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Year on year, the technology and learning experience featured in new STEM toys gets markedly better, and 2020 is no exception. There have been a whole host of exciting releases this year to help teach skills ranging from coding to robotics, and from engineering to biology. There are also some STEM toys from previous years that are yet to be surpassed. And the best part is - it doesn't matter if you are old or young, male or female - there is something for everyone!
We reviewed tons of STEM toys, science kits, engineering sets and more to come up with the best STEM toys available this year. We looked at whether each toy would develop STEM skills and interest, the potential learning outcomes, how 'open-ended' it is, whether it 'grows' with the child and more!
Our Top Pick: Best STEM Toy 2020
The Piper Computer Kit 2 stands out amidst an impressive array of options, as our top pick for the Best STEM Toy of 2020. What impresses us the most is the deep level of STEM skills and understanding that kids (and adults!) can attain while having a blast. With Piper, real ownership for the computer is achieved, because you actually build it! The benefits of doing this cannot be overstated! The ironic thing about modern life is that, as PCs have become more and more ubiquitous, general understanding of what goes into them and how they work has declined.
And building this DIY computer is just the start. Once it is assembled, it's an awesome and fun tool to learn coding. Plus, the blending of physical and digital worlds continues, with puzzle-solving in a special edition of Minecraft that involves physical controls, switches, buttons, & lights. This STEM kit is not to be missed and also makes a great project for siblings to work on together or even the whole family!
- Our Top Pick: Best STEM Toy 2020
- Best STEM Toys By Age
- Best STEM Toys By Category
- Other STEM Toys We Considered
- Our Decision Criteria
- Frequently Asked Questions
Best STEM Toys By Age
Best STEM Toys for Teens (13 – 19 Year-Olds)
Best for Teens
LEGO Mindstorms is still one of the most popular robotics kits for older kids (and adults!) on the market. With Mindstorms, you can build a fully-functional robot using (mostly) familiar LEGO pieces. The finished robot can walk, talk, play games or do anything that you care to program it to do!
Mindstorms EV3 comes with 601 pieces, including a 'brain' - the intelligent EV3 brick. It also comes with 17 different robot designs, although obviously, there are endless possibilities that can be made from your imagination. One of the strongest features of Mindstorms is its compatibility with normal LEGO bricks. If you already have a sizable LEGO collection at home - imagine the crazy robots they could build with that!
LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Key Features:
- Compatible with all other LEGO bricks
- Main robot design is 16"x14"x15"
- Includes color, touch and IR senses
- Fantastic online community and support
Best STEM Toys for Tweens (9 – 12 Year-Olds)
Best for Tweens
When you first see the Sphero BOLT in action, there's something truly magical about it! An intelligent sphere that can move at up to 2 meters per second under its own steam?! Weighing in at 1.1 pounds and being roughly the size of a baseball, the BOLT is packed full of high tech components. Gyroscope and accelerometer are standard across the range of Sphero robot balls, including the ping pong ball sized MINI. The SPRK+ - similar in size and look to the BOLT - introduces motor encoders, which allow remarkable movement and data recording. The BOLT goes above and beyond, with a colorful 8x8 LED matrix, light sensor, infrared and even a compass!
The Sphero BOLT can be used for an enormous variety of activities and projects. At the simplest level, this robot ball can be controlled in real-time via an app on just about any device. It's like an RC car with only one wheel! However, the real STEM learning (and fun!) starts with programming BOLT using the popular block-based coding language, Scratch.
Sphero BOLT Key Features:
- Real-time driving via app over a Bluetooth connection
- A vibrant online community to download and share activities and programs
- 2+ hours of use per charge
Best STEM Toys for Kids (5 – 8 Year-Olds)
Best for Kids
The Osmo Genius Starter Kit transforms your iPad (or Amazon Fire tablet) into a wondrous Augmented Reality (AR) device. The Starter kit comes with a base to rest your tablet in, a specially-designed clip-on mirror that allows your device to 'see' the surface in front of it and 5 fun and immersive games.
We got hands-on with the Osmo Genius Kit and were very impressed! Our test subjects found the games to be a lot of fun, and we were pleased with the educational outcomes this kit promotes. While not as open-ended as some other STEM toys we feature, there are loads of fantastic, reasonably-priced add-ons and accessories available to make the most of this game system.
