Smart Gifts: Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, & Math Toys for Kids

Craft & Design Fun & Games
Smart Gifts: Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, & Math Toys for Kids


What are maker-loving parents giving this season to turn their kids into the makers of tomorrow? In this list we focus on gifts at the intersection of Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, & Math (STEAM).

Illustration (c) 2013 JoyLabz
Illustration (c) 2013 JoyLabz

MAKE’s STEM gift guide for 2012 featured great electronics kits for kids, including MaKey MaKey, (now with groovy stickers and a fun startup guide), GoldieBlox (the recent viral video sensation), Roominate (the dreamiest dream-house kit), LittleBits (Maker Camp enjoyed two visits with founder Ayah this summer), and Hummingbird. So consider those if you didn’t get all the sets last year. Joylabz’ MaKey MaKey may be my favorite of the bunch, as we got giggles from my kids within minutes of opening the box.

As an extra bonus, I got lots of ideas from friends for the gift guide which didn’t make it into my slideshow, which I’ve shared below as smaller / more generic gift ideas.

STEAM-y Stocking Stuffers

  • Bubbles (perhaps along with some really interesting wands to experiment with, or the giant bubble string net Brian Lawrence uses at Maker Faire.)
  • Codes! My friend Jen has been making her way through Usborne’s 50 Secret Codes with her kids.
  • Craft box subscription such as Whimseybox
  • Liquid timers for playing with density and viscosity as bubbles flow from one chamber to another, something like a lava lamp
  • Dice (6- to 20-sided number dice or letter dice, like the one from Scattergories)
  • Duct/duck tape of all stripes and colors and patterns for endless wallet making, or tape a town of roads
  • EcoFluxx, the habitat-savvy version of the card game where the rules keep changing
  • Fridge Rover, an adorable mini magnet mobile for your kitchen
  • Juggling sets
  • Living things: seeds, a mushroom kit, caterpillars (to turn into butterflies), Sea Monkeys, triops, etc. (Roberta, a bee rescuer, recommended a hive, but I fear not many are equipped to properly care for bees in their backyard.)
  • Magic trick sets
  • Magnets (plus a jar of iron filings)
  • Marbles and marble tracks, for the playroom or refrigerator or Water Works, the same kind of thing in the bathtub.
  • Music Boxes. My favorites are Kikkerland’s Make Your Own Music Box and the Busy Bugs Music Box by Schylling (both somewhat hard to find now.)
  • Musical instruments: even simple ones like bamboo flutes, kazoos, and harmonicas, can spark an interest in physics and math
  • Needles for knitting, crochet, and needle-felting
  • Observation tools for seeing the world in a new way: a quality compass, time-lapse camera, tape measures, hand-cranked or LED flashlights; or as bigger presents: a good microscope, binoculars, telescope.
  • Pipe cleaners (aka chenille stems) in various colors for kooky contraptions
  • Playing Cards: a nice deck for games and tricks
  • Prisms: Angela suggested using them to play with lights. I saw a cool project at Maker Faire Bay Area 2013, in which a Young Maker had turned a laser and various acrylic prism and sphere shapes into a puzzle game (the object is to get the light beam from here to there)
  • Sandscapes moving sand pictures and hourglasses to watch the phenomenon of particle flow
  • Science / Tech / Art museum membership or tickets: kids often appreciate a promise to spend special afternoons with their parents (until they are old enough that they don’t!)
  • Shapeways gift certificate bundled with an intro to Google Sketchup
  • Silly Putty or its glowing, magnetic, glow in the dark, or heat-changing cousins (or you can make a big homemade batch!)
  • Skallops paired with scrap card stock or a deck of cards
  • Songs from melodysheep: Mandy’s teen students and her own 12-year-old love them
  • 3D, physical puzzles like the Rubik’s cube
  • Tools: real tools for real making, plus some wood and hardware to practice their use, or the super-thin Pocket Monkey
  • Vinyl cord for making lanyards
  • Wind-up toys, especially the Kikkerland ones with all the mechanism right there to see

From Leif, I got a list of deliciously maker-centric gifts: Estes rocket sets, radio-controlled toys, model trains, Chinese chess sets, ornithopter models, pine derby race car sets, bicycles, skateboards, kayaks, fishing sets. Who wouldn’t want to spend a childhood with that collection?

Finally, two dads I know, Aaron and David, worked together to find me a great list of STEM Toys recommended by NASA Goddard’s Child Development Center.

One piece of advice: A risk with some kits is that once you’re done, you’re done: i.e. you make or do or build the thing and then the gift suffers shelf rot. To avoid the risk of spending an hour or two to assemble something and then letting it collect dust, look for open-ended kits or add-ons to extend the experience, or a kit that you can use to make other things. Ive chosen examples of these in the slideshow. Whatever gifts you choose, encourage your kids to take their toys and kits apart and use the pieces for other things. Bundle your science kits with books and materials that take the concept introduced in the kit, such as circuits or chemistry, into uncharted territory.

See all our 2013 holiday gift guides here.

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Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

View more articles by Michelle "Binka" Hlubinka


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