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29 STEM toys to sharpen your child's critical thinking skills

Help kids code, build and mix concoctions with these brilliant gifts.
TODAY Illustration ; heshphoto / Getty Images

When picking out a toy for kids, you obviously hope that whatever you get will provide plenty of fun and keep them occupied for at least a few hours. But it's always a major bonus when a toy does both of those things and also helps them learn.

"Young children are wired to discover and figure things out," said Tovah P. Klein, director of Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of "How Toddlers Thrive." "This is what we call curiosity and it is what drives them to want to engage with toys or other materials. STEM toys fit here. Any toy or game that gives them the opportunity to figure something out, such as puzzles, building sets, magnets or materials that support discovery such as science kits (let's make a volcano), will support these desires."

Enter, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) toys. From rocket launchers to robot-building kits, STEM-focused toys can help teach kids valuable science and math skills — and most of the time they have so much fun with them, they don't even realize they're learning!

How do STEM toys help a child's development?

"Children learn best through hands-on play," said Amanda Sullivan, senior program director at National Girls Collaborative Project. "Any toy that allows children to have fun while exploring foundational STEM content is beneficial for learning and development. The most impactful STEM toys foster creativity, support intellectual curiosity, promote cognitive skills, social skills and more. Additionally, STEM toys support children’s role-playing and imaginary play by helping them to imagine themselves as doctors, engineers and scientists."

Can a child be too young to play with STEM toys?

Children of different ages are at different learning levels, so it's important to keep their current development in mind when it comes to purchasing them the right STEM-geared activity or plaything.

"While there is no such thing as “too young” to start with STEM, it is important to think about selecting STEM toys that are developmentally appropriate," Sullivan said. "A STEM toy that is developmentally appropriate for a two-year-old, for example, might allow them to practice foundational STEM skills like cause and effect at a water table or explore engineering by making a tower out of blocks. Meanwhile, a five-year-old might be more stimulated with a toy that allows them to practice basic engineering and coding skills, such as with a programmable robotics kit. STEM toys look different and foster different types of learning and play for each stage of development."

What makes a good STEM toy?

While Sullivan notes that the most common STEM toys explore the concepts of building (i.e. Lego sets and Magna-Tiles), animal life (i.e. veterinarian kits), robotics and coding, she notes that many other children's toys could be labeled as STEM.

"Keep in mind that any toy that allows children to explore problem-solving, cause and effect and hypothesis-testing can be considered a “STEM toy” — whether or not it is branded that way!" she said. "In that same mindset, the most common STEM toys children gravitate towards might be the “classics” like wooden blocks, water tables, sensory bins or logic-based board and card games. Also, materials like cardboard boxes and recyclables can be the most fun (and free!) of all STEM toys!"

Because there are so many cool STEM toy options out there for kids beyond Sullivan's suggestions, we're making it easier for you by compiling some of our favorites on the market right now. Plus, we're including the STEM toys that made the cut in The Toy Insider's much-anticipated STEM 10 list, which features some of the hottest and most sought-after toys in the category this year.

For some gift fun ideas for your scientist, architect or scholar in the making, check out these great STEM toys that are perfect to gift!

To quickly jump to the category you're looking for, click on the links below or keep scrolling to see all 29.

Best STEM toys, according to The Toy Insider

LeapFrog Magic Adventures Microscope

Help your little one’s world get even bigger with their very first microscope! This microscope comes with pre-prepared slides that they can use to discover the intricate details of flowers, animals, food and more. Plus they can make their own slides to explore the hidden features of that mysterious leaf in the backyard or that interesting piece of lint on their shirt. If they see something they like, they can capture an image and save it to the device.

National Geographic Herb Growing Kit

This kit will have your little gardener in the making on their way to growing their own herbs in no time! It comes with everything they need to start their own herb garden, including pots (and tools for decorating them), seeds, a garden shovel and more.

Osmo Coding Starter Kit

Give them an intro to coding with this starter kit from Osmo. They'll use coding commands to take their character on big adventures, create fun musical beats and solve coding puzzles.

