Have a Merry, STEM-y Christmas

The countdown to Christmas is here, Hanukkah begins on December 8th, and December 6th, today, is St. Nicholas Day.  

Gift giving is in the air, especially with all the gifts being sent by mail this year.  

One of the areas in school that many parents and teachers worry children are missing out on is STEM. STEM stands for Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, add an A in there for Arts and we have STEAM. 

It is difficult, if not near impossible, for children to engage in the same level of experimentation and hands-on activities that they would do in a classroom.  Parents just don’t have access to the same materials.

To make up for the lack of hands-on STEM in school, I decided my boys would be having a very STEM-y Christmas.

I researched some of the best STEM products out there. Then I combined what I found with my educator’s brain to choose some top STEM gifts.  

I wanted to share what I discovered with other parents out there and highlight some of the best toys I found.

*I AM NOT BEING COMPENSATED IN ANY WAY FOR THE PRODUCTS AND SITES I RECCOMEND BELOW

MindWare

This site is STEM heaven; I wish I had stumbled upon it earlier in my shopping. I guarantee it will be a staple in my shopping moving forward. 

From this site, I purchased the Q-BA-MAZE 2.0 as well as an expansion pack of ramps. My youngest had been asking for a marble run, and I love the uniqueness of this design. This set allows you to configure unlimited designs. Traditional marble runs are also an excellent choice, but I like seeing a new spin on the idea. 

This is an excellent toy because it comes with over a dozen add-on packs, so you can continue to upgrade and make it new.

Concepts Marble Runs Teach

  • Engineering
  • Gravity
  • Problem Solving
  • Trial & Error
  • Creativity

I also purchased the Dig It Up Dino! for my budding herpetologist (a zoologist who studies reptiles and amphibians, don’t worry I had to look that one up too!) My oldest is obsessed with anything lizard, reptile, amphibian, and dinosaur-related. 

I love that this is hands-on, and he has to utilize tools to achieve the goal. Plus, he gets a fabulous T-rex model once he’s completed.  

Concepts Excavation Toys Teach

  • Patience
  • Use of tools
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Hypothesis and discovery 
  • Refined fine-motor skills

Some of my other favorites off of this site are:

Kiwi Crates

Kiwi Crates is a subscription STEM service explicitly aimed at kids. What I love about this service is that I was able to customize the kit based on my son’s age and interest. They have kits from 0-14 years.  

We began getting crates towards the end of summer because he always wanted to do experiments, and I never seemed to have the supplies needed.  

Everything you need comes in the box, with directions and a book that complements the theme. The site also has a store where you can directly buy items and kits without a subscription. 

These kits are also a great way to get some kid/parent bonding time.

National Geographic Toys

The name recognition alone tells you these are going to be top-quality STEM Toys. 

The toys are not directly available from their site; major retailers such as Target, Walmart, and Amazon all sell Nat Geo’s products.

I love their 3-D super puzzles. The imagery is gorgeous, and they have puzzles available for various ages and skill levels.

Concepts Puzzles Teach

  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Depth perception
  • Logical thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Spatial reasoning 

I am also a massive fan of their Science Kits, specifically the Volcano kit.

What kid (or adults) doesn’t want to make a volcano erupt? And what makes the National Geographic kit top-notch is that your child has to mold and paint the volcano first, which means we can call this one a STEAM project.

There plenty of other kits out there made by different manufacturers, so find the one that works for you!

Concepts Volcano Kits Teach

  1. Cause & Effect
  2. Hypothesis and result
  3. How materials change
  4. Following directions
  5. Earth science

This next set of toys is comprised of individual toys I purchased from a variety of retailers.

To round up my recommendations, here some simple and easy gifts to enhance STEAM at home!

  • Magnifying glasses
  • Instruments
  • Playdoh & Tools
  • Magna-Tiles
  • Cars & ramps
  • Baking/Cooking Kits
  • Building Blocks
  • Tool playsets

Wherever your child’s interests may lay, there are toys out there to enhance their STEM/STEAM learning. 

