Educational Games & STEM Toys: (Anti-)Gift Guide

STEM toys and educational games are big business these days, which means that every toy and game company wants a piece of the market – and many games and toys with questionable educational value will be trying to get under your Christmas tree (or other gift-harboring analogy) this holiday season.

Here are my thoughts on avoiding the over-engineered fluff and getting straight to the stuff that will actually encourage your kids to think, imagine, and innovate.

Kits: Yea or Nay?

Kits have long been a disguise worn by toys that want to look creative, but aren’t. If a box of stuff comes with instructions, and only following the instructions makes something exciting happen, then this is not a toy that fosters creative thinking (or any thinking). Kids get plenty of practice following directions; they don’t need more from their toys.

Data Theory Play llama building toy helicopter

This is why I hate the fancy, super-specific Lego sets they make now, even though they’re beautiful and it’s so hard to say no to them. The better toy for creative thinking is one of Lego’s basic sets with a wide variety of blocks that can be used for many projects – pick one of their classic sets, or try a k’nex building set: they come with instructions for building a variety of models, but with so many pieces, nothing’s stopping you from building whatever you jolly well please with them.

The exception: you need a starting point. If you want to give your kids an opportunity to do something that’s not so intuitive (like build a circuit or program a robot), look for a toy that provides step-by-step instructions to complete one or two projects and also leaves room for them to fiddle with the results, make changes, and invent new designs. Lego does this to an extent with their robotics sets, and Snap Circuits does, too. If you have any actual circuit-building experience (like William does, and he rolls his eyes at Snap Circuits), you can put your own project sets together for much cheaper. But if, like me, you’ve never built a circuit yourself and don’t own a soldering iron, these toys are very approachable.

A Game to Teach X

If you know your kids are interested in a particular topic X and you find a game that looks great and also involves X, by all means, buy it. But be wary of trying to foster interest in X by choosing a game that purports to teach it. No one regulates the use of the “educational” label on toys and games.

If your kids love games, try giving game-making supplies so they can design their own. I have a post on this topic for teachers, but with kids, be sure to include supplies for drawing maps/boards and making their own game pieces (Sculpey modeling clay is a favorite of mine, widely available at craft stores and very kid-friendly, as long as they’re old enough to have fine motor skills and not ingest it).

When you really want to give games, try something that’s not on Amazon’s top 20 list of most popular games. And for heaven’s sake, don’t give Monopoly, even if it’s Star Wars themed. For younger kids, try Labyrinth to teach thinking ahead and starting to strategize; for older kids, if you’ve got a sizeable holiday family and lots of time, give Diplomacy a go. The rules are simple, but the play is nuanced and requires, well, diplomacy. It’s a unique, terrific game that’s extremely historically and politically relevant, and engaging even if you have to quit before you finish (which you probably will, because it takes many hours to play through). If you don’t want something quite so involved but still want a game that will engage the imagination of everyone in the family, Dixit is good fun and quite thought-provoking. It’s an image-association game and the rules are easy to learn, so even younger kids can play with adults – and nobody has to pretend Chutes & Ladders or the Game of Life is fun.

Consider Books

Are books toys? Maybe, I don’t know. What I do know is that books definitely encourage kids’ imaginations, and they shouldn’t be shelved (ahem) because they’re not as flashy as pre-made “maker kits” and whatnot.

Picking a good book for another human being can be a challenge no matter how old that other human being is, but librarians and your kids’ teachers are good starting points in your quest for suggestions.

Data Theory Play llama reading bookHere, though, are a few titles you might not have considered:

Nimona, Persepolis, Maus

Three excellent graphic novels, with the caveat that Persepolis and Maus involve true accounts of war and therefore include some very psychologically difficult scenes.

For a sunnier read that still offers a cultural perspective that might be new for them, try the Aya of Yop City series. Note that all of these graphic novel suggestions include material that some readers might find difficult – Nimona probably the least, followed by Aya, then Persepolis and Maus.

Relativity, The Prince, This Side of Paradise

For high school kids, here are three excellent books on very different topics. This Side of Paradise is the book that, in my opinion, should replace The Great Gatsby on high school reading lists, because it’s about a young man coming of age and it’s just as full of Fitzgerald’s gorgeous prose as Gatsby. The Prince needs no introduction, and for any student interested in history and/or politics, is a timelessly relevant lesson on the art of manipulation. Relativity is the book that Einstein wrote to explain the concept of relativity to “anyone with a high school education,” and if you have bright, curious students who are interested in physics but haven’t yet studied it in depth, it is a reasonably accessible (and short) text.

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