Osmo Genius Starter Kit Key Features:
- Seamless blending of physical and digital worlds (almost magical!)
- Games are designed with progressive difficulty, allowing continual learning
- Makes excellent educational use of iPad or Fire tablet devices
- Parent app provides feedback on child's progress
Best STEM Toys for Toddlers (2 – 3 Year-Olds)
Best for Toddlers
The great thing about this Melissa & Doug Wooden Building Blocks Set is that it allows toddlers a very early chance to flex their creativity. And with 100 pieces, what a lot of things they can make!
As we've come to expect from Melissa & Doug products, this set is extremely well made, with safe, rounded edges and smooth, non-toxic paint. Because... you just know that a toddler is going to put it in their mouth at some point!
Melissa & Doug Wooden Building Blocks Set Key Features:
- Encourages open-ended play
- Bright colors are inviting to young eyes
- Light-weight and easy for young hands to work with
- Introduces early math concepts, engineering, construction and develops fine-motor skills
Best STEM Toys for Babies & Infants (Newborns to 2 Year-Olds)
Best for Babies and Infants
There's so much value in this wooden learning toys set from Rolimate! The largest item has slots for three wooden balls which can be hammered with the small wooden mallet. The balls then hit a xylophone and roll down its surface, making musical notes. Of course, the xylophone can be removed and used by itself. There are two xylophone sticks included for just that purpose.
There's much more to this toy, including holes in various shapes on the side of the main 'box', through which differently shaped blocks may be inserted. At this age, infants love colors, sound and hitting things. This toy has all that and more. Just make sure the mallet doesn't get used on siblings!
Rolimate Wooden Hammering and Pounding Toy Set Key Features:
- Bright colors and patterns
- Wood-on-wood makes a pleasing sound
- Many possible play modes
- Simple, yet robust construction
Best STEM Toys By Category
Best Robotics Kit
The ELEGOO UNO R3 Smart Robot Car v3.0 is incredible value in STEM learning and fun for the price. While LEGO Mindstorms and Boost impress us immensely, the LEGO polish admittedly comes with a higher price tag.
ELEGOO's kit packs an impressive parts list and gives kids 12 and up a great challenge to assemble. Indeed, for children with no electronics experience, the LEGO Boost would be a better option. Nevertheless, if your junior robotics engineer is up to the challenge, they're rewarded with an Arduino-powered Smart Robot car that is fully programmable. It can avoid obstacles, trace lines and be controlled via mobile devices.
ELEGOO Smart Robot Car Kit V3.0 Key Features:
- UNO R3 powered: Arduino-compatible
- 24 kinds of module parts, incl. obstacle avoidance, line tracing and more
- Easy assembly with XH2.54 ports
- Control by app on smart devices
Best Engineering Kit or Toy
Best Engineering Kit
This LewanSoul xArm Robotic Arm offers endless possibilities for young engineers in the making to learn engineering skills. A wide variety of engineering concepts can be learnt with this kit, from mechanical to electrical and even software engineering.
Although there are some cheaper robotic arm kits on the market, we selected this one from LewanSoul because of the high-quality components and its 6-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF). The latter means that this arm is more flexible, adaptable and precise than many other products designed for hobbyists. It is also to consider that this kit is well supported with video tutorials and that expansion is possible by connection to Raspberry Pi or Arduino microcontrollers.
LewanSoul Robot xArm Key Features:
- 6 Degrees of Freedom (6DOF)
- ARM Core CPU, built-in Bluetooth, 16 BB storage
- Mobile device, mouse and wireless control (video game controller)
- Programmable via computer, mobile device or offline (manual)
Best Science Kit or Toy
Best Science Kit
MEL Chemistry is a Science Kit subscription that will blow your kids' minds! (And probably yours!) Here at STEM Toy Expert, we've played with a lot of chemistry sets in our time. Heck, we loved chemistry so much that we made it a career - working in chemistry teaching and research for over 20 years! But, no other chemistry set on the market compares to this one from MEL Science. When they say they reinvented the chemistry set, they're not kidding!
With MEL Chemistry, you get a monthly delivery of 2-3 experiments sent to your door every month. Even better, the starter kit includes some cool equipment, glassware and even a VR headset! While there are heaps of chemistry experiments that are possible at home, using common chemicals in the kitchen and around the house, the cool thing about MEL Chemistry is their experiments go way beyond what you would normally try.
