As a frugal mom of two boys, I’m always looking for toys that will give me the most bang for my buck. I want toys that the kids keep coming back to and that they can play with in a variety of ways. To really maximize their value, I also look for toys that both my toddler and my preschooler can play with. It can be hard to meet all of these criteria, but we’ve had the best luck with STEM toys.
What Is STEM?
STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” It is a grouping of skills that have really been emphasized in K-12 education as well as college over the past decade or two. These skills are thought to prepare students for the good-paying, high technology of the future.
Why Is STEM Important in Toys?
Of course we want our kids to get great jobs in the future, but if your kids are still little, it may be hard to imagine how your toy choices now can affect their job prospects in the future. It’s all about laying the foundation. Kids learn through play, so by making STEM skills fun now, we get them excited to learn. If their first exposure to STEM is fun and engaging, they’re more apt to develop a life long love for math and sciences.
Sure there’s plenty of time in the future to get them geared up on these skills. But kids are going to need toys, so why don’t we get toys that are fun and help them learn? That’s a no brainer in my book!
What Makes the Best STEM Toys for Preschoolers?
Here are some of the things I look for when choosing STEM toys for my kids:
- Not electronic: This is totally my preference, but I’ve found that electronics entertain my kids for a short while, and then invariably these toys fall by the wayside. We’ve had better luck with non-electronic toys. I think it’s because these toys stimulate their imaginations better, give them more flexibility in how they play, and let them evolve as their interests change.
- Colorful: There’s just something about fun, bright colors that appeal to kids (and this mom, too!). When toys have a variety of colors, they’re more attractive to kids, which helps them keeping back to it again and again.
- Durable: Tiny humans aren’t known for being delicate with toys. I look for solid construction and good craftsmanship. Because I have a toddler in the house, I also look for toys that don’t have tons of small pieces that could become a choking hazard.
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The Best STEM Toys for Preschoolers
Learning Resources Pattern Block Activity Pack: Maybe these look familiar from your own elementary school classroom. My four year old son and I played with these for probably a solid hour today, which is pretty good for a four year old! The toy consists of pattern cards and blocks in six distinct shapes. The objective is to use the blocks to create the patterns shown on the cards. Some are simple, while others really challenge kids’ spacial recognition. Manipulating the blocks also helps build fine motor control.
What I love about this toy, and so many of the others I’m going to include below, is that there are a variety of ways to play with it. While we were using the cards, we also sorted the blocks based on their colors and practiced basic addition. After awhile, my son decided to forgo the cards and create his own pictures and designs. I loved that this toy helps him develop STEM skills, but also allows him to explore his creative side.
STEM Skill: Math, through pattern and shape recognition
Learning Resources Gears! Gears! Gears!: With these interlocking gears the possibilities for creativity are endless. Introduce kids to basic mechanics as they design and construct their own creations. The pieces are bright and colorful and easy for small hands to hold and manipulate. This is a great starter set, but if you have a few more dollars to spend, I recommend upgrading to the larger one hundred piece set so you have even more options.
STEM Skill: Engineering
Scientific Explorer My First Mind Blowing Science Kit: Both my four year old and my two year old LOVE this science kit. We’ve been doing home-based science and chemistry for awhile, so I was thrilled when my older boy got this for a birthday present. I love that it contains everything you need for easy, fun science experiments that will totally wow your kids. From test tube sunsets to underwater volcanoes, these experiments teach kids about acids and bases, and chemical reactions, and lay the ground work for building scientific inquiry. Not a scientist yourself? No sweat! It has an instruction book to walk you through all of the steps, and prompts to help you explain the concepts to your little scientists.
STEM Skill: Science
Magnetic Building Blocks: Take blocks to the next level with magnets! Kids learn about geometry by creating three dimensional shapes. By building houses, towers, and whatever else their imagination comes with, they also begin to understand engineering fundamentals.
STEM Skill: Math, Engineering
Kids First Thames & Kosmos Automobile Engineer: This is a cute and creative toy. It contains a storybook about an inventor family. The two children go through a series of adventures, requiring various vehicles to complete their objectives. As you go through the story, you build the vehicles described in the story.
