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A great STEM toy is a great toy regardless of gender, but to close the gender gap in science, it is important for young girls to see themselves represented in STEM. While some scientific fields such as Biology have seen improvements in the representation of women, in engineering, women have made up only 13% of the US workforce for the past 20 years.
With the STEM toys below, we hope that as parents and educators, we can close this gap by reaching young girls at that critical elementary-age time before the limiting beliefs about what academic subjects are “for girls” is well established.
The fields with the largest gaps in female representation are engineering, computer science, physics, and mathematics. We’ve selected our favorite STEM toys from these subject areas and a few others. We’ve previously covered our favorite STEM toys for all children and Science Kits, but here we’ve focused on STEM toys that do a good job of providing female representation and addressing the largest STEM disparities for women. The Yellow Scope Foundation Chemistry Kit is our top pick because it provides a great introduction to chemistry for pre-teens and is designed by two female scientists who are also moms with the goal of engaging young girls in STEM.
- Best STEM Toys for Girls in 2020
- 1. Best Overall – Yellow Scope Foundation Chemistry Kit
- 2. Best for Coding – Sphero RVR All-Terrain Programmable Coding Robot
- 3. Best Microcontroller Board – Arduino Uno R3
- 4. Best Building Set – LEGO Friends Heartlake Hospital
- 5. Best Budget Option – Nancy B’s Stir-It-Up Chemistry Lab
- 6. Best for Engineering – littleBits Rule Your Room Kit
- 7. Best Microscope – AmScope Kids Beginner Microscope
- What to Consider When Buying a STEM Toy for Girls
- Frequently Asked Questions
Related post: Best LEGO Sets for Girls
Best STEM Toys for Girls in 2020
1. Best Overall – Yellow Scope Foundation Chemistry Kit
Yellow Scope is a brand of science kits designed by two female scientists who are also moms, aimed at encouraging the involvement of pre-teen girls in STEM. All of these kits are suitable for elementary-aged and pre-teen girls.
While there are several great products from Yellow Scope, the Yellow Scope Foundation Chemistry Kit is our favorite as it is more versatile and covers the widest range of topics. The kit includes a 32-page lab notebook and all the equipment and supplies to conduct over 19 experiments.
The experiments cover a broad range of chemistry topics including chemical reactions, molecular motion, and the effect of temperature. The kit includes beakers, a high-temperature thermometer, a digital timer, safety goggles, a chalkboard lab mat, and chemicals.
Yellowscope has other great kits including the Yellow Scope DNA & Traits Kit. This kit is a great tool for introducing your pre-teen to genetics and biology. Using this kit, you can extract DNA from fruits and veggies as well as your own cheek swab. You might also use this kit to explain how many tests for influenza or coronavirus work. The kit comes with a lab notebook that outlines dozens of experiments and activities.
The Yellow Scope Cabbage Chemistry kit is another great chemistry kit that introduces the concepts of acids, bases, and pH. This kit includes a 24-page lab notebook with 19 experiments and activities as well as instructions for how to make their own acid-base indicator and pH strips at home so the scientific inquiry can continue after the outlined experiments are completed. The kit also includes equipment and chemicals to conduct these experiments.
Finally, the Yellow Scope Paper Chromatography kit is a great way to introduce art into the equation. This kit includes instructions and components to conduct tons of experiments exploring the science of color including the use of specialized paper to separate out the colors in a mixture. This visual and simple introduction to chromatography is a great way to break down a complex scientific term.
2. Best for Coding – Sphero RVR All-Terrain Programmable Coding Robot
Choosing a single favorite coding toy was a tall order (which is why we chose three) as there are several great options on the market today. If we had to choose just one, it would have to be the Sphero RVR. Built like a tank, the Sphero RVR is an all-terrain, endlessly customizable programmable robot.
Sphero’s Software Development Kit (SDK) makes the Sphero RVR a customizable, powerful toy. Utilizing third-party hardware including Raspberry Pi, Arduino (see below), micro: bit, and Sphero’s LittleBits, the Sphero RVR can be customized and programmed to do just about anything. Sphero can also be further modified by connecting with a long list of application programming interfaces (APIs).
