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- Educational toys are a great way to introduce a child to the wonders of science, technology, engineering, and math.
- But for toddlers and preschool-aged children, it can be less clear which toys will introduce them to concepts like counting and building yet still be fun to play with.
- Our pick for Best Overall is the Cubbie Lee Premium Wood Block Set. Our pick for Runner-up is the BOLTZ Educational Building Blocks.
STEM Toys for Toddlers: 5 STEM Toys That Will Thrill
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. These four core areas are more often associated with high school or college learning but can be introduced to children at a very young age.
These are areas of learning which are important not only in and of themselves but which can help children develop their imagination, curiosity, appreciation for the world around them, and a passion for learning which will stick with them their whole lives.
For older children, STEM toys can include computer programming games, complex building sets which teach engineering skills, math puzzles, and chemistry sets.
But for younger children and even babies, STEM toys can be as simple as a set of blocks which can introduce concepts such as counting and stacking.
Some benefits of STEM toys are clear: every parent wants their child to develop an interest in science and math because these subjects will become important academically once a child enters school. It may also be essential to their success as an adult.
Demand for STEM jobs is expected to increase by 13% between 2017 and 2027. But there are other benefits to introducing STEM at an early age.
STEM toys, especially those which provide open-ended play, not only help young children developmentally, but also help children learn fine motor skills, cooperation, communication, and independent thinking.
STEM play also encourages intellectual learning instead of academic learning. Academic learning is rote learning – things like memorizing facts for a test, spelling lists, multiplication tables. Intellectual learning emphasizes problem-solving, reasoning, and testing hypotheses. In other words, it’s learning by doing.
“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”
– Daniel H. Pink
Babies and toddlers are naturally curious. In her paper “STEM in the Early Years,” Lilian G. Katz points out that “Extensive experience of working with young children and their teachers confirms the supposition that all children are innately curious and eager to explore their environments and learn about a wide variety of causes and effects.”
Because intellectual learning encourages exploration, motor skills, and independent thinking, adults who introduce it to toddlers are helping them learn how to learn. This can set them up for future scholastic success as it creates a base upon which all their future learning can be built.
There are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for STEM toys for young children. First, you should be confident that the toy teaches one of the four core STEM concepts. You should also look for toys which will remain interesting to your child for months or years rather than just a few hours. Toys which can expand and grow with your child or which offer open-ended play options will likely remain favorites for a long time.
Science is a broad area of learning and includes a large number of areas of study.
Biology can be introduced to toddlers using animal figurines which can be used to teach your child about different habitats, family groups, biodiversity, and other topics. Age appropriate chemistry experiments can teach toddlers about mixing colors.
While computer coding and engineering may seem like subjects which are too advanced for a preschooler, there are numerous toys available which introduce these very things. There are several coding toys on the market which show toddlers how simple language can change the behavior of a toy robot.
Building toys – whether they be simple wooden blocks or highly technical robotics sets – are some of the best-loved children’s toys. Both boys and girls find these toys to be engrossing, and best of all, building toys tend to remain favorites as children age.
Young babies, as well as school-aged children, will happily play with building sets and they learn engineering concepts along the way.
Even before a child enters preschool, you can help them develop early math skills.
Popular toys which introduce math skills include sorting games and counting toys. Simply counting along with your toddler while they hand you individual pieces of a toy set introduces numbers to them. There are also interactive electronic toys which can introduce simple math concepts to small children.
Illustrated math books for kids are also a great way to complement math learning at this young age.
This classic children’s toy is one which your grandparents would recognize and remember with nostalgia. Wood blocks are environmentally friendly and non-toxic, are a toy that both very young toddlers and older children can play with together, and they help develop motor skills and appreciation for engineering. Don’t let their simplicity fool you – wood blocks are a simple enough toy that children can instinctively play on their own without direction from an adult, yet offer hands-on engineering lessons that rival more complicated toys. Not to mention, your child will have so much fun knocking down their most recent creations, then re-building again.
