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You've probably heard about the importance of exposing children to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or STEAM (with an added arts component) as early as possible in their developmental years.
But in an age of digital distraction, how do you keep them engaged? One strategy involves choosing games and toys that are so captivating and fun that kids don't even realize they're learning while they're playing (shhh). Parents, I've got you covered with seven awesome gadgets that will keep your little ones entertained and make you feel good about giving them something educational, too!
TODAY editors, writers and experts take care to recommend items we really like and hope you’ll enjoy! Just so you know, TODAY does have affiliate relationships. So, while every product is independently selected, if you buy something through our links, we may get a small share of the revenue.
1. Magformers Interactive Kit Sets, $40, Target
My niece and nephew love these magnetic blocks and will spend hours (away from the TV) creating magical worlds. The sets come in geometric shapes that allow for endless imaginative construction. Special sets include cruisers (to construct vehicles that really move), dinosaurs and even a cool set that lights up. The best part is that all the sets interconnect, so you can start to build a collection.
2. Play-Doh Touch Shape to Life Studio, $18, Amazon
I loved playing with Play-Doh as a kid, and this brings it to a whole new level. First, children build hands-on Play-Doh creations with tons of character stampers, tools and seven cans of the moldable compound that are all included. Then comes the exciting part: Parents download a simple interactive app, scan the child's Play-Doh character into the virtual world and watch as it comes to life on the screen. Kids love to see their character take on its own personality in the digital world.
3. Osmo Genius Kit, $100, Amazon
Ever feel frustrated when your children’s eyeballs are glued to the tablet? Inventors of the Osmo felt the same way, so they developed a way to enhance the tablet experience with STEM learning components. The key to the Osmo is reflective artificial intelligence technology, which enables the tablet to decipher what's in front of it. You just hang the enclosed red reflector over the camera on the iPad, and your tablet can see what your child is doing! Try the tangram module, where the goal is to re-create the shape that you see on the screen by building it with the physically included blocks.
These stickers, coloring books and storybooks come to life with augmented reality. The series was created by a mom, who was exposed to augmented reality and wondered why it wasn't being used yet in toys. Mardles brings bedtime into the technological age by bridging the traditional story with an inactive computer component. Just download the app, flash it over the sticker or the book and watch as the characters come to life!
5. PowerPuff Girls on Scratch, Free, Cartoon Network
Scratch is a free online project that was developed in conjunction with MIT Media Labs. The goal of the site is to help children learn how to use code to make their own art, stories, music or games. Scratch partnered with the Cartoon Network’s PowerPuff Girls to create their own unique coding segment called “Make it Fly.” It was a huge hit, and the second most successful tutorial ever aired on Scratch — with 132,000 kids sharing their projects online. Simply log on with your child to see all the coding masterpieces these young people have created!
6. Seedling Virtual Reality Maze, $60, Uncommon Goods
What kid doesn't enjoy a maze? This gadget mixes a physical maze with one in virtual reality. First, children create their own customized maze and tilt their marble to victory. Then, parents download the free Android or iOS app and place their phone into the included virtual reality viewer. Children watch as the maze comes to life within virtual reality outer space, a royal kingdom or an ancient land. A bonus kit even provides all the art supplies that kids need to custom design their own VR viewer. The whole process is so creative!
7. Circuit Cube Kits, $50, Tenkalabs
One of the STEM focuses for young women is engineering, and these circuit cubes can help teach kids the fundamentals of electrical wiring. They come in three basic modes: battery, motor or LED, and are completely compatible with Legos. Try a Bright Lights, Wacky Wheels or Smart Art kit to create a jewelry box, moving car, or — my favorite — a customized lightsaber.