Cozmo is another great option for introducing coding. Produced by consumer robotics company Anki, Cozmo is the artificial intelligence (AI) robot you’ve only ever seen in movies. Reminiscent of Disney’s Wall-E, Cozmo is just as cute and packed full of emotions and moods which develop the more you hang out. Download the app to play games and unlock new skills, features, and levels – this is where Cozmo really comes to life!
If it loses, it gets sad (only for a little while!), but if Cozmo wins, the robot is happy. If bored, it will nudge you to play, and if you ignore Cozmo, it can get cranky. Sometimes it’s easy to forget it isn’t alive – especially when its state of the art facial recognition software enables Cozmo to call your name!
The Cozmo SDK is easily the most interesting and exciting feature. This platform allows you to write your own custom code for Cozmo and create entirely new experiences. Anki provides 10+ example scripts to get things started, where you can learn how to program Cozmo to sing a scale or patrol for intruders. But after this, it’s up to you to experiment with the code and see what you can do.
Anki doesn’t just give access to low-level functionality like movement and sensors, but also let you program high-level behaviors and functions like animations, facial recognition, and localization systems. What’s more, Cozmo can connect to 3rd party APIs like IFTTT and Twitter, which opens up a whole host of possibilities. The hardware is so advanced that even researchers are using Cozmo!
This kit is full of potential and we think it is really one of the best coding toys for girls out there. If you want to find out more about the SDK, click here. If you’d like to have even more options, check out our review of Vector robot – Cozmo’s more sophisticated cousin, or read our comparison of Vector vs Cozmo.
If you think this might all sound a little too advanced, Anki has also created a graphical drag-and-drop styled programming option in the App. This simplifies the whole process as kids simply move blocks of commands into sequences and execute the program, so it is a good option for complete beginners to understand the basics and leaves a lot of room for Cozmo to grow with a child.
Finally, the Ozobot Evo is another very popular app-enabled programmable robot. It is highly sophisticated and can accomplish much of what the Bolt can. However, it utilizes a programming language, OzoBlockly, which is unique to Ozobot and thus can’t be transferred to other platforms or toys. One feature of the Evo that may be of interest is the ability to do screen-free programming using colored markers. This is the simplest option of the bunch and is suitable for girls as young as six.
3. Best Microcontroller Board – Arduino Uno R3
The Arduino Uno R3 is a versatile, open-source microcontroller board that provides a prototyping platform with nearly endless functionalities. With the neverending number of components and add-ons available, the Arduino Uno is a powerful, versatile tool sure to meet the creative needs of your child. And if you run out of ideas, the internet is chock-a-block with inspiration (see here and here). Arduino Uno utilizes the Arduino programming language which is a variation of C++.
Another great, versatile microcontroller board is Raspberry Pi. Raspberry Pi may be more suitable for advanced programmers or those that require internet connectivity. Read our previous comparison of Arduino and Raspberry Pi to decide which is right for you. As mentioned earlier, both of these microcontroller boards can be used to customize the Sphero RVR.
4. Best Building Set – LEGO Friends Heartlake Hospital
Founded in 1932, LEGO is one of the oldest and most recognized STEM toymakers on the market. We think the sets are great for all ages and genders, but all too often are labeled as ‘boys toys’. However, with the launch of LEGO Friends, engineering toys for girls have become a little bit more accessible. I know our daughter loves this and the LEGO Elves, both of which seem to be aimed at correcting the gender imbalance. The series features 5 characters who go on adventures together to build an amusement park, a puppy daycare, a pizzeria, hospital, resort, and much more!
Our favorite set is the LEGO Friends Heartlake Hospital. This set features a helicopter with helipad, ambulance, nursery, emergency department, examination room, an x-ray suite, and so much more. Patients can be seen by Dr. Patel, the physician included with the kit. This may sound complicated, but LEGO’s signature easy-to-follow instructions help guide you through the build.
LEGO Friends also partnered with National Geographic and female engineer and submarine pilot, Erika Bergman, producing four LEGO Friends sets that bring ocean conservation and marine biology to children. We also love the LEGO Friends Dolphins Rescue Mission set that features a rescue submarine, marine wildlife, and even a shipwreck with treasure!
Additionally, there are also loads of other sets in the Friends series that you can buy to expand the collection with more being released regularly. They are all compatible with each other too, so girls can experiment with their own builds.
