Children have used play as a means of preparing for adult life since the dawn of time -- from Cro-Magnon kids scooping up rudimentary jacks to practice hand-eye coordination required for hunting to Victorian youth honing their riding skills on the back of a rocking horse [sources:The Strong National Museum of Play and Power House Museum]. Modern kids may not need the hunting and gathering skills required for survival in past generations, but our kids can still benefit from the chance to learn through play. With the rising demand for science, technology, engineering and math skills, science-related toys provide the perfect opportunity for kids to have fun as they prepare for the future.
A chemistry set serves as the perfect toy to help a child unlock the secrets of science. While old-school chemistry sets gave kids a leg up in school and let them experiment with different mixtures and reactions, modern toy makers offer plenty of specialized sets to attract a kid's eye. For example, some contain only ingredients that kids can safely consume, allowing your budding scientist to mix up foaming and fizzing drinks or crystallized candies [source: Discovery.com]. Spa-based chemistry sets consist of various fragrances, soaps and lotions, so kids can practice science skills as they mix up batches of bath products. Other modern chemistry sets focus on experiments with substances that glow in the dark, or different types of gross, slimy or gooey substances -- all guaranteed to pique a child's interest, regardless of his or her curiosity for science.
Digging for Dinos
Nurture your paleontologist-in-training with a dig-your-own-dino kit. These kits consist of faux dinosaur parts encased in a block of hard sand. Just like a real scientist in the field, kids must carefully brush and dig away the sand to reveal the hidden pieces. Once all the parts are uncovered, the bones can be assembled like a puzzle. The end result? A fully assembled dinosaur skeleton like those you see in the museum. But in this case, you're actually allowed to touch [source: Parents' Choice Awards]. For younger children who might find excavation and assembly too challenging, check out the Dino Xcavator game. Similar to Operation, in this game kids must carefully remove dino bones from tiny compartments. If they slip up and touch the sides of the compartment, the dinosaur comes to life with a roar [source: Parenting.com].
There's no question that robotics is the wave of the future, and children with a leg up in this field will have an edge in the workplace if they choose certain types of careers. Various toy makers offer products designed to present robotics in a fun and kid-friendly way -- often so kids have no idea they're learning as they play. Hexbugs -- tiny creatures that move through vibration -- provide an easy introduction to this field, while older kids can get a more in-depth look at robotics with Lego's Mindstorms series of toys. The Mindstorms EV3, for example, contains all the tools kids need to build 17 different robots, all of which can be programmed to move and communicate using programs on a phone or tablet [source: Lidz]. Smart car robotics kits give kids a glimpse beneath the hood, teaching them to assemble a car, then drive it via a simple smartphone program.
Roominate combines the very best of modern construction kits with the classic dollhouse. Using these kits, kids actully construct their own playsets and dollhouses using a virtually unlimited number of design options. Once the structure is complete, kids use motors, pulleys and wires included in the kit to bring it into the modern age with features like lighting, fans and elevators that really work. Roominate provides a gallery of ideas of the company's website, but the true beauty of these kits is their versatility; kids can arrange the pieces into a dollhouse or basketball court, or craft a circular saw or refrigerator with equal levels of ease. Roominate is not only fun, but provides kids with important STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math) related to architecture, electrical and mechanical engineering.
Encourage kids to explore the world beyond our solar system with a model rocket. Old-school model rockets came with an element of danger, requiring users to mix up dangerous propellents to get the rocket off the ground. Today's versions are much safer, using lightweight materials and simple motors to send rockets soaring as high as 1,500 feet. Starter kits for kids come with a launcher and launch pad, a rocket or two, and enough motors and supplies to cover your first couple of launches. Most of these materials can be reused over and over by simply adding new motors, which you can find at toy and hobby shops [source: Heren]. Who knows -- a simple model rocket might just launch a child on a path to a career in physics, astronomy or engineering.
When the original building toys known as Erector Sets were first introduced around a century ago, they came with a very specific slogan -- "Hey Boys! Make Lots of Toys" -- which made it clear that girls should stick to dolls and dress up. While there's certainly no shortage of gender-neutral building sets for boys and girls today, the GoldieBlox line is specifically designed to appeal to girls. These kits not only include building materials to craft a variety of products, but each also includes a character-based story, which adds a relationship element not found in many other toys. Girls are challenged to read the story and use the components in the kit to craft a structure that solves a problem -- which may range from building the perfect parade float to assembling a functional zipline.
A microscope allows kids to see things on a smaller scale and explore the elements that make up the world around them. While old-school microscopes got the job done, new models use digital technology to add some extra cool features that will appeal to the kids of today. Handheld digital models provide lots of zoom at a relatively low cost, and make it easy for kids to take the microscope out into the woods or to the park. Some even contain removable memory sticks, allowing kids to take pictures to record their discoveries. Small digital models plug into a computer, making it easy to study and record observations at home. When choosing a microscope for kids, stick for monocular versions -- ones you look through with one eye -- as kids can have trouble focusing on other types of units. Choose a microscope with real glass lenses, and skip plastic bodies, as they're too fragile for young users [source: Pappas]. Younger children may be satisfied with basic models that offer moderate zoom, while older children will likely be interested in the finer details provided by higher zooming capabilities.
Ants are more than a no-hassle pet -- they provide kids with an opportunity to safely interact with animals and to understand and observe as entire ecosystem. Traditional models use just ants and dirt, which mean your child -- or you -- will have to keep up with adding food. For a more hassle-free ant farm, check out Antworks. These farms use special gel developed by NASA, which the agency used when sending ants into space in 2006. The clear gel adds visual flair to ant farms, but also serves as a source of nourishment for the ants, so there's no need to add food. Other specialty models use colored sand, or incorporate special features like "skate parks," ramps, rock walls and other cool elements for the ants to explore.
Think of Snap Circuits as the Lego kit of the future; instead of simply building structures, kids construct real working circuit boards using a combination of wires, switches and circuits. By combining these pieces together, children can make a mini fan, light LEDs, or send noises through a speaker. Junior versions of the product even grow with the child, and can be used with standard sets designed for older childern if you pick up a connector kit to merge the two. These toys serve as a simple way for kids to learn the basics of electricity, and provide a glimpse inside their favorite electronics.
Alternate Energy Cars
Forget old-school remote controlled cars that drain your batteries -- alternate energy cars teach kids about the fuel sources of the future while ensuring you'll never need to buy a battery again. The simplest versions of these toys contain magnesium metal sheets. Sprinkle a few drops of saltwater into the car and it will run for hours without assistance. More advanced fuel cell cars, like the i-H2GO, come with all the pieces kids need to construct a hydrogen-powered car, then allow kids to connect the car to a smartphone, which acts as a wireless controller. Volta racers use built-in flexible sheets of solar panels to operate even in low levels of light. Like the i-H2GO, Volta racers comes in pieces, requiring kids to use their engineering skills to assemble the car before it's time to play.
Barbie, the ultimate classic doll, turns 60 this year. HowStuffWorks goes to the party.
Author's Note: 10 Science Toys Kids Will Love
When I set to work researching this article, I was fully prepared to try to play up the same boring old science toys. I was surprised to find out just how many great STEM toys are available for kids, and just how much fun some of these toys seem -- I have to hold myself back for a few more years before my daughter is old enough for those GoldieBlox toys! After plenty of research, I realized that some science-obsessed kids would have a blast with the more traditional toys like microscopes and model rockets, while others would need more cutting edge options like Lego Mindstorms or Roominate to truly get them interested in STEM topics.
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