Whether it’s the time of year you buy gifts or not, I hope this list inspires you to engage your child in STEM/STEAM learning at home.

Happy Holidays!

Art with Young Children

Arts and Crafts. That phrase probably revives memories of elementary school classrooms or summer camp. Being asked to wind yarn around Popsicle sticks glued together, or to paint a picture of the outdoors. More often than not cookie-cutter crafts and art projects would be produced, taken home to smiles from mom and dad and then eventually thrown away. Unless you are my mom, who apparently has boxes full of old items ready to be gifted back to my hands and out of her house. Why did we and do we continue to engage children in arts and crafts? The purpose surely cannot be so that can mass produce animal masks and dream catchers.

Early in my career as an educator I began thorough research into this topic and came across the phrase, “Process, not Product.” Put simply, this means your child’s process of creating the piece of art, or the craft is more meaningful and educational than the finished product. Isn’t that interesting? I thought it was. As a trained actor and musician the purpose of the finished product was to create something recognizable and enjoyable for the audience. What would “42nd Street” be without flashy costumes and tap shoes? Or what about a Mozart symphony where all the violins were flat. But then I thought about this further. Each performance of a piece, even with the same group of performers is never exactly the same. When a theatrical production is done by different directors, actors and producers it becomes it’s own entity, different from all that came before and will come after.

Then it made sense. As an actor learning my lines or my notes were only a part of the piece. Each show I have been in has taught me new words to add to my lexicon, a new technique or behinds the scene trick. With each show, I have learned something new through the process of creating the production.

So What’s the Process?

Open-ended art is a process of creating which allows free-range while creating. You create with what is available to you and possibly with no clear destination in mind. Open-ended art supplies are now common in a preschool or kindergarten classroom, including paper, markers, crayons, scissors, glue, stickers, stamps, paint, sequins etc. Children are free to create throughout the day. This type of art center can be easily made at home. Open-ended art allows children to use their imagination to explore and create without it having to be something. Young children who engage in art often don’t know what they are creating and will usually not decide if ever until they are completed.

What Are They Learning?

  • Problem Solving
  • Creative Expression
  • Critical Thinking
  • Mathematical and Spatial Reasoning
  • Science Skills

At Home

Our house is a well-spring of supplies and yours is too! Recyclables are some of the best items you can use and kids adore them! All of those empty cereal and snack boxes, catalogs you toss away, junk mail all can be used in open-ended art. If you are like me and believe an Amazon Delivery Away Keeps the Urge to Raid Target Away, save the boxes and let them use those! My youngest son has created rather elaborate forts of late out of boxes with just scissors and markers and my older son created airplanes and boats with empty 2-liter bottles, egg cartons, and cardboard. Consider collecting buttons, fabric scraps, string, twine, Popsicle sticks. If you can save it, they will use it.

Language Please!


At times our child’s art leaves us thinking… what is that?! Instead of asking your child, “What is that?” replace it with, “Can you tell me about what you made?” When we ask a child what their art is we immediately imply we can’t recognize it, aka, it’s not good. When you ask them about it you provide the opportunity for an open ended answer. Often when young children are engaged in art they don’t even know what they are making, so asking them what it is puts them on the spot, which is an uncomfortable position for children and adults alike! Follow up with further open-ended questions which will promote language skills and critical thinking. Some suggestions are

  • Can you tell me more about this blue line you drew?
  • I see you drew triangles, can you count them?
  • Why did you choose to use red and purple?
  • How does your drawing make you feel?

Accept the Mess


This can be the hardest part, but it should become our mantra to ensure our kids feel the freedom to create. This doesn’t mean we allow them to trash the kitchen with paint and glitter, but messes that occur as part of the natural process when making art are OK. Help your child build a sense of independence and responsibility by teaching them in clean up process. Breathe easy, go mediate in the next room is mess bothers you and allow the mess to happen, but make sure clean up is a group effort!

So grab the glue sticks and glitter because it’s time to get messy!