21 Best STEM Toys for Toddlers
When it comes to exposing your little ones to STEM toys—or toys that promote learning in science, technology, engineering and math—research shows the younger, the better. Playing with STEM toys helps toddlers develop strong skills in areas of creativity, logic, problem solving, experimentation and collaboration. Plus, a study that appeared in the March 2020 issue of the Journal of Cognition and Development found that “block-building skills at age 3 are related to spatial skills at age 5 … and spatial skills in grade school are linked to later success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.” In other words? The toys your child plays with as a toddler can have a direct impact on their STEM learning later in life.
This certainly doesn’t mean your kiddo should be conducting lab experiments or enrolled in a baby coding camp, though—simply playing with STEM toys helps support their development. Here, we break down what exactly qualifies as a STEM toy (it’s more straight forward than you think), the benefits of playing with them and which are the best STEM toys for toddlers in every age category.
In this article:
What are STEM toys?
Benefits of STEM toys in toddlers
What to look for in STEM toys in toddlers
Best STEM toys for 1-year-olds
Best STEM toys for 2-year-olds
Best STEM toys for 3-year-olds
A STEM toy is simply a toy that promotes the learning of the four subject matters, and figuring out what’s a STEM toy and what’s not is not as complicated as you might think. According to Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, EdD, a professor emeritus at the Center for Early Childhood Play at Eastern Connecticut University, any toy that promotes open-ended play also promotes education in those four areas.
“One trend that is emerging from our studies can serve as a guide to families as they choose toys: Basic is better,” Trawick-Smith told the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “The highest-scoring toys so far have been quite simple: hardwood blocks, a set of wooden vehicles and road signs and classic wooden construction toys. These toys are relatively open-ended, so children can use them in multiple ways … Simple, classic toys would be our recommendation for families.”
Just because your child enjoys Magna-Tiles or counting games doesn’t mean they’re absolutely going to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright or Albert Einstein. But what these STEM 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.
Playing with STEM toys can also affect how well your child learns in school. A 2017 study in the Journal of Early Childhood Research showed that constructing complex buildings with blocks as a preschooler was associated with improved math learning. A 2014 article in Trends in Neuroscience and Education found that playing with blocks, puzzles and shapes games had a significant influence on the early development of spatial skills—and spatial skills are “important for success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.”
STEM toys for toddlers don’t have to be fancy or high-tech for your child to learn from them. What they should be, according to child development experts, are as follows:
Active, not passive. 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 bring about 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. Michael Yogman, MD, a pediatrician in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, agrees: “The fundamental principle is that kids are actively conducting their own science and understanding how things work,” he says. “They’re not passive recipients, and there aren’t adults giving direction from above.”
Age-appropriate. Resist the urge to buy STEM toys meant for an older child. Age recommendations exist for a reason, says Adrienne Appell, a toy trend specialist for The Toy Association. “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 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 them opportunities for reflection—and really listening to their answer—is the greatest thing you can do,” says Cohen.
The Toy Association also published the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics (STEAM) Toy Assessment Framework in 2021 to help provide more established guidelines for what toys can be called STEM/STEAM toys. According to their comprehensive framework, STEM toys for toddlers should have the following:
- All four characteristics of a “good toy”: It needs to be fun and engaging, easy to use, inclusive and supportive of skill development.
- All six STEAM attributes: It should have real world relevance, active involvement, arts, logical thinking, free exploration and support for step-by-step learning.
- Support learning in at least two specific STEM subject areas: Science, technology, engineering or math.
Overwhelmed by all of this information? Feeling stressed that you need to overhaul your entire playroom? Don’t be—we’ve selected the best STEM toys for toddlers of all ages below.
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.
Blocks and Stacking Set
This Fisher-Price product features 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 fling and stack the rings, you can introduce counting and colors. Age rating: 6 months+
Geometric Wooden Puzzle
Younger toddlers 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 help give little ones a boost (and encourages visual perception development). Age rating: 12 months+
Toy Pipes for Bathtime
Make a splash at bathtime with this fun and colorful pipe set. The five pipes can individually suction to the bathtub wall or connect 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. Age rating: 12 months+
Large Building Blocks
Research shows playing with blocks is one of the best ways to support STEM learning, making these large building blocks from Mega Bloks the perfect way to encourage creativity and construction from a young age. Their larger shape is ideal for tiny hands, and the 80 primary colored pieces will inspire hours of open-ended play. Connecting the Lego-style blocks will also help fine tune your little one’s motor skills—and knocking down their creations will surely help release all that toddler energy. Age rating: 1 to 5 years.
