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Engineers Pick the Ten Best STEM Toys to Give as Gifts This Year

These expert-approved gifts teach robotics, coding and engineering thinking through stories and play.

Every holiday season, STEM-themed presents fly off the shelves as people purchase educational toys and books to give to kids in their lives. But standing in the toy aisle—or scrolling on Amazon—staring at colorful rows of building blocks, robots and computer games can be overwhelming. 

To help people find the best and most thoughtfully designed engineering gifts, students and faculty at Purdue University's INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering put dozens of toys, gifts and games released within the last couple of years through the wringer. Before 2020, parents and kids were invited to test out the gifts, but due to the pandemic, the review process has been kept within INSPIRE. Each gift was played with and reviewed by three different people and assigned a ranking; the top scoring gifts earned a spot on the annual Engineering Gift Guide, which is now in its eighth year.

A report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2018 says that learning and play are "inextricably linked," partly because children feel comfortable exploring on their own and are able to learn without pressure. Though not every toy needs to be—or should be—STEM-themed, some gifts are designed to teach specific skills and ways of thinking.

"For years, the INSPIRE faculty continued to get emails from people who would say, 'I really want to buy some kind of engineering toy for my child, what's your favorite toy?'" says Tamara Moore, the executive director of INSPIRE and a professor of engineering education at Purdue. "When we decided to start the guide, it was a really cool way to test toys and put out some kind of outreach to the community that would actually answer this question that we were getting all the time."

Though many gifts market themselves as engineering-themed, not all of them are created equal, Moore says. The best gifts engage children in engineering thinking and design by incorporating hallmark skills, such as spatial reasoning, coding, problem solving and design thinking, in an accessible way. Plus, well-designed toys also teach attributes such as creativity, optimism and learning from failure, which stretch well-beyond the field of engineering. In the guide, each gift comes with a description and an outline of the specific skills it fosters. 

This year, Moore and her team of students reviewed nearly 80 gifts; 46 ended up on the gift guide. Specially for Smithsonian readers, they selected their ten favorite engineering gifts of 2021, which span three different age groups.


5-7 Years

Abby Invents the Foldibot, by Arlyne Simon

Abby's mom is sick of folding laundry, and Abby wants to help. She thinks that if there are washing machines and drying machines, then surely there must be folding machines somewhere, right? When she can't find one, she partners up with her cousin Miko to build the Foldibot. Author and biomedical engineer Arlyne Simon takes readers through the whole engineering process in Abby Invents the Foldibot, from talking to stakeholders (the friendly neighbors) about what features they'd like in the appliance to brainstorming and finally building (and rebuilding) the machine. On top of highlighting engineering principles like problem solving and design thinking, Abby, Miko and the diverse cast of characters show the value of teamwork and learning from failure.

"This is probably the only book that I've seen in my time here that actually covers the full engineering spectrum," says review team leader Elizabeth Schaaf, an undergraduate studying multidisciplinary engineering. "The book breaks [engineering principles] down to such a kid level by taking these things that I didn't really learn until college and putting them in a children's book." (Bella Agnes Books, $18.95)

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