In many schools and families, just letting kids make a mess is considered risky. That’s why a good kit can be the stepping stone to trying something outside your comfort zone. All the parts and all the directions are there for you, plus (hopefully) background information that will teach you something about what you’ve made. While it may involve a mess, at least the odds of ending up with something cool are good.
Open-ended kits are ideal, but even kits that steer you towards a particular end product are useful if they encourage the child to extend their play once the first goal is reached, or inspire you to keep going using your own materials. Here are some kits I saw at New York Toy Fair that fit the bill.
Tinker Crate is a line of STEAM-oriented kits from Kiwi Crate, a subscription box service that delivers maker projects for kids to your home for a monthly fee. Aimed at ages 9-16, they include sewable circuits, laser-cut trebuchet, and acrylic etching nightlight. CEO Sandra Oh Lin showed me the cardboard hydraulic claw, which can be reconfigured by moving the brads that hold the pieces together. (A nice improvement on the cardboard tube hydraulic arm in my book Robotics.) The kits include an illustrated magazine with additional science experiments and activities. There are also video tutorials available with tips and tricks. A single crate costs about $17; subscriptions cost about $20/month.
The ScienceWiz website and graphics may look slightly dated, but don’t let that fool you! The company has always been one of my favorites. Their kits work, the directions in the included books by author Penny Norman are clear and easy to follow, and they use simple materials in clever ways, making the activities easy to replicate. Norman demonstrated the ScienceWiz Sound Kit, which includes an Edison-style phonograph that records and plays back sound on a spinning cylinder. There’s also a Charge kit that lets you build a Van de Graaff generator. ScienceWiz kits run from about $22 to $30.
Griddly Games has a new series of “Just Add” science kits. Just Add Sun comes in a box that doubles as a solar oven. It includes directions for making s’mores and nachos, but it also tells you how to use your oven to make crafts from materials like melted crayons. And a portion of the proceeds from Just Add Sun will be donated to Solar Cookers International. The Just Add Glue lets you make super balls and putty. The original Just Add Milk kit shows you how to create tie-dye like patterns on mousepads and sun catcher. The kits are inexpensive and very unintimidating — Just Add Milk goes for about $16. The new kits are expected to hit store shelves this spring.
Tinkineer‘s line of marble roller coaster kits, called Marbleocity, are made of handsome laser-cut wood. The hand-cranked kits fit together so you can extend your marble’s ride, and a motor drive add-on is coming. Each Marbleocity kit comes with a comic featuring a team of Tinkineer kids who help kids learn about the physics of their projects. Most interesting is the way the kits are designed to be built in steps. That way parents and kids can spend a little time each night working on the kit together, with each day’s “build” ending at a logical stopping point in construction. Marbleocity kits run from about $30 to $50 and are available for pre-purchase, with delivery expected in the spring.