Building little engineers this holiday season

With the holidays fast approaching and Black Friday upon us today, here are some of the best engineering toys for kids.  Each of these toys develops spatial learning and problem solving skills that can grow and build with your child.  Empowering kids with the creation of real-world structures and electronics, children and adults alike can join in the fun.  And, especially, we need to make more of an effort to inspire young girls to engage in STEM subjects and I can tell you that I would have loved to have these toys when I was a kid!

Ages 3+


magnatilesFirst of all, magnets are awesome because they can attract and repel.  The science behind magnetism is cruel and vast.  Any adult who has played with–ahem, I mean struggled with–Bucky Balls understands this fascinating (and often frustrating) quality.  Here, however, we are talking about the kids toy and spacial learning tool Magna-Tiles.  Luckily for parents, the magnets are constructed to attract each other side-by-side. Placed next to each other, locking in place with magnetic force, kids can build 2-D and 3-D structures.  Just think of the various things they can make: colored tile arrangements, dollhouses, garages, barns, bridges, skyscrapers, and more.  Purchase the translucent tiles instead of the solid colored ones so that your kids can see their stuffed animals, mattel cars, and figurines in the structures they’ve built.  And start with at least the 100 piece kit and build up from there–it’s pricey, $120 on Amazon, but includes 50 squares and 50 different triangles with which to start building anything they can possibly imagine.  The tiles seem to be surprisingly durable (based on Amazon reviews), lasting through being stepped on, bitten, tossed together into many a toy box, guinea pigs, thrown by little boys and bigger boys, puppy bites, and more.

Ages 4+

Gears! Gears! Gears!

gearsInterlocking pieces that build fine motor and engineering skills and include fascinating motion with building construction is the ultimate goal of Gears! Gears! Gears!  Composed of gears, cranks, and connectors, kids can build limitless structures of spinning wheels as they learn that each gear needs to connect to the previous one (and awesome enough–in any direction!)  What’s even better is that as your kids develop these skills you can add motorized components to spin the wheels.  What engineering fun!

Marble Run

marble runSimilar to the fixed marble runs of our doctors’ offices in the 80s, the fascination of this toy is the flight of the marble.  Except here, your kids need to devise that flight path prior to flinging marbles down Marble Run.  The brightly colored pieces snap together in endless patterns, so building new structures can occur every day.  However, you will undoubtedly find that your kids have more fun sending all their marbles through the run over and over and over.  Either way, the visual and auditory stimulation is fun for kids of many ages.

Ages 5+

Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine

goldie bloxLast weekend I made a new friend, Zoe, who introduced me to Goldie, a nearly superhero girl who builds a series of wheels on which to spin her friends.  What’s great about Goldie Blox is the accompanying book that guides your kids through the spinning fun.  With a peg board, axles, wheels, connectors, one long ribbon, and a handful of hilariously named characters that sit upon the wheels, your child will arrange an endless array of belt drives.  The spacial learning capacity of this particular toy surpasses that of the others so far listed because of the need to wind the ribbon in certain directions in order to spin the characters on the wheels.  However, the last page of the book frustratingly shows a blueprint that more than one adult, myself included, found impossible to create.  Zoe played around with stacking the axles with connectors (even though the picture had 2 stacked wheels) in order to lift the structure and was able to spin the figurines as depicted on that final page.  “Chorizo!”


roominateAnother great choice specifically aimed at girls, Roominate is a dollhouse building kit that allows for endless architectual imagination.  With relatively inexpensive small kits, your kids can collect pieces bit-by-bit until your little girls (and boys!) build the palace (or castle) of their dreams.

Ages 8+

Snap circuits

snap circuitsI hope anyone interested in this one saw my Fb post yesterday because the Snap Circuits 750 extreme kit was a lightening deal on Amazon for $70.  If not, don’t despair because this kit is well worth the $100 price tag if your kids are interested in electronics (and let’s face it, what kid isn’t these days?).  A Junior version is available for slightly younger kids (ages 7+) and introduces them to the theory and practice of electrical engineering.    No tools are required to snap together the connectors that can neatly only fit in the proper direction.  Therefore, each piece safely transmits electricity (no possibility of shocks!) for 100’s of different experiments including light switches, a doorbell, a sound-activated switch, and a flying saucer.

An alternative to Snap circuits, but also a great choice for your kids’ next stage of electrical engineering development is the LightUp Tesla kit.  In addition to circuits, this kit requires learning basic programming and is recommended for ages 12+.  Finally, an even more advanced electronics kit, littleBits, is actually on my own personal wishlist this holiday season (34 y.o. and still very much a kid when it comes to learning new things).  With the cloud kit, littleBits can be engineered to remotely control peripherals in your home, such as lamps and fish feeders, to turn on and off when you’re not home.


At the end of the day, remember that these are all learning tools.  Just because the structure has collapsed or the light does not turn on does not necessarily mean that the pieces are flimsy or defective.  Let your kids learn from their mistakes and try different ways to make sturdier structures and double check that all the circuits are connected properly–all while unknowingly developing patience and problem-solving skills.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a future engineer on your hands.

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