Well, it’s Black Friday, and the Christmas shopping season has officially begun. And that means it’s time to start thinking about what to get for everyone on your list – a daunting prospect for many people. Nieces, nephews and children of friends are particularly hard to shop for, because it isn’t as though they give you a list, and you’re less likely to keep up with their interests from year to year.
Fortunately, we’re here to help. In our two-part Gift Ideas feature, we’ll share our recommendations for STEM-related toys and for books to encourage young readers. (Stay tuned for part two on Cyber Monday!)
If any of the kids on your list have a history of enjoying building things or thinking science is cool, one of these gifts may be just what you’re looking for. In addition to being sources of fun for the recipients, they may also help to encourage kids’ interests in the STEM fields and get them excited about learning.
When you think of educational toys, LEGOs may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But as a piece in the MIT blog Ask an Engineer pointed out, Legos are actually a great tool for building basic engineering skills and mindsets and encouraging interest in engineering. Children can follow the instructions and build complicated projects, or they can go off-book and build whatever they can think of. And in the process, they’ll also learn that tall towers have to have strategic supports or they’ll fall down, and they’ll learn how to plan around that. In other words, they’ll learn how to confront problems and create solutions, which is engineering at its most fundamental.
There are many varieties of Lego toys. The simplest is Duplo, which features a simplified design for very young children. The most complex is Technic, which is the most engineering-focused with sets featuring complex mechanics and movable parts.
Recommended age: 7-16 (Technic), 1-5 (Duplo), 1-16 (general).
K’NEX is another type of building toy, composed primarily of varying lengths of plastic rod and endpieces which connect them in different ways. Like LEGOs, K’NEX offers the option of following the instructions or building creatively. It also incorporates basic engineering design principles which come up less frequently in LEGO building, such as the importance of triangles in creating a stable structure out of struts. Many K’NEX sets feature complex moving parts – notably, their products include a collection of model roller coasters which have small electric motors and utilize the same mechanics as full-size coasters.
Recommended age: 7-18.
You may have heard about the recent online kerfuffle regarding Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, the companion book to a 2010 Mattel Barbie doll. The original book depicted Barbie as an inept programmer with little tech-savvy who relied heavily on male friends to help her with code. Not long ago, a writer found out about the book and posted her views on it to her blog; the post went viral and, the Internet responded en masse. Many critiques of the book came in the form of edited images of the book’s pages; the website Feminist Hacker Barbie provides an easy means for users to edit individual pages in-browser, but there are also several full-length rewrites.
My personal favorite, linked in the section title above, is by Casey Fiesler, a graduate student in computing. In Fiesler’s reimagining of the book, Barbie can code and understands how software design works in the real world, and Skipper wants to be a physicist. The book is jam-packed with encouragement for girls who want to go into the STEM fields.
This is really only a stocking stuffer, since the book is small and doesn’t come with an actual Barbie – the doll associated with the original book is no longer in production, and with all the publicity it’s been getting, third-party sellers have raised their prices to $150-$200. But even without the doll, the book makes a great little gift for girls who might want to study science and engineering.
Recommended age: 6-10.
GoldieBlox combines elements of LEGOs, K’NEX, and the new and improved version of Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer. It’s a building toy which incorporates plastic rods and solids as well as moving parts. And unlike the other building toys featured in this article, it’s made specifically for girls.
Now, there’s no reason girls can’t play with LEGOs and K’NEX – goodness knows I did when I was a child. But GoldieBlox’s gender-specific design serves an important mission – the company was founded with the goal of encouraging more girls to go into engineering, to help close the appalling gender imbalance that currently exists in the field. As such, GoldieBlox sets are accompanied by storybooks about Goldie Blox, the girl inventor, who designs and builds her own machines. Like the revised Barbie book, GoldieBlox books provide overt encouragement to girls who want to pursue interests in STEM.
Recommended age: 4-9.
Do you have any more suggestions for STEM-related toys? Share them in the comments!
Feature image courtesy of CanStock Photo.