Not the Same Old Engineering Toy List

Eric Iversen

Playtime is STEM time

Just as in education, the profile of STEM in the toy industry keeps rising. The Toy Industry Association identified seven top trends in toys for 2015, with four of them related to STEM learning: the Maker Movement, Open-Ended Play, “Smart” Play, and Top in Tech.

Amazon, of course, has a STEM toys category to explore, and a Google search of “STEM toys 2015” turns up list upon list upon list.

Engineering ascendant

Over 80 engineering-related gift ideas, carefully chosen by the good folks at the INSPIRE Research Institute.

Over 80 engineering-related gift ideas, carefully chosen by the good folks at the INSPIRE Research Institute.

Engineering is starting to get special holiday toy treatment, too, in its own right. Always a leader in pre-college engineering education, Purdue’s INSPIRE Research Institute has put out a second annual Engineering Gift Guide, with over 80 gift ideas as well as guidance on how to weave learning about engineering into kids’ play activities. We were delighted to have included in the guide all three of our K-12 engineering books: What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create (now accompanied by a Teacher’s Guide), and Start Engineering: A Career Guide.

Method to our toy madness

In the interest of not simply copying-and-pasting what’s readily available elsewhere, and with a keen sensitivity to the discriminating tastes of the children important to our readers, we have worked hard this year to identify toy ideas that are just a little bit unusual, a bit beyond what you’ll find on the eye-level shelf at Target or in the big banner ad on

The toys range from the virtual to the blended to the solidly material. They encompass all ages (yes, including grown-ups!). And several of them come with unassailable playroom cred – competition for turns with them among the Start Engineering children themselves and their friends over on playdates.

Fun with electronics

Snap Circuits carries the flag in this category, with electronics-based building kits of all sizes and for all age ranges.

Magnet-joined modules with electronic functionality make for easy, fun play and learning.

Magnet-joined modules with electronic functionality make for easy, fun play and learning.

A comer in the space is littleBits. Based on magnetized, color-coded electronic modules with distinct functions – input, output, connectivity – the kits enable kids to build working electronic devices of their own adventurous imagining. From a bubble-blowing tower to blinking pet jewelry to a three-wheeled, magic-marker holding, automatic art machine, projects can take almost any shape.

Founded by Ayah Bdeir, a young woman engineer from Lebanon, littleBits is growing fast from a position in between play, DIY making, education, and the Internet of Things development community. Their kits are in more than 2,000 schools, and littleBits community chapters have taken root all over the world.

If life just doesn’t seem complete without being able to use a banana to play games on your iPad, then Makey Makey is the toy to get. Made to convert anything that conducts electricity into a touchpad for a computer, these kits blur the lines among animal, vegetable, and the Internet. About what you’d expect from guys working out of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT.

Robot overlords in training

Sure, LEGO Mindstorms are awesome.

But if the robots are going to take over, it might be more fun if an Ozobot were calling the shots. If kids can draw, they can learn to code for this mobile, one-inch-plus personal robot and program it to carry out extensive sequences of movements and actions. Lesson plans, extension activities, and online videos make it all easy to use in educational settings.

Move the Turtle is a pure app that teaches the same kind of programming lessons, with the benefits of being cheaper, more mobile, and equally, if differently, charming.

“What’s he building in there?”

We all know LEGO rules the toy world. You can’t provision kids’ lives without the little plastic bricks.

Building toys, though, can make use of all kinds of shapes and materials. Two of our favorites have an old-school feel, satisfyingly tactile and durable.

Brackitz constructions can take almost any shape or size.

Brackitz constructions can take almost any shape or size.

Brackitz offers colorful plastic connectors that attach to small wooden planks at variable angles for making sturdy structures of almost any shape and size. Dead simple to learn, endlessly entertaining to use.

Yoxo makes construction sets based on interlocking, flat pieces in the shapes of Y, O, and X that also fit inside paper towel or toilet paper rolls. Kits feature figures – think robots, dragons, butterflies – or basic pieces for self-directed building.

A third company, Thames & Kosmos, offers combination storybook/building kits with an explicit engineering theme geared to different ages and reading levels. Amusement Park Engineer, for example, follows two children through a trip to an amusement park where they build, fix, and enjoy all different kinds of rides. These kits are all great fun.

Stuck on you

Magna-Tiles and Magformers are the mainstays of magnetized assembly sets. Varying slightly in size and shape ranges, both incorporate mathematical ratios and geometric proportions in the ways that pieces fit together. If the results from our house are any indication, Magna-Tiles are better for spaceships and Magformers for houses.

Geomagworld extends the magnetized toy idea to include representational pieces, in addition to simple geometric shapes. Fish, pod creatures, and robots all interlock with the basic sets of rods, balls, and pieces to give shape to whatever varied environments kids can think of putting together.

Gender diversity in the toy aisle

A correlation between toys and later choices in schooling and work is probably too facile to insist on. However, it does seem to matter if toys get designed and marketed specifically to boys or girls. Gendered toys can have the effect of leaving some cognitive skills underdeveloped among boys or girls who do not play with toys drawn from across the full spectrum of gender attributes.

With gender in STEM of such interest, STEM-related toys explicitly for girls have earned a lot of attention. A 2014 Super Bowl ad for GoldieBlox announced the idea with fanfare, and the girl-themed, engineering-flavored toys have become the go-to symbol of the trend.

Also popular in this space is Roominate, construction kits oriented towards girls for building houses, vehicles, amusement park rides, and much else. Lights, motors, and other things can be powered by built-in electronics and controlled with iOS devices.

K’Nex features the new Mighty Maker series, six building sets aimed at girls featuring common enough objects – an airplane, houses of different kinds, a ship, a Ferris wheel – and pieces tinted “girl-friendly” colors. Created by an all-female marketing and design team, the line is expressly aimed at building STEM competencies among girls seven and older.

Wearables like Blink Blink, Linkitz, and Jewelbots combine fashion and technology to appeal to girls.

And Miss Possible shows famous women in STEM fields as dolls in girlhood, along with an app to tell the backstory and help girls trace the women’s paths to STEM accomplishment. Started by undergraduate women from University of Illinois in 2013, Miss Possible is a great story that also promises good learning fun.

You’ve got mail

A wrinkle in the STEM toy approach is the subscription line. These services deliver all-in-one learning/play kits, usually at monthly intervals. Groovy Lab in a Box features a lesson in engineering design with all their kits, which span the STEM fields and are explicitly oriented towards Next Generation Science Standards.

Kiwi Crate offers themed kits, calibrated to ages three to 16, with contents that encompass STEM and other fields of learning.

And STEM Box takes the girl-centric approach to subscription kits, with varied kits keyed to woman role models featured on the website.

All these subscription services make extensive use of their websites to give context, provide assistance, and connect users with other people and resources related to the subject in focus.

Anything to add?

What’s your favorite engineering-related toy these days? Or perhaps from days gone by? Share your thoughts in the Comments below. And please feel free to send this piece along to any interested friends or colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering books, Dream, Invent, Create, What’s Engineering?, and Start Engineering.

Photo: Playing at Christmas, Daniel M. Hendricks, used by permission.