Here they are! Our current top picks for STEM toys that we’ve enjoyed over the years for fostering cognitive development in children. This list is great for children of nearly all ages from 3-18 years. I took the liberty of dividing the list into two sections; For Big Kids and For Little Kids. Many of these toys are award-winning, top-rated, and highly affordable. Not one brand is sponsored and all opinions are my own (and my kids, of course).
What is Cognitive Development?
To put it simply, Cognitive development means how children think, explore and figure things out. It is the development of knowledge, skills, problem-solving, and dispositions, which help children to think about and understand the world around them. Brain development is part of cognitive development and there are many things parents, teachers, and caregivers can do to help foster cognitive development in children. Reading books is perhaps one of the best ways. Playing with STEM toys is another great way to challenge your child’s mind and nurture their brain.
Why Are STEM Toys Important?
STEM toys prompt children to think critically and explore different ways of solving problems. Both of these components are essential for fostering cognitive development, especially the left side of the brain that helps children develop the full scope of language. STEM toys also spark the imagination and encourage creativity, activating the right side of the brain that helps children pay attention, stay focused, and monitor mistakes.
For Big Kids and Teens
1. LEGO Boost Robot Building Set and Educational Coding Kit
LEGO Boost is an award-winning toy and so much fun. The set includes 847 LEGO pieces that kids can build and rebuild into 5 cool multifunctional models. My little scholars built Vernie the Robot and enjoyed programming the robot to dance and tell jokes. You do need a smartphone or tablet to download the free app, which is what your children will use to code and program their constructed models. Best suitable for ages 7-12 years
2. Robotics Pick and Drop Machine
This STEM-based construction kit explores kinetic motion. It works by spinning the crank to transfer energy through the arm linkages, which activates three grabber hands that reach down and grab a ball and then release them onto the return ramp. This model is a challenge to build but so much fun to play with when completed. There are no batteries required to enjoy this kit. Most suitable for ages 8-15 years.
3. LEGO Architecture New York City Skyline Model Kit
LEGO Architecture sets come in many models. We’ve personally enjoyed three of the many sets the brand has to offer. The New York architecture set includes the Statue of Liberty, Flatiron Building, Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, and the One World Trade Center. It is a great addition to a lesson on the history of New York’s famous skyline buildings, or just for fun. Although the recommended age is 12-15 years, my architecture enthusiast was able to build these models as young as eight years old.
4. KEVA Maple 200 Plank Set
KEVA planks are great for practicing balance, leverage, geometry, and the principles of physics. They are tough, durable, and come with endless creative possibilities for all ages. The set includes an idea book and step-by-step instructions, or kids can build from their imagination. My boys loved building tall skyscrapers and elaborate structures with this kit. I do forewarn that smaller children may get frustrated as balance is truly a necessary skill when playing with these planks.
5. Makey Makey Invention Kit for Educational Engineering and Computer Coding
This science kit is great for non-tech savvy children and teens. There is no requirement for programming knowledge or cumbersome software installation. Just plug it up, clip, and play! There are many cool things you can do with this kit, like work with circuits, make a banana piano, and play with musical water. Our favorite creation, however, was our roast beef sandwich computer mouse. No, you did not misread; it was an actual roast beef sandwich we were able to use to control the computer. It was awesome! Suitable for ages 8 and up.
6. ThinkFun Gravity Maze Marble Run Brain Game
This award-winning STEM toy is a gravity-powered maze game that comes with 60 challenges of increasing difficulty, from beginner to expert. It’s built to develop critical thinking skills and introduce STEM subjects like science and engineering. This game will also sharpen your child’s mind by improving logical reasoning, spatial reasoning, and planning skills. Great for ages 8-15 years and makes the perfect gift, as my son received this gem for his 8th birthday.
7. Electronic Snap Circuits
You honestly can’t go wrong with the classic snap circuits kit. It’s another award-winning product line. Children can build over 300 experiments like a photosensitive electronic organ, a Lie detector, an AM radio, and more. It is completely safe to use and works like real circuit components by snapping together to create working electronic circuits and devices. My kids absolutely love working with this kit. Best suited for ages 8 and up.