As a parent, even one with a PhD in chemistry, we find it hard to find time to dream up interesting experiments, gather the materials and then explain it in an age-appropriate way to our young scientists. MEL Chemistry takes all the hassle out of that and your kids will be so excited every time a new set arrives. And there's plenty on offer with 28 topics spread over a year and a half. If that sounds overwhelming, don't worry because you can pause or cancel the subscription at any time. We've certainly used that option ourselves!
Every experiment is accompanied by an excellent set of instructions and information regarding the science behind the experiment. As a STEM educator, we were very impressed with the quality and presentation of the material. Not to mention, the experiments themselves are captivating! Apart from great activities to do at home with the kids, these sets would also be ideal for school-use or homeschoolers. For younger kids (5 – 10 year-olds), MEL Science recently launched MEL Kids, which is a monthly Augmented Reality (AR) based science box.
MEL Chemistry Key Features:
- New chemistry experiments delivered monthly
- First delivery includes a jam-packed Starter Kit + VR headset
- 28 Exciting topics over a year and a half
- Conveniently pause or cancel subscription at any time
Best Electronics Kit
Best Electronics Kit
Electronics sets are terrific for STEM-curious young minds, they are a very safe way for kids to experiment with electricity and the results of experiments are usually instantaneous! The Snap Circuits Classic SC-300 Electronic Exploration Kit is an excellent first electronics set for kids 8 years and over.
The key feature of Snap Circuits kits is that the components snap together - no need for tools or soldering. This set has over 300 projects (that should keep them busy!) and 60+ parts. Experiments are very relatable for kids, with options such as a photosensitive electronic organ, a lie detector, an AM radio, and more. This set is undoubtedly the most popular in the Snap Circuits range by Elenco - just look at the thousands of glowing reviews on Amazon!
For children who've had an electronics set before, or have shown a very strong interest in electronics, we highly recommend the bigger Snap Circuits SC-750 Extreme Kit. The SC-750 has over 750 projects, but still follows the snap-together, no-soldering approach of all the other kits in this range.
Best STEM Subscription Box
Best STEM Box
The KiwiCo Tinker Crate is a wildly successful STEM subscription box for kids in the tween to teen age range (9 – 10 year-olds). KiwiCo was founded by a mother of 3, to help parents to support and encourage the kids' innate creativity and curiosity. The fact of the matter is, despite the best of intentions, as parents we are pressed for the time needed to come up with new ideas and gather materials for kids' projects. STEM boxes are a great way to get those ideas and materials conveniently delivered to your door on a regular basis.
KiwiCo is at the top of a rapidly growing list of companies that provide exciting STEM boxes. Actually, their products are probably better labeled as STEAM boxes, since they also incorporate art components. We believe the Tinker Crates are a sweet spot in terms of projects available and the age these kits are targeting. Tweens and Teenagers love projects like building a trebuchet, or a hydraulic-powered (via syringe!) claw. Tinker Crate kits are well designed, include excellent 'blueprint' instructions and even offer additional science experiments and activities for kids to extend their fun and learning.
For kids (and adults!) of other ages, KiwiCo has lots of other options catering from 0 to 104 years-olds! I guess if you're 105, you're out of luck! And for all our top picks, be sure to read out guide to the best STEM subscription box for kids.
KiwiCo Tinker Crate Key Features:
- Hands-on STEM projects delivered monthly
- Boxes that encourage creativity and a 'tinkering' mindset
- Everything needed to complete the project in each kit
- Online video tutorials with tips and tricks
Best Active/Outdoors STEM Toy
Best Active STEM Toy
It might be surprising to see a microscope win our Best Outdoors/Active STEM Toy Award! But, using a microscope is only a small part of what budding biologists will spend their time doing! They will joyfully spend many hours collecting samples from the backyard to use with their microscope, all while exploring and learning so much more about the natural world around them.
The Omano JuniorScope Microscope is a reasonably priced starter microscope that is powerful enough to delve into the fascinating microscopic world. It has three magnification levels - 40x, 100x and 400x - and the optics are high quality, giving relatively sharp images for this price point. There's a battery-powered LED light which is handy for 'fieldwork', although the microscope can also run on AC power.
