Kids Grow ‘N Glow Terrarium Kit. The kit comes with everything kids will need to grow their own tiny ecosystem and learn about photosynthesis. A mason jar becomes an interactive terrarium that comes with soil, seeds and glow-in-the-dark figurines, which make this an indoor science project that is fun during the day and night. Plus, it means that little ones don’t have to wait for the weather to turn warm in order to flex their green thumb.
18. DoodleMatic Modern Game Maker
BEST FOR ARTISTS
Generalizing any group is risky, but we are fairly confident when we say that the majority of kids like to draw and like to play video games. So, what could be better than putting these two things together? Using the DoodleMatic Modern Game Maker, kids get to explore their creativity by designing their own videogame. Using the specialized markers and paper included in the kit, kids can design their own video games and then upload them to the DoodleMatic app by snapping a picture on any touchscreen device. Kids then get to put their game into action by moving the pieces and avatars they have created. The DoodleMatic can store up to 1,000 games, giving kids the ability to continue playing with their own creations and worlds.
19. Catan The Board Game
BEST BOARD GAME
You may remember The Settlers of Catan board game from your own childhood. Well, it’s still around, it’s still hugely popular, and now it’s going simply by the name Catan. The fan-favorite board game was first released in 1995 and continues to be a great way for kids to learn about problem-solving and teamwork. Players need to utilize their resources to the best of their ability to build their settlements and demonstrate strategy in order to win the game. With several add-ons available, Catan is a great option for both young and older kids and can be played with multiple players.
20. 4M Deluxe Crystal Growing Combo Steam Science Kit
BEST SCIENCE EXPERIMENT
STEM toys are a great way for parents to provide the hands-on learning kids typically get at school without having to have a teaching degree. This crystal growing kit from 4M makes it easy for parents to help kids learn about the basics of science experiments, including measuring, observing, and understanding how different materials and ingredients interact with each other. Not only that but at the end of the experiment, kids will have colorful and cool looking crystals that they can proudly show off to friends and family.