12 Engineering Toys to Teach and Delight

Born engineers

Kids love engineering. They really do. And they love it for great reasons: they get to help other people, to solve problems, to have fun while they’re learning, and to work (or is it play?) with their friends. Watch this video of kids at Brentwood Elementary in Raleigh, NC, to see for yourself. Go ahead, we’ll wait here.

How it works

The engineering these kids love has less to do with math and science than it has to do with creativity and exploration and active learning. This kind of engineering flows from the engineering design process, a disciplined, supple methodology for understanding a problem, inventing solutions, testing and refining them, and then sending the best one off into the world to do its work. This process lies at the heart of every engineering solution that has ever solved a problem or improved our lives, from the aqueduct to air-conditioning to Apollo 13.

Success in engineering comes from imaginativeness, collaboration, persistence through failure, and a willingness to follow results, not assumptions, to viable outcomes. Often you don’t know where you’re going until you get there. The shape of success can be a surprise.

And useful, too

As it happens, these attributes overlap almost perfectly with the kinds of capabilities thought vital for kids to develop before entering the hurly-burly of work and citizenship in this confusing, fast-changing, still-new century.

Small wonder toys seen through the lens of engineering command attention. The most-visited page on our website – by enormous margins – is the post we did on engineering-related toys two years ago.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Leonardo DaVinci

Research shows, in fact, that engineering-flavored toys do promote the kind of learning discussed above. And the toys that most effectively promote such learning are the simplest, the ones in which the kids do more and toys do less. The fewer buttons and batteries, the better. Think unit blocks and Magna-Tiles.

This line of thought has guided our list of engineering toys along a decidedly low-tech trajectory this year. These toys generate action in kids’ brains and fingers, and activity among their siblings, friends, and family members. They’re all easily found online or in stores, costing no more than $40. Starting below, they go from youngest to oldest.

Grippies Builders, 18 months and older, $39.99 (20-piece set)

Magnetic balls and rods with soft grips and bright colors are fun for toddlers to configure in any arrangements they can think of. Kids will experiment with symmetry, balance, relationships between parts and wholes, and the mechanics of three-dimensional objects.

Switch & Spin Magnetic Gear Board, ages 2-4, $19.99

Block Buddies help kids move back and forth between thinking in two dimensions and thinking in three.

Block Buddies help kids move back and forth between thinking in two dimensions and thinking in three.

Using magnetic pegs fitted to matching plastic gears, kids “color in” picture templates on a magnetic board. One turning gear can transmit energy and create motion across the whole board, bringing the picture to life. Unless the gears don’t mesh; then it’s try, try again.

Block Buddies, ages 3-6, $24.95

Kids manipulate 21 colorful, geometric blocks into representations of animals, vehicles, or people, guided by cards that map to the blocks required for each construction. 50 different designs in three levels of difficulty start kids thinking about how the shapes combine into things they recognize. Then they start building their own creations.

Box & Balls, ages 5 and up, $32.95

Dead simple: eight wooden nesting boxes and eight bouncy balls. The object? Arrange the boxes in whatever ways you can imagine to bounce the balls from one to the next to the next and finally into the target box with a satisfying ker-plonk. Added bonus is the nice sound the balls make bouncing off the sturdy boxes. This game can involve a surprising amount of fine motor skill, careful calculation of angles and force, and extensive, hilarious negotiations over the rules.

Kids First Level 2 Intro to Engineering, ages 5 and up, $39.95

With 25 engineering experiments and activities, this kit is a straight-up lesson in engineering that is fun at many levels. Starting with basic concepts of force, motion, and leverage, the well-designed activities lead kids through many different fields of engineering, from aeronautical to electrical to civil to mechanical, among others. You will need to supplement with household supplies to complete most of the activities.

Engineering Ants, ages 5 and up, $19.99

This combined board game and building activity requires players to work together to rescue ants from getting eaten by a hungry anteater. Players use tubes, clips, connectors, and caps as building materials to fashion rescue gear appropriate to whatever trouble the ants have got into. Along the way, surprise obstacles crop up, requiring a change of plans in mid-stream. In other words, just life real life.

A construction fort can take any shape or character that kids can imagine.

A construction fort can take any shape or character that kids can imagine.

Discovery Kids Construction Fort, ages 5 and up, $34.99

49 15-inch plastic rods and 28 tennis-ball-sized connectors with multiple holes fit together in any shape kids can dream up. Instructions show how to build a rocket ship, castle, or tunnel, among other shapes. And the addition of a blanket or sheet makes any construction that much more fun. Some designs work, some don’t, and lining up workable rod-ball arrangements can bend your brain.  This game is almost never fully put away at our house.

Tumble Trax Magnetic Marble Run, ages 5 and up, $24.99

The Gravity Maze requires attention to sequences of twists, turns, and drops.

The Gravity Maze requires attention to sequences of twists, turns, and drops.

Magnet-and-foam marble tracks in different shapes and sizes attach to any suitable surface to create a high-stakes, vertical marble run. Kids have to figure angle, force, and momentum to get a marble to roll from the top track to the box at the bottom.  Races make for extra thrills. Challenge cards are included to get them started thinking about their designs.

Gravity Maze, ages 8 and up, $29.99

Variously shaped towers with twisting and turning internal channels stack together on a board to create three-dimensional marble runs, IF they’re lined up properly. This game takes spatial reasoning and imagination. Challenge cards set up tasks from easy to difficult for players to build skills with taller, increasingly complicated set-ups.

Brain Builders, ages 8 and up, $15.95

Combine building challenge cards and KEVA planks to get an addictive exercise in translating two-dimensional pictures into three-dimensional objects. Builders have to reckon with balance, proportion, composition, and geometry.

Code Master, ages 8 and up, $19.99

Computer programming without the computer, this board game requires players to move an avatar through a changeable map in search of magic crystals. To go from one level to the next, players have to devise the one, correct sequence of moves. “Programs” get harder and more complex, involving direct commands, subroutines, and sequential reasoning in escalating degrees.

The Extraordinaires Design Studio, ages 10 and up, $27.96

This game presents design thinking as its core activity. Players act as designers, tasked with fulfilling the over-the-top needs of imaginary clients, described in detailed character cards. Think Cards guide players through a three-step design process: Research, Design, Improve. An exercise in guided, imaginative role-playing, this game promises to impart the fundamentals of design thinking in entertaining, memorable fashion.

Let the play begin

That’s our list. What excellent engineering-related toys did we miss? The realm of choices is growing only bigger and better. With the principles of simplicity and open-ended play in mind, you really can’t go wrong.

Share your comments or contact us directly. And, as always, we appreciate anything you might share with interested friends and 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 eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

Now available! A bilingual version of Dream, Invent, Create, for making engineering come alive in Spanish and English at the same time.

Our Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field. And for any outreach or education program, check out What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide. Our books can help deliver an accessible, engaging picture of engineering to all kinds of K-12 audiences.