What I really like about this toy is that in combines STEM skills while encouraging literacy. Too often, subjects like literacy and art play second fiddle to STEM skills. Instead, we need to incorporate STEM skills into a child’s overall learning so we can produce well-rounded kids that are good problem solvers, can make connections, and can think critically.
STEM Skill: Engineering, Technology
Educational Insights Design & Drill Activity Center: This has been a favorite with both of my boys, and even though we’ve had it for nearly a year, they keep coming back to it. The screws, drill, and screwdrivers are easy for little hands to manipulate, keeping them happy rather than frustrated.
In addition to a variety of screwdrivers and the colorful screws, this toy also comes with pattern cards so kids can recreate a picture like in the picture at left. We haven’t even gotten to those yet because my kids have had fun just playing with the screws and screwdrivers.
STEM Skill: Engineering, Math through pattern recognition
Wood Construction Toys: Remember Tinker Toys? These are similar, but I like the craftsmanship (and the price!) better.
Kids use their creativity by making their own structures. With these kinds of toys (as well as the magnetic blocks and gears above), the possibilities are truly endless. Whether your little engineers want to build a skyscraper, a machine, or something abstract, they are only limited by their imaginations. This is what keeps kids coming back to certain toys. It’s never the same!
STEM Skill: Engineering
MindWare Pattern Play: This one can be tough! Kids follow the pattern cards to complete a puzzle. It’s similar to the pattern blocks I mentioned before, but the pieces are three dimensional, requiring kids to not just follow the patterns, but also to spatially orient the blocks in the proper way.
This can be a bit challenging for my four year old, but he still enjoys it, and the pride on his face when he completes a puzzle is heartwarming.
STEM Skill: Math, through pattern recognition and spatial orientation
Mega Bloks: You can’t go wrong with a classic! Blocks literally and figuratively lay the foundation for STEM skills. It’s hard to imagine that at such a young age, you could be cultivating a future engineer that builds the next Brooklyn Bridge!
STEM Skill: Engineering
Mathlink Cubes: These might be familiar from your elementary school classroom too. We’ve just started introducing our older son to addition and subtraction. It’s a little hard for him to conceptualize arithmetic so I know these will help him visualize addition and subtraction. I also like these because we can work on sorting and patterns. And I know my little guy is going to love playing with the bright colored blocks.
STEM Skill: Math
Mighty Maze Maker: This is such a creative toy! It contains brightly colored interlocking shapes so kids can build their own mazes. It also includes prompts to guide children into building specific mazes, which helps with pattern recognition, problem solving, and spatial orientation.
STEM Skill: Engineering, Math, through pattern recognition
Hape Dynamo Wooden Domino Set: Everyone in my house (and grandpa!) likes this toy! Now, full disclosure, you can’t actually play a game of dominoes with this set. But my kids love setting these up and watching them all fall down. It’s good to have a grown up around to help with this, as kids get frustrated if they knock down the dominoes before they’re set up, but Daddy seems to enjoy this toy too and is very willing to sit down with them and set it up.
STEM Skill: Engineering
PBOX Kids Microscope: What appealed to me about this microscope was that it wasn’t a cutesy, over-the-top kids’ microscope. It looks like a real microscope you would have in science class and functions like a classroom microscope. This microscope does not include slides though, so you’ll need to get those separately.
This is another way I make sure to get the most bang for my buck with toys. I opt for styles that they can grow into rather than something they’ll age out of in a year.
STEM Skill: Science
Go Get Those Brains Growing!
I consider these the best STEM toys for preschoolers because my kids keep coming back to them. We have plenty of toys that live at the bottom of the toy box or the back corners of the closets, but the kids keep bringing these toys out and it’s easy to see they have a ton of fun with them. They’re also built well and stand up well to two rowdy little boys. They toys are fairly modest in price, but we’ve gotten a ton of value from them. I know they work well for you too!