That said, it does seem a little counterintuitive to be designing ‘girly’ LEGO sets and in some ways, it seems as though we are playing into stereotypes. Is it harmful, or is it inspiring girls to get into engineering a good thing regardless? We will let you be the judge of that.
Similar to LEGO, K’Nex has become a household name when it comes to engineering toys for girls that develop construction & design skills. However, it differs in that the models are made up of simple rods and connectors, which provides greater flexibility in the builds. Additionally, they also cater to a slightly older audience.
The Mighty Makers series is designed to inspire girls through creative, story-based building sets – a recurring theme throughout girls STEM toys kits. In the World Travels set, we follow Ava and her pet panda as they travel the world and construct famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, Empire State Building plus 10 other cool builds!
What we love about this set is that it not only teaches engineering but a little geography as well. With fun, interactive play, it introduces kids to diverse and interesting different cultures around the world. If your child gets on well with this set, The Mighty Makers series has tons of other great sets to get stuck into.
Both LEGO Friends and the K’Nex Mighty Makers sets are fantastic engineering kits that represent girls through characters. However, we do not want you or your child to feel limited to these products. Check out some of the other engineering and architectural sets we have reviewed previously. All LEGO sets are compatible with one another and K’Nex Mighty Makers are compatible with other K’Nex sets (except Kid K’Nex) so you’ll be able to mix and match and expand as your collection grows.
5. Best Budget Option – Nancy B’s Stir-It-Up Chemistry Lab
Nancy B’s Science Club Stir-It-Up Chemistry Lab & Kitchen Experiments is a science kit for girls designed to safely teach basic chemistry and scientific principles. Using everyday household ingredients, you can make your own ‘bubbling lava’ in a bottle, cause chemicals to change color, extinguish a flame with invisible gas, and much more.
Don’t worry, this is all safely taught through an exciting and educational activity journal that introduces atoms, molecules, density, and teaches testing against variables. The set also includes a beaker, 4 test tubes, a rack, a graduated cylinder, lab glasses, a dropper, a funnel, and a stirring rod, which makes it a perfect introduction to scientific equipment.
What we love about this set is that all the experiments can be carried out with things found in the kitchen. This is inspiring for young girls because it turns otherwise uninteresting things into something exciting and helps foster a natural curiosity for science. With a masters in Science Education, Nancy Balter designed this kit to encourage confidence in science in young girls.
6. Best for Engineering – littleBits Rule Your Room Kit
The littleBits Rule Your Room kit is a multi-award winning set that aims to teach kids about electronic engineering. With easy to use snap-together parts, girls can learn how simple circuits function by building their own inventions! The great part about littleBits is that the electronic building blocks are all magnetic with no soldering required, making them super easy to put together and take apart to build new things.
The 76-page guide includes instructions for 8 builds, such as a burglar buzzer, movement triggered catapult, and alarmed safe! However, due to the nature of the parts, there is virtually unlimited scope for kids to experiment and build their own designs. For example, littleBits can be used to bring Lego creations to life with moving parts. Alternatively, check out the App for thousands of more ideas and further inspiration.
Another great option is the Gears! Gears! Gears! building sets by Learning Resources which are designed to develop early STEM skills in young children. The ultimate goal of this set is to learn cause and effect – if I make this design decision, what will be the result of spinning the gears in this way? Figure out how to make cascading flower streams, build horizontally and construct your garden bed complete with flowers, ladybugs, and butterflies. Children have to experiment, test and tinker to make their creations come to life and work. These are exactly the kind of skills required in STEM fields, and there’s no better way to learn than with play!
A great precursor to Lego or K’Nex, this set should keep your kid entertained whilst learning at the same time. Furthermore, if they get on well with it, there are plenty of expansions in the series. It’s not hard to see why it has won several awards from both the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio and The Toy Insider!
One more great engineering option is the Elenco Snap Circuits Junior or Snap Circuits Classic, depending on the age and skill level. These sets provide an open-ended hands-on introduction to electronics and circuitry while fostering critical thinking. These Snap Circuits kits come with all the components to complete 100 or 300 projects, respectively.