We particularly like the extras included with the microscope - a petri dish, forceps, stains, dropper, test tube, slides and more. Perhaps the most valuable inclusion is "The Amazing Microscope Adventures" set of experiment booklets, which guides young biologists through how to use their microscope and outlines several fun experiments to get them started
Omano JuniorScope Microscope Key Features:
- 40x, 100x and 400x magnification levels
- Portable - includes battery-powered LED light
- Many extras included, eg. petri dish, stains, slides, guides, etc
- Includes high-quality experiment booklets
Other STEM Toys We Considered
There are so many more STEM toys that we considered, and that came very close to getting a prize. Below are some honorable mentions, each of which are certainly toys that we strongly recommend.
UBTECH robotics kits are some of the best STEM toys for kids aged 8 and up to develop skills like creativity, design, coding and robotics. With snap-together parts, similar to K'Nex or Lego, kids can learn about mechanical engineering through building their own fully functioning robots. This is guided through an awesome 3-dimensional, 360-degree animated guide in the JIMU Robot App for IOS and Android.
What we love about the UBTECH JIMU range is that there are lots of different options depending on your needs. If you are on a budget, the 2-robot Muttbot & Buzzbot kit is a great choice, if not you could go for the 675-piece Inventor Kit with 6 different builds. There is also a Unicornbot Kit that is more likely to appeal to budding young female engineers! In their Mythical Robot series, UBTECH also has red dragon-like 606 piece Firebolt Kit. That said, due to the modular nature of the parts, kids can experiment with their own builds too.
But the fun (and learning, of course) doesn't end there! Once kids have built their robots and machines, they can then bring them to life through the JIMU Robot App. There are two ways to do this, the first is through a menu of pre-programmed actions - essentially remote control.
The second is through writing your own programs with the drag-and-drop coding interface Blockly. This simple platform created by Google is designed to teach kids fundamental coding principles in a fun and interactive way. Kids can learn to control servo motors, infrared sensors, LED lights, speakers and more through writing their own programs! We love this kit and think it can be a great start for kids looking to get started on the road to learning coding and robotics.
Kano is a company most well-known for their build your own computer kits for kids. However, this recent team up with the Harry Potter franchise is bound to excite fans of the wizarding world, whilst educating them at the same time! The Harry Potter kit is all about building your own simple wand and then learning the basics of coding through the Kano App.
With more than 70 challenges, kids can use the Kano software to create programs for the wand. These are then executed and animated on a tablet screen through a whole range of cool spells. You can program the LED lights, sound effects, and more. The exciting combination between the much-loved saga and coding should help to keep kids engaged and learning valuable STEM skills.
This coding kit works with most iOS, Android or Amazon tablets, and even Windows and Mac computers. If you're looking for another magical STEM toy to us with iPad, read our in-depth review of the Osmo Genius Kit.
Ever since Cozmo came onto the scene back in 2016, we have recommended it as one of the best STEM toys out there. Designed to teach kids and adults basic to advanced coding, in many ways Cozmo really redefined what a toy can 'be' or 'do'. With their 2018 release - Vector - Anki once again raised the bar.
Whilst they might look similar, Vector differs from Cozmo in a lot of ways. Rather than having a heavy focus on play, Anki envisions it as a personal assistant and have incorporated a suite of features to enable this. First off, Vector has its own onboard processor with over 10x the computing power than its predecessor, as well as built-in WiFi. This enables the robot to operate without the need for a companion device, hoorah!
Combined with the onboard camera, microphone and own voice, this tech enables Vector to interact with you and respond to voice commands. Similar to a Google Home or Alexa device, you can call out to Vector to set alarms, reminders or ask questions. Other hardware in Vector is also far more advanced than Cozmo. For example, it has a touch sensor on the back so it can sense being picked up or stroked, among other improved sensors.
We aren't going to go into any further detail comparing the two 'bots specs, so see our Cozmo vs Vector comparison article for more info. Since what is most important is the educational element, let's take a closer look at that. Vector definitely has less of a focus on learning than Cozmo, with fewer options and resources for learning to code at this point in time. For example, Vector cannot be programmed with a graphical drag-and-drop platform. Therefore, we would not recommend Vector for younger learners at this point in time.
