STEM Gift Guide 2020

What makes a great gift in 2020, the year that just wouldn’t let up? It needs to fill the endless time at home, feel nothing like remote learning, be pretty easy for kids to use on their own, bonus if it’s fun for grown-ups, and, um, let’s be real: We don’t want to pay a lot.

No sweat. [Insert wan smile.] In past years, this annual STEM gift guide has practically written itself (check out the 2018 and 2019 lists – there are evergreen gems in both). But this year, nothing seemed quite right. Which is why this article, which should have come out in time for Black Friday, and definitely by Cyber Monday, is coming out today.

I considered dozens of options before recommending these 12 STEM-inspired gifts. In this year of austerity, all the gifts do at least double duty: Not only will your kids love them, but they will either (a) be able to entertain themselves while you catch a minute to yourself or (b) promise to be fun for the grown-ups, too. Some are even designed so you can play together (virtually) at a distance. And for the first time since I started writing these gift guides, this year’s includes a practically effortless way to thank your teachers.

As in years past, hats off to the extensive research by the engineering team at INSPIRE at Perdue University. Their annual gift guide, in which dozens of toys and games are tested by engineering undergrads, never fails to delight, with ideas for cutting-edge, fun, educational gifts just waiting to make their way to a kid you love. And if that kid is you, #nojudgment. It’s been a long year.

Code Rocket

  • This year’s coding favorite is a tiny little gadget that promises so much fun that you might not even realize your kid is learning to code in C++. Code Rocket is an introduction to microprocessors. The beautiful project cards guide you to code the rocket to do something. Once you get the hang of it, you can debug and make your own code, all while things light up and make noise at your direction.

Robots, robots, robots! Robots for every age and budget

  • This one, by Learning Resources, is completely unplugged, is age-appropriate even for pre-schoolers, and is so adorable that my older kids gravitated to the computer to watch the teaser video with me. Its gears can be combined in countless ways, so, as a mother of three in a small NYC apartment, it checks the box of staying power.
  • Taking it up an age-notch, Botzees combines hands-on building with an app that tells Botzee where to go and what to do. Early in quarantine, my husband built the robot with all five of the kids in our bubble, ages 4 to 11, who were captivated (for an hour or an afternoon, who remembers?). Botzee then became the unofficial mascot of at-home learning in the spring, when all five kids sat around one repurposed dining-room table, and still has a place of pride on the now-12-year old’s desk.
  •  And for the older set, the KC3 was the Inspire team’s favorite. Perfect for an older kid (or a younger nevertheless s/he/they persisted kind of kid, or a kid+grown-up combo), putting it together will occupy you for the better part of a day, which might be a very good thing when every day feels like Blursday. Once you’ve assembled the building blocks, you can configure KC3 in multiple ways and make it do things from sweep to shoot to draw. So it can be everyone in your pod’s best friend and mother’s little helper all in an afternoon’s work.

Building toys

  • For the littles, these beautifully made wooden blocks make balance and fulcrums intuitive and, though I haven’t tried them myself, would obviously be the perfect thing to do during 99% of Zoom meetings.
  • And for the bigs, the #1 hands-down favorite of the Inspire team: Gravitrax. It’s a DIY marble-run kit complete with trampolines and a zip line. There’s still time for your quarantine Rube-Goldberg video to go viral, and this kit will clearly be why. (Yes, I’m looking at you.)

Two great picture books

  • Speaking of Rube Goldberg, Addy-Matic and the Toasterrific is about a little girl who doesn’t like to get out of bed, so to speed up her morning routine, she builds a Rube Goldberg machine that will start the toaster going for her without getting out of bed. Think Ferris Bueller without the Ferrari.
  • And to join the picture-book pantheon of STEM as life’s dress rehearsal for grit and perseverance, joining two of my all-time favorites, Rosie Revere, Engineer, and The Most Magnificent Thing, is Jabari Tries, a new story by Gaia Cornwall. Jabari is sure he can make a flying machine, and with a little help from his sister, he just might make it happen.

Making, not consuming

  • This heading might feel counter-intuitive, in a gift guide full of things to buy. But stay with me: The 3Doodler, with different just-right sets for kids of all ages, not only lets your kids make cool things (with free how-to guides on their website); they also let them fix all the broken plastic toys you were going to throw away. And through a collaboration between 3Doodler and the University of Colorado, you can even doodle on your favorite children’s books to make the stories come to life for kids who are visually impaired.

Best AR/hands-on integration

  • Looking for a way for your kids to play at a distance with, well, anyone at all? MindLabs: Energy and Circuits is ostensibly a circuit-building game, but it’s also the perfect activity for COVID: Kids can play with six feet of distance in your backyard or with 300 miles of distance with Aunt Lee, with little if any parental oversight. When the circuits connect, lights go off, fans whirl, buzzers beep – all in augmented reality. And the set is under $25.

STEM by subscription

  • KiwiCo will send a box with everything a kid needs for a cool maker project or experiment. You can buy one kit or send a subscription. There are loads of options under $25 geared for the holidays. Each time a kit arrives, kids have hours of self-guided entertainment, and parents can . . . why even fill in the fantasy bubble? You fill it in for yourself.

Teachers!

  • And finally, if you think you’re tired, just think of how tired your kids’ teachers are. Let them know that you see how hard they’re working to keep your kids connected and learning this year with a DonorsChoose gift card so that your favorite teachers can buy the classroom materials they need to keep creative, joy-filled learning happening, whatever 2021 might bring.

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