If you’re out to raise the next generation of great thinkers, problem solvers and innovators, so-called “STEM” toys — a genre of toys and games that has risen in popularity over the past several years — might just provide the foundation to do so.
STEM is an academic discipline that groups together science, technology, engineering and mathematics. According to Andrew B. Raupp, executive director for STEM.org, a privately held educational research organization, it’s most beneficial to introduce some of these elements to kids as early as possible.
“Implementing STEM approaches in early education not only can help students perform better on standardized tests and in careers, but an early start in STEM can also have additional benefits that may help reduce inequities in the workforce later on,” Raupp told HuffPost.
It’s not just children who should be involved STEM-based play, Raupp said. He’s a proponent of lifelong learning as a way to reduce cognitive decline and indulge in curiosity, all while having fun doing it.
“STEM toys are available to all ages,” he said.
A large part of Raupp’s and STEM.org’s work revolves around evaluating and credentialing STEM toys and educational resources using a non-biased framework and voted-upon STEM standards.
“We are unique in that we avoid financial conflicts of interest by turning down commissions, affiliate partnerships, sponsorships and advertising revenue,” Raupp said, noting that the organization differentiates themselves from other toy award programs by offering a recognition-based program that brands don’t pay to be a part of.
Using a list that Raupp provided to HuffPost, along with STEM.org’s gift guide, we rounded up top-rated and very gift-able STEM toys for kids that can help nurture future tinkerers and foster imagination and cognitive abilities.
An arcade coder console
The Arcade Coder is an educational console that connects to an iPad to use game play to teach video game block coding. There’s also a design function that teaches users how to create visuals for video games. It features three levels of difficulty, making this a suitable toy for ages 6-10.
A computer building kit
Kids eight and up can learn the basic elements of computer building with this kit by Piper. They’ll use wooden pieces and a full slate of electronics to create and dismantle a fully functioning computer that, once built, contains 11 progressively challenging coding projects.
A modular robotics set
The Modular Robotics’ Discover Set features a set of eight independently functioning blocks that perform differently according to how they are paired with other Bluetooth-connective cubes within the set. This can help teach kids tactile cause and effect coding as well as software manipulation.
An innovative 3-D strategy game
This three-dimensional tabletop game, perfect for the whole family, requires strategy as well as elements of engineering and geometry to play. Players aim to build, modify and expand the grid set while eliminating opponents in order to be the last player standing.
A buildable pulley system
This building set allows players to erect replicas of real-world machines like cranes, pulley systems and drawbridges in order to teach a concrete understanding of how they work as well as basic engineering principles. The 77 transparent plastic pieces can be configured into a virtually endless array of operating contraptions.
A cardboard construction system
Highly rated by STEM.org, the Makedo cardboard construction system contains kid-safe tools and 360 pieces of up-cycled cardboard to create large interactive structures and 3-D creations. In addition to exercising creativity and problem solving, this set can also help with collaboration and communication skills.
A light-up crystal growing kit
Perfect for the curious chemist, this light-up crystal growing kit includes all the ingredients needed to create three different colored clusters that they can observe forming over time. Once the crystal formations have finished growing, they can be displayed on the LED light-up stand.
An educational ant farm
This ant farm can help teach kids about habitat and ecosystems as well as organized societal structures by observing ant habits. The farm is filled with a transparent and plant-based gel, suitable for ants, which makes watching them easier. Note, that ants are not included.
An interactive and augmented reality science game
The Merge cube is an innovative toy that, whenever it’s pointed at a tablet or phone, uses augmented reality in order to let kids explore objects like dinosaur bones and plant cells using their hands. The app, which requires a monthly subscription, contains over 100 different interactive science simulations for tactile learning experience.
A simulated dissection kit
This kit, which is available in a number of different animals, creates a realistic dissection experience without the use of a real animal. The re-fillable mold uses a safe gelatin-like material and contains a complete skeletal structure, a full set of organs, plus veins and arteries in order to teach anatomy.
A complete water ecosystem kit
This year-round and self-watering garden teaches kids about aquaponic and hydroponic ecosystems as well as the concept of symbiosis in nature. The kit becomes a self-cleaning fish tank. Waste from the fish fertilizes the microgreens while the plants naturally clean the water. (The kit includes a coupon to purchase a betta fish from an approved company.)
A smart-connected dice game
This set of six smart connective dice allows users to play some of their favorite math-centric dice games with a tech-y twist. By connecting to the free app, kids can turn their tablet or smart device into an interactive game board while using the physical dice to play.