Programming Vector is done through the Software Development Kit (SDK), a platform that enables you to write custom software using the text-based programming language Python. This is a language with wide applications in industry, so valuable skills can also be developed as you experiment with Vector. The SDK gives users access to a vast array of advanced robotics hardware and technologies, including the HD color camera stream, touch, drop & infrared laser sensors, facial recognition, animations and intelligent mapping.
Furthermore, the addition of onboard WiFi connectivity and much more powerful processor means Vector has so many capabilities for customization. Feeling overwhelmed? We don't blame you... But for the beginners out there, Anki provides a list of 13 examples to get things started. This starts with the basics, such as programming Vector to drive in a square or to display an image on its face. There are also more complex examples, such as getting Vector to display an animation when a specific word is called out.
From there on it's down to your creativity, and coding knowledge, to see what you can make Vector do! However, if you need support or want to see what others are doing with the Vector SDK, the developer forums are a great place to start. Due to the high level of sophistication in how Vector can be used, we believe it is one of the very best STEM toys for teens.
Another microscope?! We've looked at quite a few of the best STEM toys for kids and adults to learn skills like coding & robotics, but it's great to look at things that are different. Even though we gave the prize for Best Active/Outdoor STEM Toy to the Omano JuniorScope, competition for the best beginner microscope is very tight. Indeed, the AmScope Student Microscope is a great introductory microscope for elementary school kids and up, to learn about microbiology and microscopy. The microscope features an all-metal frame, glass optics (rather than lower quality plastic) and 40 - 1000x magnification. That maximum magnification is actually greater than our winner, the Omano JuniorScope.
The AmScope also has great accessories and learning resources. This includes prepared slides with specimens so kids can get right in, blank slides, staining dyes, forceps, a petri dish and several other tools. Furthermore, there is also a comprehensive guide with introductions and activities to get kids started on the right track. We think this is one of the most important elements and is ultimately why we chose this microscope over others.
Last on our list of the best STEM toys this year is the Makeblock Neuron Inventor Kit. This awesome kit aims to teach kids 8 and up about basic electronics through building their own circuits. The modular electronic components clip together with magnetic pogo-pins, which not only makes assembly easy since there is no soldering. This also means that kids can build and break down circuits as many times as they like! The kit includes a power module, LED panel, gyro sensor, buzzer, servo motors and Bluetooth module.
Controlling how the circuits function can be done in two ways. The first is offline mode, where they function as you'd expect a circuit to function with default settings. The second involves programming custom functionality into the circuits on a tablet via the Makeblock Neuron App. Also included in the kit are several cardboard cutouts for building projects that combine with the electronics modules. Animated instructional guides for these can also be found in the App.
Our Decision Criteria
We considered a number of criteria to arrive at our recommendations for the Best STEM Toys this year:
First and foremost, we looked for high-quality toys made from good components. Nothing is more frustrating, for parents and children alike, than toys that are so poorly manufactured that they don't function as intended! Or, they don't last beyond unwrapping. Or they are downright dangerous, due to sharp edges, unsuitable materials or even lack of adequate instructions!
STEM Learning Outcomes
In many ways, the best STEM toy is the STEM toy that gets used! It is hard to define exactly what makes a toy fun for kids to play with, but you know it when you see it. Some products just have a magic to them, in design and execution, that draws kids (and adults!) in and leads to smiles all-around. A 1000-page book on Python may have great potential as a STEM learning resource, but kids are never going to engage with it the way that they engage with the Piper Computer Kit!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a STEM toy?
STEM Toys are educational toys that promote interest and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
What are the best STEM toys?
STEM Toy Expert has detailed reviews and comparisons to help choose the best STEM toys for any child. The best STEM toy for your child will depend on their age, their interests and your budget. The good news is that we have suggestions that cater to any age, interest and budget!
What are toddler STEM toys?
Toddler STEM Toys are learning toys that are aimed at developing skills and interest in the STEM disciplines - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. At the toddler age, these skills are often things like basic logic, creativity, problems-solving and numeracy. STEM Toys that are great for toddlers are things like stacking cups, wooden building blocks, and simple puzzles.
Is LEGO a STEM toy?
Yes! We would classify LEGO as a STEM toy because it is generally open-ended, allows the expression of creativity, and promotes STEM skills such as problem-solving and logic. Some LEGO series, such as Technic, Boost and Mindstorms enhance the functions of LEGO to promote even more advanced STEM skills.
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