- No small pieces – perfect for very young toddlers
- Environmentally friendly and non-toxic
- Sturdy, difficult to break, and inexpensive
- Structures can slip apart since there are no brick or bolt connections
- This set contains some smaller blocks inappropriate for babies under 12 months
Learning math doesn’t have to be a struggle. You can teach your child how to recognize numbers and how to count using this fun fishing game. This set can be used solo by one child, or two payers can challenge each other to a competition. Not only will this game help your child learn about numbers, but it also helps them develop hand-eye coordination and dexterity. The pieces are made primarily out of non-toxic wood, so if you are trying to limit plastic toys, this is an excellent -and educational – choice.
- Helps develop motor skills
- Teaches numbers and counting
- Develops social skills and turn-taking
- Not ideal for very young babies and toddlers
- Does not provide much open-ended play
BOLTZ come as a deluxe set of building components which your child can assemble into endless configurations. The blocks are put together using nuts and bolts which can be tightened by hand or by use of a ratchet. The set teaches engineering skills as well as fine motor control skills. Because this set allows for open-ended play, the BOLTZ set can remain a treasured playset for years, unlike other toys. Best of all, the set helps children develop their creativity and independent thought.
- Colorful blocks are appealing to children
- Remain an enjoyable toy for years of play
- Allow for imaginative play
- Small parts are inappropriate for very young toddlers
- Will require some instruction and help from an adult at first
- Made of plastic, which some parents frown upon
The stacking pegboard is a staple of early Montessori learning. Even very young babies and toddlers can begin learning the basics of colors, sorting, counting, and stacking with this toy. Although it may at first glance not seem like a STEM toy, it will introduce your toddler to the concepts of counting and building. The set comes with three boards and 60 plastic pegs which toddlers can arrange by color, build a structure, and directly work on their motor skills. However, the things that make this set so great for young learners – namely its simplicity and basic functionality will keep it from holding the interest of older children.
- Encourages very early counting skills
- Colorful and easy to manipulate pieces
- Peg-like parts stay together better than plain blocks
- Repetitive task may not keep a toddler’s interest
- Will not hold the interest of older children
This interactive lab is designed for preschoolers who are ready to experiment with everyday household items. The station has a configurable ball maze, introduces electrical circuits, and has a brew station for mixing together reactive ingredients. A visual, kid-friendly instruction book comes with it to help guide your child’s discoveries. Although this lab will be too advanced for young toddlers and may fail to grow and expand as your child ages, for kids in the right developmental phase, this toy can truly encourage their love of scientific play.
- Comes with kid-friendly guide
- Looks and feels like a real lab station
- Many activities rolled into one toy
- Not suitable for young toddlers
- Does not offer truly open-ended play
Our pick for best overall:
If you’re looking for a toy that can be used for years, can introduce concepts such as sorting, counting, and building, and which will help your child develop their mental and physical dexterity then your best investment may be in a set of simple wooden blocks such as the Cubbie Lee Premium Wood Block Set.(For Canadians, only the 50 piece Premium Set is available.)
Babies under one year can enjoy them as can children who have already entered elementary school. This open-ended toy is as limitless as your child’s imagination, and the blocks are sturdy enough to handle years of abuse without breaking. While more expensive and complicated toys may draw your young child’s interest, most parents find that blocks become a daily staple of their toddler’s play time.
Our pick for runner-up:
The BOLTZ Educational Building Blocks is also an excellent choice and will appeal to children as they get older. However, small toddlers may struggle with the pieces and may need an adult’s help to assemble.
Most of the toys above are intended for toddlers. This is because toddlers tend to be more prepared developmentally for the concepts introduced by STEM toys. Some may be suitable for babies but parents need to take precautions.
As always, care should be used when offering very small children certain STEM toys. Kits meant for older children may contain parts small enough for babies to choke on.
What are some STEM Toys for Pre-school Aged Children?
Our full buying guide for children’s STEM Kits includes many natural science, robotics and engineering toys that are great for kids entering pre-school or young children who are looking for something more challenging.