STEM toys for Kids Not Born Holding a Screwdriver

So, let’s say you have a kid who doesn’t show all that much interest in playing with building toys.  Is this kid doomed to a life in the Humanities or Arts?  How do you persuade a kid more interested in crayons or Play-Doh to try out the blocks and Legos?

Your first option is to chill out and let your kid play however he or she wants to play and recognize that this is fine.

But kids do grow and develop; they outgrow one set of toys and pick up another.  Sometimes they have a goal with no real sense of the steps to get there (“I want to build an airplane!” …okay, so, the steps to take right now, today, when you’re six, involve building an airplane out of Legos or folding one out of paper.  Aircraft engineering classes are way down the road from here.)  Sometimes your gut tells you that there is an engineer (or mathematician) inside your kid waiting to come out; other times, you’re legitimately worried that your kid has absorbed, not from you, the idea that girls don’t play with that sort of toy.  So where do you start?  I’ll tell you where to start.

1. Look at how your kid plays, and seek out toys that work with those patterns.

So let’s say you’ve got a kid who is obsessed with tiny, thumb-sized plastic poodles.  He collects them endlessly, they all have names, stories get enacted in which poodles get kidnapped by bad guy poodles (or possibly by the giant evil stuffed cat) and then rescued by good guy poodles.

If you want your kid to play with building toys, look for toys that can be built, and then played with with the poodles.  A ferris wheel building set will be vastly more interesting if it can be used to give rides to the poodles.  A Lego set will be more interesting if the poodles can live in the Lego building.  And so on, and so forth.  There are a bunch of itty bitty toys that were popular when Molly was four and are still out there, including Polly Pocket and Littlest Pet Shop, which are scaled very well for Lego buildings and so on.

This ferris wheel seems to come with seats, though I haven’t seen one up close in person so whether they’d be satisfying, I’m less sure.  There are Lego tree house sets in both girly and non-girly varieties (and a bunch of other houses, but who doesn’t like a tree house?)

Some kids are really into crafts; building toys are less interesting in part because of their impermanence.  There are a whole lot of craft projects that will teach building skills, but I’d suggest looking outside the “craft kit” box.  There are some excellent craft kits (everything from Klutz that we’ve tried has been great) but also a lot of terrible ones, as well as craft kits that say they’re for 8-12 year olds that are too complex or fragile for an 8-year-old to actually put together.

One of my favorite crafting media is hot glue; you don’t want to turn a preschooler loose with a glue gun unsupervised, but kids can use the stuff, carefully, at a fairly young age, with you there.

I started buying my kids Sculpey when they were in preschool; I did the baking, obviously.  You can also check out things like Sugru and Friendly Plastic and combine them with collected twigs or purchased craft sticks to build log cabins, fairy houses, etc.  Pipe cleaners are another structural craft material.  And then there’s papier-mache, which is fantastically low-budget but will probably require more help from you (and it can make a fantastic mess.)

2. Provide for empowering role-play.

If you’ve got a kid obsessed with princess stuff, trust that it’ll pass, first of all, but also, assume that the princesses are doing stuff, and provide props along with costumes for princesses who wish to ride out and fight dragons (one of my favorite books of my later childhood was about a princess who would ride out and fight dragons, actually) or go to space or find work as a veterinarian.

Props don’t have to be complicated; large boxes are one of the most basic and timeless toys out there.  If you’re going to buy props, though, I would strongly encourage you to look outside the toy aisle.  For instance, if you’ve got a kid who wants a doctor kit, you can find a real stethoscope for under $10 that will allow your kid to actually listen to her heart (or yours, or a very cooperative dog’s). You do have to be a little careful: if your kid puts the stethoscope in her ears, and then sticks the end right on a stereo speaker, this can cause hearing damage, so if you’ve got a kid who might do that, I suppose you might want to go with a fake.  You can also buy a real but inexpensive otoscope, thermometer, blood pressure cuff, and sling, and pack everything into a satisfyingly plausible black bag. But even if you just grab a real stethoscope to add to the mass-marketed doctor kit, that’ll be vastly more satisfying than the standard fake plastic kind, and allow your child to actually hear heartbeats.

3. Beware of toys when asked for tools.

There are science items you can safely buy in the toys section (like Silly Putty and Slinkies) (I’m sorry, do you not think of those one as science toys?) but others you should avoid.  Beware of microscope-shaped objects; too often, the lenses are so badly made you can’t actually bring anything into focus.  (In that price range, you can buy a hand-held magnifier with a light that your kid will be able to use for close-up looks at snowflakes.)  I’d also be really wary of telescopes (cheap ones are likely to mostly be frustrating). You can, in fact, get decent binoculars for really cheap, but again, not in the toy department. I truly don’t understand the point of toy department walkie-talkies, which never work ever and are only a few dollars cheaper than functional walkie-talkies you can find in electronics.

Basically, if your kid expresses an interest in a scientific tool, it’s worth following up with a few questions so you know what she’s hoping to do with it, and then asking around for recommendations.  (Same goes for building tools.  If your kid asks for a real hammer, they probably mean this and not one of these.)  Obviously, I’m not suggesting you buy anything dangerous to use or seriously expensive for a little kid, but sometimes the real thing is the same price or not significantly more.

4. Don’t overlook games. And look beyond Target’s game aisle.

You guys, there are SO MANY AMAZING GAMES OUT THERE. If you’ve never shopped beyond the game aisle at a toy store, you may have NO IDEA.

Molly was lucky: my sister is a board game geek, and so early on, when Molly got into games, she had access to stuff that was better than Candyland.

A couple of recommendations: to build pattern-finding skills, get Set and Quirkle.  Looking for toys to teach physics principles? Jenga and Suspend and similar.  Clue is all about basic process-of-elimination logic; if you’ve got an older kid who loved Clue until she outgrew it, get Mystery at the Abbey, which is a much more complex logic puzzle.

If your kid likes games but has issues with losing, try a cooperative game like Forbidden Island.  (You can still lose, but you all lose together.  Forbidden Island has beautiful art and tremendously appealing props.)

And if you’ve got a kid into games, check out a board game meetup, and maybe visit a game store, source of a 8 million awesome games that Target will never carry.  (Settlers of Catan is only the beginning.)

Following a suggestion made by Judith Martin in Miss Manners’ Guide to Raising Perfect Children, when Molly was little, I explained the idea of a handicap, and we used handicapping to even things out in games like Scrabble.  (She never needed a handicap in Memory; she could wipe the floor with me when she was three.)

4. There are really good books out there and they may not be the ones you’re thinking of.

Ed was dubious when I ordered a four-book Calvin & Hobbes set from Scholastic for Molly.  “Do we really want her reading these?” he said.  She had a tendency to imitate book characters.  (“Do you remember what a terror Calvin is?”)

Calvin has actually been a great influence: he’s a creative thinker with a million uses for a cardboard box and other simple toys.

Some other awesome books: The Mysterious Benedict Society, in which genius children save the world from a villain brainwashing people through their TVs.  (That one is filled with logic puzzles, which kids can solve if they want, or just keep reading to get to the solutions.)  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which is historical fiction about a twelve-year-old girl growing up in Texas in 1899.  (Makes an excellent read-aloud for younger children.  I was expecting a depressing ending when I read it, and instead got a totally uplifting one.)

Marilyn Burns is one of the best math writers out there, and if you’ve got a kid who doesn’t like math, get him or her the I Hate Mathematics book. A kid who does like math will love Math for Smarty Pants, which kicked off Molly’s obsession with perfect numbers when she was six.


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