Lego City Mars Spacecraft Exploration Missions

With the corresponding Lego building instructions app, they can build a mission spacecraft and complete on-screen mission challenges. According to the brand, they'll develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills as they play.

V-Tech Smart Chart Medical Kit

The doctor is in and they're ready for your checkup! They can listen to your heartbeat, check your temperature and record your symptoms on their electronic chart. But that's not all! The tablet has quiz games to help your little one learn about the human body.

Learning Resources Switcheroo Coding Crew

No tablet, no phones, no screens at all when you code with this crew. Kids can gain their unofficial coder's badge through interactive play with this set which includes coding challenges cards, vehicles, 27 obstacle-building pieces and interactive town pieces.

Fat Brain Toys Trestle Tracks Deluxe Set

This isn't your average marble run! It has widening tracks that propel marbles down the run and func colorful details. Kids can either follow the guides or create their own custom tracks.

Thames & Kosmos Ultra Bionic Blaster

Putting this toy together can be a little challenging, so the brand says it's a good fit for kids ages 12 and up (or those ages 10 and up who have some parental assistance). Once they finish building this bionic blaster, they'll have a fun toy that they can play with time and time again — it's powered by air so they won't even have to worry about the batteries dying!

More STEM toys to shop

Elenco Snap Circuits

For the older kid (or kids at heart), they can practice circuits with this hands-on, electrical circuit board from Elenco, complete with all the pieces needed for any path they want to create or test out.

JewelBits Science Kits: Hello World, Neon

Help them learn the difference between a solid and a gas by crafting their own neon sign for their bedroom or play room. With different provided colors and the opportunity to craft a handful of shapes, they'll have a fun decor piece as the aftermath of this science project.

Gears Building Set

With 100 pieces to build, spin, destroy and rebuild, this kit from Learning Resources helps to teach children about grouping, counting and motor skills by snapping pieces perfectly into place. "This toy will be engaging for her for years to come," said one reviewer of their current infant.

Magna-Tiles Stardust Set

For the beginning builder, gift them with the always popular Magna-Tiles, magnetic building tiles that come in various shapes. In this specific Stardust set, the they can build and create with 15 shimmery and glittery tiles. "My kids LOVE magna tiles, they keep them entertained for HOURS! They do lots of imaginative play with them and honestly wish I found them sooner," said one reviewer.

Think Box Inventor's Box Set

With over 700 pieces in this small but mighty set, as well as a booklet with instructions and ideas of inventions, they'll be dreaming of their own creations for hours on end. "It is a great gift for the creative kid in your life," said one reviewer, with another one adding that it's a "great toy to get the wheels of the mind turning."

Ramps and Balls Exploration Kit

If they want to configure a track around the perimeter of their room or build a ramp taller than themselves, they can do both with this 30 piece wooden set from Lakeshore Learning. With different sized balls and ramp strips, they can craft tracks in various shapes, rooms and heights. "I bought this for my block center so students could explore force and motion. These ramps have been a huge hit," said one reviewer, with another one noting that this set is "perfect for hands-on learning."

Solar System Floor Puzzle

Sizing up at over four feet long, they can learn the names of the planets and how far away they are from the sun with this oversized floor puzzle. This puzzle is "always a favorite," said one reviewer.

Lakeshore Learning Remote-Control Gear-Bot

Build with blocks, gears, claws, different heads and attach them to a motorized base and you have a remote control robot. With a range of up to 50 feet and 149 pieces, the little engineer in your life will be building, crafting and racing for hours on end. This gift is "easy to assemble and reassemble in different formations, and he learns a thing or two about the way gears work," said one reviewer who gifted this to their child.

Sphero Specdrums

Whether they have a lovely song in their heart or they're aspiring to be a Soundcloud musician, let them turn the world into their own personal instrument with these app-enabled rings from Sphero. They won't be able to get enough of creating, mixing and producing their own tunes by simply tapping their fingers.

