The Best STEM Learning Toys for Toddlers
July 27, 2017
In a world where cars drive themselves and tiny supercomputers sit in our back pockets, a proficiency in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) isn’t just nice to have—it’s crucial. And it’s never too early to learn: STEM toys for toddlers are a good way to encourage building, exploration and innovation from a young age.
Playing with STEM learning toys, whether it’s science toys, engineering toys, math toys or technology toys, can have a lasting impact on a child’s thought process and approach to problem-solving and creative thinking, no matter what vocation they wind up in. And it’s likely their future jobs will include some form of STEM: According to the National Science Board, jobs in science and engineering are continuing to increase at an annual rate of 4 percent, compared with a 2 percent growth rate in total employment.
The race is on to ensure that today’s children are prepared for the demands of tomorrow. STEM education in schools is now as much a part of the curriculum as English or social studies. (Variations include STEAM —which includes an “A” for art because creativity is also important in these fields—and STREAM, which incorporates an “R” for reading and writing because it’s the foundation for all learning, including science.)
But the movement is also gaining momentum at home, as parents turn to STEM games and toys to teach these critical concepts during early childhood and at-home schooling. Here’s a look at the benefits of STEM toys, what to look for when shopping, and a few of our top picks for the best STEM toys for toddlers.
STEM toys encourage a child’s curiosity and creativity through learning and play. After all, play is how children explore and figure out the world around them. It’s also crucial for their physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. The best STEM toys—whether engineering toys, technology toys, science toys or math toys—can all help support that, while also helping children develop fine motor skills, counting, color recognition and more.
A decade ago, STEM toys were hardly a blip on manufacturers’ radar; today, they line the shelves of toy stores around the country. “Parents want their kids to get ahead in science and math, and these types of toys can introduce certain concepts in a fun and engaging way,” says Adrienne Appell, a toy trend specialist for The Toy Association. There are even subscription services, like Kiwi Crate and Lovevery that will deliver hand-picked and age-appropriate STEM educational toys to children each month.
Child development experts couldn’t agree more about the importance of STEM—but caution that giving kids great STEM toys to play with will only get you so far—it’s also important to engage with your child during play. “Parents need to find time to just play with their kids every day,” says Michael Yogman, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “If you really want to cultivate creativity and innovation in kids, that’s the way to accomplish it.”
Managing expectations is also important. Just because your child enjoys Magna-Tiles or counting games doesn’t mean she’s absolutely going to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright or Albert Einstein. What these cool science and engineering toys for toddlers can do is help your child cultivate skills that will carry well into adulthood, such as problem-solving, flexibility and the ability to focus on a project and work cooperatively and creatively to come up with new solutions.
STEM toys for toddlers range from inexpensive blocks to pricey elecontrics, but they don’t have to be fancy for your child to learn from them. What they should be, according to child development experts, are:
• Interactive. This could be anything from assembling a face on a Mr. Potato Head or racing Matchbox cars over a track made out of pillows to hosting a tea party for stuffed animals. The process of making something, or building something, taking it apart and rebuilding it in a new way, can engender more learning development and enhanced maturation, says Michael Cohen, PhD, a developmental psychologist and president of Michael Cohen Group, a research and consulting firm focusing on children, education and media. Yogman agrees: “The fundamental principle is that kids are actively conducting their own science and understanding how things work. They’re not passive recipients, and there aren’t adults giving direction from above,” he says. “STEM toys can be used productively with kids to get them involved in making things.”
• Age appropriate. Resist the urge to buy STEM toys meant for an older child. Age recommendations exist for a reason, Appell says. “It determines what will be safe and developmentally appropriate for kids to play with, especially children under 3.”
• Of interest to your child. Even the best STEM toys in the world won’t be of much value if your child doesn’t want to play with them. See what types of toys and games your child gravitates toward and follow their lead, Cohen says. If they love blocks, for instance, stock up on building or construction toys, which teach basic engineering concepts. It’s also important to engage with your child during play. “Asking questions, talking to your child and offering him opportunities for reflection—and really listening to their answer—is the greatest thing you can do,” Cohen says.
When it comes to providing toys and playtime for toddlers, it’s just as important to know when to back off and let your child play by themselves. Trust your instincts on when to intervene, like when your child seems stuck on a particular step. Try to hold off explaining how a toy works or what it can do—that can cause a kid to lose interest. Instead, sit back and watch your child explore the toy. You’ll be surprised by how much they’re able to do with it—much more than you probably thought. Look for nonverbal clues suggesting that your child is asking for help or getting frustrated before interfering.
When shopping for STEM toys for 1-year-olds, keep it simple. Look for products larger than your child’s mouth that encourage sorting, balancing, counting, putting things in order, comparing and discovering cause and effect.
Fisher-Price Baby’s First Blocks and Rock-a-Stack, $17, Kohls.com
This includes two classic STEM learning toys in one handy set. Your toddler will love dumping out the bucket and filling it back up with the pieces, and then matching the shapes with the correct holes—all great for problem solving, sorting, and developing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. And as they mouth, fling and stack the rings, you can introduce counting and colors.
Melissa & Doug Deluxe Jumbo Knob Wooden Puzzle, $20, MelissaandDoug.com
Toddlers 12 months and up can work on their hand-eye coordination, shape sorting and problem-solving skills with this sweet wooden puzzle, complete with large, easy-to-grab knobs. Matching color-coordinated shapes underneath the puzzle pieces helps give little ones a boost (and encourages visual perception development).
Fat Brain Toys Dimpl Digits , $20, FatBrainToys.com
This sensory toy offers many STEM learning opportunities for little fingers to work through. Squishy silicone bubbles in different colors can be pushed to pop through on the opposite side. Each space is labeled with a number, which are also written out in English and Spanish and displayed with 3D dots. There are countless ways for little ones to develop their fine motor skills, colors and counting with this colorful disc.
