We’ve discovered the best science toys for kids and teens to make learning fun!
Kids learn a lot from playing. In fact, play is a lot like science: kids make hypotheses about how the world around them works (I bet I can jump off that thing and not die) test them (SPLAT!) and report their results to a community of like minded individuals who share their quest for knowledge (Did you guys see that?). The science toys on this list let your kids play science, which will help them learn about science. By the time they hit middle school or high school, their playing at science with programming or gardening or taking apart an old car will have become actual science. As always, these age categories aren’t scientific principles—feel free to ignore them if you want.
Elementary School (Ages 6-11)
This is a combination activity book and papercraft space toy making kit. The box opens to contain a book on one side and a drawer full of punch-out paper models of planets and spacecraft on the other. The book explains the phases of the moon and the planets, and some cool experiments that are easy to do at home. It also includes instructions for building the paper spaceships, which for me is the main attraction. Kids can start with simple papercraft models like the planet Earth and work their way up through the Space Shuttle and Voyager probe to a three stage rocket that uses the box as a launch pad. The models can be a little fiddly—it’s best for you and your kids to work together on them until everybody gets some practice. Remember, Scotch Tape is your friend. There’s no need to be a papercraft hero.
In this game, kids and their grown-ups assemble a three dimensional maze out of “gravity maze towers” to channel a marble from the top of the maze to the bottom. It’s a great choice for kids who are into puzzles. The game comes with 60 different logic challenges, some of which are hard for adults. The challenges that come with the game are only the beginning. The game is flexible: kids can build their own mazes and set their own challenges. Gravity Maze can also be a gateway to learning about electrical engineering—the mazes are similar to circuits and getting the marble to where you want it to go is similar to getting electricity to where you want it to go.
This is just what it says on the tin: a stuffed animal version of a tardigrade, or water bear. These microscopic animals are famously tough: they can survive extremes of temperature, pressure and radiation. There are a lot of plush tardigrade options out there for the discerning stuffed animal enthusiast—this one is the cutest that I found.
Middle School (Ages 12-14)
The goal of this card game is for players to form neutrally charged compounds from a hand of cards representing elements and ions. Different compounds are worth different scores, with more complex compounds netting higher scores. Players can expand the game with action tiles, which let you play more cards, rearrange the cards in play, and other feats. There are also expansion cards representing transition metals, polyatomic ions, and every self respecting middle schooler’s favorite, radioactive elements. It’s a lively game, makes an excellent vector for trash talk (another middle school favorite), and will reinforce some of the chemistry lessons that your kid will encounter in middle school.
Okay, there’s something I need to get out of my system. Travel back in time with me, Nerdy With Children readers, to a State High School Theater Festival in the early 90s, held near a construction site at which a prominent piece of equipment bore the legend “Super Erection System”. It was hilarious when I was 15. It’s hilarious now. I can’t think of Erector Sets without thinking of the Super Erection System.
Erector sets are far more hard core and less forgiving than Lego. There are no Marvel Erector sets. Will Arnett does not host a TV program called Erector Masters, much to the relief of parents of 12 year olds. The models in this kit require close attention and more coordination than Lego does. My daughter and I have found that it helps to take breaks and build the models in multiple sessions. In the process of building the dune buggy, we’ve both learned a fair bit about mechanics and how machines fit together. Erector is better practice for real robotics, carpentry and other making than Lego because Erector pieces are fastened with screws and bolts instead of plastic studs. If you have a contrarian kid, someone who doesn’t want to follow the Lego crowd, then maybe Erector is the creative medium for them.
High School (Ages 14-18)
Arduino and Raspberry Pi
Arduino and Raspberry Pi are platforms for serious hacking and making. I’m not an expert on either system, but I’ll do my best to explain what they are for and the difference between them. You can learn more about both systems here and here.
Arduino is a microcontroller that can be programmed using the Arduino programming language and Arduino IDE software. It’s good for simple, repetitive tasks like opening a door or watering plants. Arduino is easier to use than Raspberry Pi, is relatively inexpensive and will run on basically any operating system. Arduino software is open source and there is a vast user community out there to consult with when you and your kids get stuck. The Arduino organization maintains a Getting Started With Arduino Products web site that’ll put you on a firmer foundation than I can.
Raspberry Pi is a build-your-own computer that runs Linux. It can do anything the computer you’re reading this on can do: play games, run applications and control complex electronics projects like drones and robots. You can program it in a variety of programming languages, including Scratch, which your kids may already be learning in school. Although Raspberry Pi materials are not open source, there is still an extensive user community out there to support/cheerlead/commiserate with you on your software projects. Raspberrypi.org maintains a Getting Started With Raspberry Pi web site, and Make: Magazine has published a Getting Started With Raspberry Pi book.
Join the Blue Oyster Cult and grow your own mushrooms! This kit contains a block of sawdust called a substrate that is pre-populated with blue oyster mushroom mycelium, as well as instructions for how to grow and harvest the mushrooms. You just cut open the box, spritz the substrate down with tap water a couple of times a day and the mushrooms take it from there. North Spore sells kits for growing many different types of mushrooms, but they say that the blue oyster mushrooms are the easiest to grow. Growing their own food can give your kid confidence at a time when they really need it. Plus, blue oyster mushrooms are packed with riboflavin, and who doesn’t want more riboflavin? For more information about fungi and how awesome they are, take a look at Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life.