KiwiCo Chemistry Lab

Perfect for kids ages 3 and up, these experiments will keep kids off devices and into some cool hands-on learning. This kit includes beakers, test tubes, graduated cylinders and funnels. Each kit also includes all necessary project materials and easy step by step instructions.

Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Game & Learn Controller

All of you parents whose child has lost, hidden or eaten the remote, stop what you are doing. Your prayers have been answered. Give them their own remote! The Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Game & Learn Controller gives them the household device they love, but with a good dose of stem to boot! This kid-friendly controller includes alphabet shaped buttons, a clicker disc and toggle switch great for fine motor play. Ideal for ages 6 months until they are old enough to buy their own Amazon Fire Stick.

Picasso Tiles 100-Piece 3D Color Magnetic Building Block Set

It's never too early to tap into their inner creativity. Incorporating geometric shapes, vibrant colors, magnetic polarities and architecture into one stylish package, young children can't get enough of constructing colossal objects and scalable buildings.

Battat – Take-Apart Roadster

Kids will have a blast with this great little roadster that they can put together, pull apart, put together and pull apart all over again! Great for tuning up fine motor skills and turning up the fun. Not only will your little one enjoy putting this classy car together, they will love taking it for a spin around the living room once it’s built.

Tegu Magnetic Wooden Block Set

With the Tegu Magnetic Wooden Block Set, one minute you are building a dinosaur, the next a small plane or a wooden horse! This set is durable and has been described as an heirloom toy. It’s also great for strengthening fine motor skills, pattern recognition, balance, sense of scale, imaginative play, problem solving and storytelling.

Fun Forts Glow Kids Tent for Kids

This is a fort. Need I say more? Blanket and pillow forts are awesome, but this fort glows in the dark, has 52 glow in the dark rods and 29 multilink spheres, and takes fort engineering to a whole new level. Also, this fort isn’t just contained to the living room, it’s great for outdoor play as well. Build a rocket one day and an igloo the next — let your imagination and creativity run wild!

MindWare Q-BA-MAZE 2.0: Ultimate Stunt Set

So simple in its principle, yet so complex in all that your kid can design. This set takes the marble maze to its max. With 156 cubes consisting of three different designs, this is the perfect gift for your future physicist or architect. Fun for kids and adults, this would be an ideal activity for a family fun night!

Osmo - Pizza Co. Game

Every entrepreneur needs their start and this game might help your little titan grab his or her slice of the pie. Your kiddo may think they are running their own pizza shop, and they are, but they are also learning fast-paced practical math, nonverbal communication and basic concepts of business. Plus, it's compatible with both iPads and Fire Tablets.

Best STEM books

The Speed of Starlight: An Exploration of Physics, Sound, Light and Space," by Colin Stuart

Bookworms will instantly be drawn to the stunning illustrations by Spanish artist Ximo Abadía, but their curiosity will keep them reading about exploding stars, invisible rays and some of the other biggest scientific discoveries in history.

Baby Loves Science Board Boxed Set Board Book

I want my son to read these books, but first I have to ask myself, "do I want him to be smarter than me at just 18 months?" After a few reads from this book set, my son might be reading to me or doing my taxes in no time. This creative and educational set includes titles like “Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering,” “Baby Loves Gravity,” “Baby Loves Coding” and “Baby Loves Thermodynamics.” If you aren’t sold already, this set also comes with an adorable periodic table poster of the alphabet.

American Girl Doll STEM

Did you know Elsa’s princess dress can also double as a lab coat? A very fashionable lab coat for a very fashionable STEM career. There are a lot of jobs in the STEM world for a girl to choose from. With this book, girls and their dolls can explore all the STEM options that await them in a fun and relatable way.

"100 Easy STEAM Activities: Awesome Hands-On Projects for Aspiring Artists and Engineers"

Jam-packed with activities highlighting new-to-them concepts like computing, physics and color-mixing, these games and brain teasers will make learning a blast right from the start.

​​Don’t forget to check out Shop TODAY’s other gift guides to find the perfect present for every kid on your list including babies, 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 9-year-olds and 10-year-olds.