7. Best Microscope – AmScope Kids Beginner Microscope
The AMScope 120x-1200x Beginner Microscope is a 52-piece set that includes all the components for girls to set up their own laboratory at home: blank reusable slides for observing their own specimens as well as all the materials to prepare those specimens (forceps, specimen microtome, scalpel, petri dish, spatula, needle, eosin stain, slides, slide covers, etc). It also comes with a useful instruction book to get you started.
This monocular compound LED light microscope is equipped with 6 different objectives, offering magnifications from 120x up to 1200x. The 1200x magnification will allow girls to observe single cells, bacteria, fungus, and even larger cellular structures. One bonus is this microscope is battery-operated and includes a carrying case making it easily transportable.
One more microscope we would like to highlight is the Carson Microbrite Pocket Microscope which fits in your pocket and is a great addition to backyard exploration or a nature walk. The kit includes sample slides for preparing samples or you can remove the base and hold it directly up a leaf, tree bark, an insect… you name it!
The microscope itself offers 40x magnification, so while it isn’t as powerful as the AMScope option above or others we have reviewed, it is a great portable tool.
What to Consider When Buying a STEM Toy for Girls
To be sure, there are a lot of factors that go into this underrepresentation, but aptitude is not one of them. Research has shown time and time again that there is no difference in science and math ability of boys and girls. In contrast, we now know gender stereotyping to be one of the major causes, with studies showing the beliefs about what subjects and activities are appropriate for what gender can be formed as early as 6 years old!
These ideas then go on to influence everything from basic interests to career choices. So the age-old notion that girls should play with dolls & kitchen sets and boys with building blocks is not only outdated but harmful to child development. We think that changing this paradigm is essential to help break gender stereotypes and ensure girls have equal opportunities to pursue STEM.
While it is important for young girls to see themselves represented in science through the content and characters of their STEM toys, we want to make sure that our choice of STEM toy does not further stereotype or limit girls. This can be difficult to navigate as ‘girly’ versions may appeal to young girls but they are often not available in a wide range of STEM fields and topics or they portray science for girls only in the context of cooking, housekeeping, or beauty products.
Choose STEM toys that do a good job of representing girls without limiting their scientific inquiry, through well-developed female characters and engaging experiments and stories. Where such a toy doesn’t exist, we encourage you to branch out. A great STEM toy is a great STEM toy, even if it was not specifically designed for girls, and we have covered many!
One of the hallmarks of the scientific method is inquiry. This buy-in step is crucial. An inquiry is simply looking for or asking for information. Once a scientist – or anyone – has looked at the available knowledge, formulated a question, and considered a hypothesis to answer that question, they then begin to look for ways to answer it.
Children are no different. If we provide content to help them answer their own questions rather than handing them a question we want them to answer, they are going to be much more engaged and see themselves as component scientists. So we suggest that you follow the child or student’s lead. Let them tell you what they are interested in or offer a few options if they aren’t sure. Allowing them to come to the content rather than forcing it on them will be much more effective.
A toy that offers many experiments and activities or has open-ended inquiry and play modes are going to offer a greater bang for your buck and interest your child for a longer period of time. Consider how a STEM toy might grow with your child or student or be used in multiple ways. Some toys offer inexpensive add-on products or are compatible with other kits, opening up additional opportunities. While a microscope might be a larger investment, it is a tool that can be utilized for years and facilitate many learning objectives.
Frequently Asked Questions
What percentage of STEM students are female?
It depends on the age and schooling level. As of the 2015-2016 academic year, women earned more bachelor’s degrees than men, yet accounted for almost half the number of STEM degrees. This looks quite different in different STEM-related fields. In life sciences fields such as Biology and Biomedical sciences, women earn more than half of the Bachelor’s, Masters, and PhD degrees, yet in Engineering women account for 25% or less of the degrees at all levels. The gender imbalance is particularly prevalent in certain STEM disciplines, such as engineering and computer science.
At what age do girls lose interest in STEM?
Differences in the performance of girls vs boys in STEM fields can become apparent as early as the third grade, however, there is no evidence for an inherent difference in interest or ability in STEM disciplines. Rather, there is strong evidence that environmental factors, such as teacher perceptions and parental attitudes influence young girls’ relationship with STEM subjects.
What is a STEM toy?
STEM Toys are toys that inspire learning in one or more of the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). In addition to STEM content, they often encourage kids to develop critical thinking, cooperative play, and analytical skills.
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