STEM Toy Kit
This kit from Lovevery is one of our favorite STEM toys for 1-year-olds. Included in the collection are six toys—including a wooden stacker, circles puzzle, ball run and wooden coin bank—that help build fine motor skills, introduce cause and effect and explore the science and math concepts of spatial relationships, parts of a whole and rotation. Age rating: 13 to 15 months.
Colored Stacking Cups
Stack them as a tower, fit them inside one another, hide things underneath them—these brightly colored stacking cups are the definition of an open-ended toy. The bottoms also have tiny holes, making them extra-fun and stimulating for water play. Something so simple can provide hours of fun for your little one—and older toddlers too. As your kiddo grows older, this STEM toy has tiny cut-out shapes on the bottom for counting practice and large numerals for number recognition. Age rating: 6 months+
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. This is especially true of 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 continues. These are our top picks for the best STEM toys for 2-year-olds.
Multi-Use Block Set
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. Age rating: 18 to 48 months.
Think of this toy as the 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. They’ll watch the colorful pegs take turns showing their smiles while using hand-eye coordination to thump them—it’s a learning experience and energy release in one! Age rating: 2 years+
Nuts and Bolts Building Set
Your toddler may be too young for shop class, but this child-friendly building toy 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. Age rating: 18 months+
Wooden Racetrack Toy
Little ones will get a kick out of watching these wooden race cars flip their way down the zig-zag track. As your toddler (and their imagination) grows, the cars can be used in more elaborate racing adventures, and the track provides additional stimulation through its bright primary colors and numbered lanes. Age rating: 2 years+
Magnetic Building Set
Consider this set of magnetic shapes one of the best STEM toys for 2-year-olds. The 30-piece collection 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. Age rating: 18 months+
Water Play Table
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. Age rating: 2 years+
Build Your Own Instrument Set
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 reviewing the toy 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. Age rating: 2 years+
Cardboard Building Blocks
Let your toddler create forts, buildings and towers as tall as they are with these jumbo-sized blocks from Melissa & Doug. The larger sizes make it easy for tiny hands to manipulate, and their creative muscles will flex as they practice stacking, building and creating. Plus, these blocks are strong—they can withhold up to 150 pounds—allowing them to tolerate climbing and inquisitive toddlers. Age rating: 2 to 5 years.
As kids get older, “they may become interested in reading, talking about objects they read about and creating stories around it,” says Yogman. “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.” Check out our favorite STEM toys for 3-year-olds below.
Magnetic House-Building Set
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 allows her to build from the ground up. “STEM toys for girls are important,” says Cohen “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.” With multiple ways to build and decorate houses, this 33-piece magnetic set will help your toddler develop fine motor and problem-solving skills. (There’s also a gender-neutral set for kids interested in configuring their own dog house.) Age rating: 3 years+
Cash Register Toy
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, so you can encourage your preschooler to count as they insert each coin. Age rating: 2 to 4 years
Interlocking Construction Set
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. Age rating: 3 years+
Magnetic Chalkboard Tile Set
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 little one to learn and practice their math skills. Age rating: 3 years+
Toy Tractor-Building Set
Release the inner engineer in your little one with this buildable tractor. The included drill and screws help your toddler construct the tractor from scratch. Adventures and open play abound once the tractor is fully built, and it’ll be just as much fun (and a learning opportunity) to take it apart. Bonus: This toy is accredited by the Toy Association as a STEAM toy, making it a top choice for STEM toys for 3-year-olds. Age rating: 18 months+
Wooden Train Rail Set
This is yet another set that checks all the boxes when it comes to STEM toys for kids! The wooden train set allows your toddlers to be creative in how they design their train tracks, while the imaginary cityscape promotes interactive and imaginative play. Spatial awareness and fine motor skills are also honed when your toddler connects the pieces together. Plus, it’s a classic toy that’ll last for years and years—the ultimate playroom win. Age rating: 3 years+
Oversized Locking Tubes for Building
The possibilities are endless with these tinker-toys on steroids. The oversized locking tubes can be connected to create a variety of larger-than-life toys: think forts to play in, toddler-size cars to drive, tunnels to crawl through, soccer goals to kick into and more. This STEM toy for 3-year-olds promotes learning and development in spatial and engineering skills, problem solving and critical thinking, architecture and design, teamwork and creativity—the list goes on! We’re willing to bet your toddler will be having too much fun to even realize they’re learning so much. Age rating: 3 years+
About the experts:
Michael Cohen, PhD, is a developmental psychologist at Michael Cohen Group, a research and consulting firm focusing on children, education and media.
Michael Yogman, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.
Adrienne Appell is a toy trend specialist for The Toy Association.
Liesl Folks, PhD, is the 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.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
Plus, more from The Bump: