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Science teacher and mom Asia Citro picks 10 toys for building STEM skills

Quercetti Saxoflute


Asia Citro is a Seattle mom, author, blogger, science teacher and STEM toy enthusiast who’s shared some of her favorite toys with us. For more ideas on toys, or fun activities to do with your kiddos, check out Asia’s terrific blog Fun at Home with Kids


In no particular order, here are our favorite STEM-skill building toys — because learning through play is the best!


1. Quercetti Saxoflute


Ages: Toddler and up


I love this toy. It’s very easy to make it whistle (nice for toddlers who are just learning how to blow whistles/horns), and it’s not super loud. We all have so much fun creating crazy instruments — even the adults!


What they’re learning: How different configurations change the sound/pitch of the instrument; how to troubleshoot (if their horn isn't making noise); how the movement and force of air changes sound.


quercettistore.com/en, $18



2. HABA Technic Blocks, Basic Vehicles


Ages: Preschool and up


Kids can create all sorts of vehicles (cars, trains, trucks and more) with this toy. It's a great imaginative exercise, as well as a playful way to learn some physics and engineering.


What they’re learning: Where to place wheels and connectors to make a functioning vehicle; how different configurations of vehicles change how easily/quickly the vehicle moves.


habausa.com, $67



3. The Curious Kid's Science Book


Ages: Preschool through second grade


In our newest book, kids learn how to run experiments to answer scientific questions. They'll learn from failed experiments and about the world around them via real-world connections offered throughout the book. The 100-plus activities playfully build on children's natural science, math, engineering, and technology skills, using normal household ingredients.


What they’re learning: How to conduct an experiment; how to use scientific tools, real-life concepts; perseverance and patience; very basic biology, chemistry and physics.


funathomewithkids.com/p/book.html, also available from amazon.com, $17


4. Snap Circuits


Ages: Preschool and up


These things are amazing! They’re classified as appropriate for ages 8 and up, but if you’re willing to sit with your child while they work through these activities, I've found that kids around 4 to 5 years old can easily play with these and learn a ton. I love that you can creatively use the pieces to invent your own circuits!


What they’re learning: Beginning circuitry


snapcircuits.net, $20 and up



5. Playstix


Ages: Preschool and up


These are really interesting building blocks — I like to think of them as a much cooler version of the Lincoln Logs I had growing up.  They rest on each other, like Lincoln Logs, but can also snap and lock together. Some sets contain wheels to make rolling cars, planes and more.


What they’re learning: Where to place wheels and connectors to make a functioning vehicle; how different configurations of vehicles change how easily/quickly the vehicle moves; and how to create a stable structure/building.


popularplaythings.com, $17 to $85



6. Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors


Ages: Toddler through second grade


Rachelle Doorley’s Tinkerlab has more than 55 activities that encourage tinkering, curiosity and creative thinking. This book is a great way to get kids inventing!


What they’re learning: Engineering, tinkering and inventing skills; perseverance and patience.


tinkerlab.com, $14


7. Raise a Butterfly


Ages: Preschool and up


There are many ways to raise butterflies, but my favorite is the kits from Shady Oak Butterfly Farm because they send you actual living host plants. You’ll need to keep the host plants alive, because they’re your caterpillars’ only food source. The kits also include the seeds of host plants for the butterflies in your state, in case you’d like to extend your learning experience by planting a butterfly garden.


What they’re learning: Basic butterfly biology — host plants, butterfly life cycles.


butterfliesetc.com; metamorphosis kits with plant, $48



8. Straws and Connectors


Ages: Toddler and up


Most toddlers won't have the fine motor skills to be able to build with these by themselves, but they’ll have plenty of fun playing with the things you create for them. I love that these are just as fun for adults as for kids. We've made balls that roll, houses, boats, cars and towers — even the Eiffel Tower — with ours.


What they’re learning: Basic engineering (how to create a stable structure); patience and perseverance


roylco.com, $20 and up



9. Stereo Microscope


Ages: Kindergarten and up


A microscope is a big investment, but it's one that can grow with your child. I’m a big proponent of purchasing a stereo microscope vs. a compound (or regular) microscope.  Regular microscopes magnify a ton (which can be overwhelming for little ones who don't quite understand what they’re looking at) and also require thin slices of flat specimens. Stereo microscopes (also called dissecting microscopes) are my favorites with little guys, because you can look at darn near anything. Your finger? Sure! A toy? Absolutely! A worm? Totally. As long as you can fit it under your microscope, you're almost sure to be able to see it. It does not need to be flat or thinly sliced. It magnifies a lot, but not so much that you can no longer tell what you're looking at. My daughter got her stereo microscope at age 5 and could reliably focus on items herself, because it's so much easier to tell what you're looking for! You can still look at slides if you'd like, but you aren't limited to slides. Here are two versions of stereo microscopes (one is less expensive because it offers less magnification; another offers more magnification, though both are great microscopes). *run highlighted piece online to keep links intact


What they’re learning: About magnification and the structure of various items; microscope skills


amazon.com, beginning at $60


10. Kinetic Sand


Ages: Toddler and up


Even something as simple as sensory play can be a valuable STEM activity for kids.  Kinetic sand is not edible, so please use your best judgment with introducing it to children under 3. Kinetic sand has so many interesting properties that children will naturally investigate and try a variety of things. It's a very simple way of encouraging scientific thinking.


What they’re learning:  Observation and questioning skills.


kineticsand.com, $14 and up

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