Once upon a time, a kid would ask for a toy and Pops would snap back, “Go make something!” Nowadays, thanks to the STEM toy and maker movement, kids covet toys that actually teach them to make, build, and program stuff. So, “Buy me something” is met with, “Go make something,” which requires a toy purchase, which leaves Pops wondering if he’s stumbled upon the nexus of the universe. To help you avoid the aforementioned brain freeze, here’s a great list of the best STEM toys, building toys, and DIY toys for kids. Because you don’t really want your kid looting around in your toolbox for spare parts to their parent shrinking machine.
If you haven’t heard, the future will be wireless, and SAM Labs is an easy-to-use electronics kit that will prepare your kid. These rechargeable smart blocks (a button, LED, motor, and buzzer) each perform a different behavior (flash, move, twirl, etc.). When a block turns on, it appears in the SAM Space app, where your kid can drag and drop components to connect them. Depending on the kit, those components can be used to build a remote-controlled car, a drawing machine, or a robot maid. Just kidding on that last one. Unless your kid is really, really smart, in which case, who knows?
Apparently making a speaker isn’t nearly as hard as Best Buy might have you believe. According to the instructions, an 8-year-old should have it put together in about an hour. Bose will provide the handful of provided cables, connectors, and 4.75 x 4.75-inch, high-performance plastic cube — you provide the tunes. No soldering or tools are required, which means that neither are you. And as they run through 15 fun, step-by-step activities on the included iOS app, they’ll unwittingly learn about the science of sound; everything from magnets (how do those work?), to frequency, to waveforms. Sadly, this DIY toy will never unlock the mystery of why your children prefer Kidz Bop to Led Zeppelin.
At 4 feet tall, with 1200+ parts and 10 motors powering articulated limbs, the only thing more fun than building this bot is playing with it. It’s programmable through learned intelligent motion or motion capture, has voice recognition, and comes preloaded with 1000+ phrases, facts, jokes, and dance moves. All that, with a face like Johnny 5 and a name like Jambi’s catchphrase. That brain spasm you just felt is 1986 you losing his damn mind.
LittleBits are electronic building block kits full of buttons, triggers, switches, wires, batteries, motors, LEDs, and more (the “Bits”) to encourage your kid (the “Little”) to invent all the things. This kit was dubbed “The ultimate invention toolbox” because its 60+ parts can create 12 included inventions — among them a “Bubblebot,” pinball machine, and RC car — plus hundreds more online. All those hours of creativity and distraction should excite you more than a little bit.
A mini circuit board or USB stick that turns anything into a touchpad might be the very definition of “Maker Toy.” It even has “Make” in the name — twice! What makes the “world’s first go-anywhere invention kit” the raddest is the endless possibilities. Banana keyboard? Check. Jell-O joystick? Done. SmartPie Selfie camera that automatically snaps a photo when your kid takes a cream pie to the face?? Yeah, that’s probably worth 25 bucks.
Lomography Konstruktor DIY Kit
The world’s first plastic 35mm SLR camera will teach your kid: how to build, and that film cameras were once a thing. The components pull apart from a sheet-like an old model airplane kit, then snap and screw together to form a functioning camera with a top-down viewfinder, multiple exposure function, and detachable lens. Once assembled, you’ll have to relearn where to get film developed, so it’s educational for everyone!
Piper is a computer-building toolkit that teaches kids STEM skills through Minecraft, and a perfect storm of parenting blog buzzwords. There are no instructions — your kid has to figure out how to build the thing themselves. They will, though, because once assembled, they play Minecraft in a world they hand-build by manipulating motion sensors, buzzers, and other hardware. They’ll still waste hours playing Minecraft, but at least they’ll have made something.
These robotic blocks and construction systems snap together using ball-bearings to form thousands of wire-free, programmable toys and vehicles. When the robot overlords take over, Legos won’t fall — they’ll simply evolve into Modular Robotics’ MOSS and Cubelets. (Or hang around forever because they’re made of the toughest stuff on the planet.)
Similar to Piper but with a broader set of applications is Kano, a build-it-yourself computer meant to teach kids age 6-14 how the devices they’re so obsessed with actually work. Unlike Piper, Kano has story-like instructions through which kids “level up” as they learn to add functionality like internet browsing and tweak games. Yes, that includes Minecraft.
LightUp – Edison
LightUp — Tesla
Kids snap together magnetic components like batteries, LED lights, and buttons to build any kind of gizmo, then photograph it with the LightUp tutor app, which shows via overlay the flow of electricity or things they need to fix. Once complete, devices are programmable via any browser. It’s the ideal analog-digital maker combo, equipping your kid equally to become a programmer or an electrician. How practical.