Boon PIPES 5-piece Building Bath Toy , $15, BuyBuyBaby.com
Make a splash at bathtime with this fun and colorful pipe set. The five pipes can be individually suctioned to the bathtub wall or connected to each other. Kids will love engineering their own toy and discovering how water trickles through the pipes. You can also add some matching gears to really help them master the flow.
At this age, it’s best to think about toys that revolve around building. “Anything where young children have to assemble things in three dimension will have a positive impact on brain development,” says Liesl Folks, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Buffalo and the driving force behind several initiatives to promote K-12 STEM education in western New York. This is especially true for STEM toys for toddlers. “The more kids manipulate objects in 3D with their hands, the better they’re able to think in that way as adults,” she says.
Lovevery The Block Set , $90, Lovevery.com
This comprehensive set of blocks may end up being the one your toddler spends the most time with. It’s not just one of the best STEM toys for toddlers, but one of the best overall toys for this age group. Designed by child development experts, the 70-piece set includes a stage-based activity guide with more than 20 learning and developmental activities that’ll grow with your child, helping them build on physics, engineering and problem-solving skills.
Melissa & Doug Deluxe Pounding Bench Wooden Toy with Mallet, $17, MelissanadDoug.com
Yes, this toy looks like a toddler version of “Whack-a-Mole.” While it lets your child unleash their need to pound things, it also has the potential to reinforce some basic lessons in counting and color identification.
Skoolzy Nuts and Bolts Building Set , $16, Amazon.com
Your toddler may be too young for shop class, but this child-friendly building toys kit can keep them busy in the meantime. The set contains an assortment of nuts and bolts that toddlers can screw and unscrew. Not only does it promote fine motor skills, but also introduces tots to spatial reasoning, math, color recognition and shape sorting, thanks to the built-in matching game.
Guidecraft Grippies Builders, $48, Walmart.com
This set of magnetic shapes is one of the best engineering toys for toddlers. The 30-piece set gives kids an early introduction to engineering and geometry concepts and the chance to use critical thinking to come up with creative 3-D builds. Plus, the soft-grip material makes them perfect for kids’ small hands.
Step 2 STEM Wet and Dry Discovery Ball Table , $60, BuyBuyBaby.com
This play table is a haven for little hands to explore. Toddlers will have a blast learning how different objects like levers, catapults, belts and pulleys can move objects around the table, building fine motor skills along the way. The table can be used indoors or outside, and can also be filled with water for even more fun and sensory play. It’s one of the best STEM toys for 2-year-olds they’ll enjoy using year round.
Quercetti Saxoflute , $13, Amazon.com
This ingenious toy combines two of your toddler’s greatest loves—making noise and building things. The Saxoflute comes in 16 pieces, which can be assembled in a variety of ways to create all sorts of instruments (and sounds!). Parents liken it to “having your own wacky instrument from a Dr. Seuss book” and rave how their children love blowing into their creation and discovering what interesting sounds come out.
As kids get older, “they may become interested in reading, talking about objects they read about and creating stories around it,” Yogman says. “It’s good to have objects in the home that they can explore and relate to what they’re reading, such as more sophisticated blocks for building bridges or skyscrapers.”
Magformers Maggy’s House Magnetic Play Set , $50, Nordstrom.com
Engineering toys for girls aren’t as easy to come by as engineering toys for boys, which is why we love this colorful set that will allow her to build from the ground up. “STEM toys for girls are important. The more that girls are comfortable playing with them, and the more we have girls thinking science is something they can do, the better off we’ll be,” says Michael Cohen, PhD, a developmental psychologist and president of Michael Cohen Group, a research and consulting firm focusing on children, education and media. With multiple ways to build and decorate houses, this 33-piece magnetic set will help your toddler develop fine motor skills and problem-solving skills. (There’s also a gender-neutral set for kids interested in configuring their own dog house.)
Learning Resources Jumbo Magnifiers , $27 for set of 6, Walmart.com
“Chemistry sets and microscopes for very young children are totally premature,” Cohen says. A better choice: a magnifying glass that’s easy to hold and shatterproof. It will encourage your budding scientist to get up close and personal with nature, even if it’s just watching an army of ants in the backyard.
Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar , $26, Amazon.com
This high-tech caterpillar is one of the best STEM toys for 3-year-olds to introduce them to the basic idea of coding and programming. By rearranging the caterpillar’s body segments, your child can make it move in any direction.
LeapFrog Count Along Register , $20, Kohls.com
Dramatic play with a little STEM education on the side? This pint-size cash register delivers on both. Three-year-olds can scan items as the talking keyboard counts and lights up. It’ll also announce how many items were scanned and how many coins the shopper must put into the slot. Encourage your preschooler to count as you insert each coin.
Edushape Magic Brix Giant Set, $22, BuyBuyBaby.com
Magic Brix are soft, uniquely flexible knobby shapes that interlock with one another from practically any side—perfect for tiny builders. This construction set comes with everything preschoolers need to build cars, houses, robots and any other structures they can dream up, all the while boosting their fine motor skills, logic and reasoning and hand-eye coordination.
CreateOn 123 Chalkboard Magna-Tile Structures , $40, Maisonette.com
It’s likely you’ve heard about the ever-popular Magna-Tiles and how they’re one of the best STEM toys for toddlers to inspire problem-solving, spark creativity and encourage free play. Supplement your child’s collection or introduce them to the magnetic building sets with this kit. Printed with colorful numbers and math symbols, they’re a great way for your child to learn and practice their math skills.