Sunday, November 12, 2023

Holiday STEM Toys: Mr. Losik's 2023 Wish List

It's another holiday season and here comes another round of great gift ideas that aren't just fun, but are also good for kids. Whether we're fostering curiosity and creativity or bolstering social interaction, every one of these items is likely to put smiles on faces this December. I have been doing this list annually for a long time so be sure to check out previous versions going back to 2018

Whether you turn on your Christmas lights before the Thanksgiving dishes are done or after, finding the right present can be a yearlong task. I am always on the lookout for the right stuff for the upcoming year's list and I am always listening to my students to find out where their excitement lies regarding the latest and greatest toys that also carry some educational value. Just like every lesson or experience I design for my STEM classroom, I am looking to see which learning domain it fosters. Is it cognitive (gaining knowledge) or affective (appreciation for the beauty of the natural world or artistic culture)? Does it strengthen creativity? Is it social or does it build large and small motor skills? I don't mean to dampen the spirit of the season with this nerdy stuff but just wanted to share a little bit of the thought that goes into selecting each of these items. Okay, enough of that, onto the good stuff!

Educational Insights checks in this year with its GeoSafari Jr. line a handful of great options for 3 to 8-year-olds designed to bring them closer to their natural worlds. 

First up are the Kidnoculars binoculars that magnify things 2x and have comfortable eyepieces and a handy neck strap. Their best feature is the $12 price tag. 
GeoSafari Jr. Kidnoculars

GeoSafari Jr. Mighty Magnifiers
While the kidnoculars are great for spotting nature far away, the Mighty Magnifiers are wonderful for taking a closer look at nature up close. At around $16, the two items make great companions in an explorer bundle. A super cool feature is the built-in LED that makes these fun after dark as well.

Additionally from the GeoSafari Jr. line comes the SubScope. Priced at just under $40, young explorers can check out underwater habitats without getting wet...or at least that is the goal. With three built-in LEDs, the scope helps illuminate what's swimming around down below. Exploring ponds and lakes is great, but pack it on your next tropical adventure and check out some mangroves or tide pools. 
GeoSafari Jr. SubScope
For kids 8+ who might be looking for something on the techie side, Educational Insights offers Pyxel, the coding robot dog. While priced at $89, Pyxel is $100 less than some comparable robotic coding toys like the Sphero Bolt. As a STEM teacher, one of the main things I notice when it comes to kids learning to code is that the experience is so much more meaningful when they can make something in the real world happen as a result of their coding. It would be great if Pyxel just moved like an RC toy, but with an array of sensors, it doesn't take much for kids to really deepen their computational thinking and creativity with the code they're building. Pyxel uses the Blockly language that students in my STEM classes use as early as kindergarten so most will have a familiarity with it. 

Here's another techie suggestion for older kids. Just as Pyxel was all about coding the toy to do what you want, the Snap Circuits RC Snap Rover $89  is all about building the vehicle that can eventually be controlled with a wireless remote. Snap Circuits kits are great at teaching scientific and technical principles, but they also allow for modifications and creativity. The rover is like a puzzle in that kids need to pay attention to detail for it to function correctly, but then like an RC vehicle, they can further modify. This one was highly recommended by my students. 
RC Snap Rover

Let's take a look at some of the newest offerings from a list mainstay, Fat Brain Toys.

Nothing fosters kids' interpersonal social skills like board games, and man almighty do kids need help with their interpersonal social skills! Fat Brain's Make That Most Magnificent Thing Game $19.95 is based on the Ashley Spires picture book The Most Magnificent Thing $11.95 where a girl faces the challenges of building something "magnificent" from everyday items. In the game, all players are given the same task like "Build a musical instrument," and they are given two minutes to gather item pictures, arrange their contraption, and prepare a story about it. When time is up, each player explains their creation and then the group hands out award ribbons in categories like "Best Story" or "Most Creative Name". 


Hey Clay ($19.95) is quality air-dry clay that hardens within 24 hours and comes packaged in a big range of kits depending on what young sculptors want to build. Some of the kits available on Amazon include:
Forest Animals and others

Along with 15 jars of clay per kit, access to a free interactive app is also included that gives step-by-step instructions and teaches kids and tweens professional sculpting techniques. 
screenshot from the instructional app

In over 30 years of working with kids, blocks are still one of the best things kids can play with. Fat Brain's Timber Planks are a cornerstone of my STEM instruction and have been featured on previous lists. This year I wanted to share something for the littlest builders. These are rated for 3 years and older and have reflective edges in order to create a sensory experience as well. The Montessori Woodwerks Reflection Blocks 27 Piece Set ($49.95) encourages kids to not only stack and create but to strategically arrange the blocks so the shatter-proof mirrored surfaces play off of one another and create optical illusions. 
reflection blocks

I always like to include a book in the list and this year, I really like Boxitects ($11.95) by Kim Smith. It's a picture book that encourages kids to be creative and find joy in making things, but the real message is that learning to work with someone else can be tough but also tremendously rewarding. 

Hopefully, this helps with your Christmas and holiday shopping for elementary-aged kids. Again, be sure to go back and check out the lists from previous years for even more ideas. 

Here are some additional quick recommendations as picked by my students.