8. K’NEX Thrill Rides – Clock Work Roller Coaster Building Set
This educational building set is great for developing hand-eye coordination, fine motor and problem-solving skills, and spatial awareness. My children received a couple of these K’nex roller coaster sets as gifts and currently have one on display because they are so fun to play with when completed. You will need AA batteries to enjoy this set, as it is motorized. Best for ages 7-15 years.
9. Smithsonian Maker Lab: 28 Super Cool Projects
This step-by-step activity includes 28 kid-safe projects ranked easy, medium, or hard. My kids made a Baked Alaska, sticky slime, monster marshmallows, and more. Most of the supplies you’ll need are things you can find around the house, or perhaps a quick trip to your local craft store. Suitable for ages 8-12 years.
10. Invent a Motorized Robot
Building a robot is a breeze with this Invent a Motorized Robot kit. Children can sketch a robot design and then use over one hundred components to bring that design to life. This STEM kit inspires creativity and helps kids develop crucial 21st-century skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and open-ended creative thinking. My son delighted in the creative process and it was super cool to see his robot in action. Best for ages 8-15 years.
For Little Kids
11. Brain Flakes
This set includes over 500 interconnecting discs that are phenomenal for developing spatial intelligence, critical thinking, and creativity in children. They click together easily and create hours of open-ended play. Don’t underestimate these little discs, kids love them and my boys really enjoyed building with these discs during their early years. Best suited for ages 3 and up.
12. Pakoo STEM Toys Building Kit
This STEM building kit comes with 100 pieces designed to build eight different models. You can only build one model at a time, but that didn’t stop my kids from enjoying this set. Children learn mechanics, engineering, and develop their motor skills by building their own forklift, windmill, crane, carrier vehicle, tower crane, utility vehicle, rotary crane, gantry crane, or anything else their hearts desire. We used this set as part of our Earth Day lesson and built a windmill after learning about wind energy. Perfect for ages 5 and up.
13. Kids Fort Building Kit
If there was one STEM toy that stood the test of time, it was this fort set. My kids would honestly still build with this set if we weren’t missing pieces. They’ve enjoyed it for about five years. The kit comes with 120 pieces, but I recommend buying two so that your kids can build really huge forts! This activity encourages kids to work together to plan, solve problems, and construct different creative structures. You’ll need lots of old sheets to cover the structures. They are so durable that we’ve even homeschooled in these. Great for ages 5 and up.
14. Straw Constructor STEM Building Kit
This set featuring 300 pieces of colorful straws and connectors for endless open-ended play. This building kit encourages engineering, inspires creativity, promotes hand-eye coordination, and even helps your young scholar learn their colors and practice mathematics! My boys built so many structures using these straws, from rockets to houses and skyscrapers. It really is amazing what kids are able to build. An excellent activity for ages 3 and up.
15. Magnetic Building Sticks Brain Training STEM Toy
Your young scholar can make countless designs and models with this magnetic building set. The magnetic sticks are great for making 3D structures and encourage creativity, patience, and problem-solving. Perfect for a hands-on geometry lesson or for a creative alternative to spelling and math problems. My kids played with these for hours when they were little. I even enjoyed playing with them. Recommended for ages 6 years and up.
16. Learning Resources Gears STEM Construction Set
This set fosters imagination and provides opportunities to experiment with simple mechanics and science. It supports STEM by introducing children to sorting, grouping, counting, designing, constructing, and putting physics into play with spinning gear movement. It is also a great fine motor skill activity for little hands. My kids loved playing with gears when they were little and still enjoy using gears in more advanced model kits. This Learning Resources Gears STEM construction kit is recommended for ages 3 and up.
17. LEGO Classic Bricks and Gears
Not another LEGO set! Trust me, you’ll want to get this one. This set includes building blocks, gears, and axle pieces to help children enhance their engineering skills. They can build structures and models that actually turn, move, rotate, and more. My kids had a blast with this set. Perfect for LEGO lovers and recommended for ages 5 and up.
18. Magnetic 3D Building Tiles
Every child should have a magnet building tile set. Picasso tiles help children acquire a strong sense of colors, geometrical shapes including 3D forms, number counts, magnetic polars, as well as the creativity. It is the perfect toy to spark imagination. My boys would spend so much time building with these tiles. They are perfect for ages 3 and up.
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