I know a lot of you are looking for ideas for science-related children’s presents for Christmas or whatever holiday you like to celebrate this time of year. I have a couple of ideas, and hopefully you will add some of your ideas below. Not everything that helps encourage the skills of scientific tinkering is found in a science kit, and I’ll provide a few ideas for toys that do this. Also, some of the best science experiments are found by using things that don’t come in kits, but by following the advice in books. So I’ll suggest a few books as well. Purely science kits or tools are of course an important addition to the tool box, but not everything has to be an actual science kit. A toy that is simply a toy, but that has a pro-science theme, is also a good idea, and I’ve got some suggestions there as well.
Science Experiments for Kids
There are many items out there that are explicitly science kits, such as biology kits or chemistry kits, and I’m not comfortable making specific recommendations for that sort of thing. There are many options, across a wide range of qualities, and many turn out to be fairly disappointing. I do recommend going for kits that are very specific in what they do, and not very expensive. These kits seem to serve the purpose well enough, and not a lot of investment is made in case they are not quite up to snuff.
For many, the best option may be a book that outlines science experiments you can do with common (or sometimes less common) household items.
Vicki Cobb’s “See for Yourself!: More Than 100 Amazing Experiments for Science Fairs and School Projects,” which covers a wide range of physics, chemistry, and biology. You can extract DNA, build a charge or current detector, experiment with sound waves, and experiment with sensory processing. Many of the experiments are, as the title suggests, suitable for use in a science fair, and many of the projects are adaptable so your junior scientist can include their own creative ideas (which might include combining two or more experiments). Most of the experiments include useful context and additional notes on how to alter or elaborate on the project. It is hard to pin down an age range for this book, but with adult involvement, there are experiments that will be fun for pretty little kids, and on their own, kids from middle school through high school will find it useful.
(Also by Vicki Cobb: Science Experiments You Can Eat)
At a somewhat higher level are the DIY lab books. Robert Bruce Thompson has produced these:
I have read and worked with the Biology and Chemistry books, and they are excellent. These books are actually designed to meet the requirements of a typical chemistry or biology course that might be taught in high school, and for most labs, require getting some higher end gear (all of which can be ordered or acquired, with information in the books on how to do this). So these are pretty serious books.
Toys That Teach: Logic, engineering skills, experimental thinking
Especially for younger kids (pre-K), some of the skills we wish to develop in support of science learning are probably best acquired with non science toys. For example, the basic wooden train tracks (originally invented, I think, by Brio, but now in many forms including Thomas the Tank Engine, Chuddington, Imaginarium, etc.) require the development of the critical skills of patience, planning and forethought, and some basic engineering and design skills. An inexpensive way of getting started on this is to buy a set that includes massive numbers of wooden train tracks in an expansion pack . You can get at a somewhat pricy price train engines that will run, battery powered, on the tracks such as Fisher-Price Thomas the Train Wooden Railway James Engine. Designing tracks that will allow these engines to run without falling over requires more care and planning, which adds an element of learning.
There are numerous toys/games that are not explicitly science, but like the train tracks are expandable and rebuild-able, requiring the development of similar skills, using marbles and tubes and shoots etc. For his birthday, Huxley got one such toy that we were very impressed with. Rated for kids 8 and above, the Techno Gears Marble Mania Glow In The Dark Galatic Adventure Play Set can be assembled by adults for younger kids to play with. While assembly (several hours) is a part of the learning experience for older kids, younger kids still learn process, causality, sequencing, as well as fine tuning (you have to mess around with the chutes and tubes to make them all work, but in ways that teach about dynamics) even without assembling them. Uses lots of batteries.
Part of nudging the offspring in a scientific direction is just about making science part of the fun they are already having. LEGO is a classic toy, and has a lot of science oriented sets, even if sometimes the science is a bit odd. For example, Lego has the LEGO City Arctic Base Camp set, which is a bit pricy (because it is big) and has many sub-components such as smaller ATVs, a research camp, and a drilling truck and helicopter. All of these components (I’m pretty sure) can be obtained as separate smaller and more affordable kits, so one can pick and chose and spread it out over a few holidays. The fact that the toy is all about scientists collecting paleoclimate data and studying melting glaciers is the reason to get this kit. Having said that, the science itself is, frankly, very funny since the mini-fig-scientists seem to specialize in extracting giant ice-enclosed crystals more likely to be found in the dilithium power sources of a Star Ship.
The Arctic research kit is part of the City series, which matters if you are keeping track of realistic scales.
A rare LEGO item that looks interesting but that I’ve not seen is the LEGO Cuusoo 21110 Research Institute. This is one of the many LEGO science kits designed by LEGO fans and then produced by LEGO because other LEGO fans liked it enough.
Microscopes for kids
If you are going to get one science related toy for kids, and the kid does not have a microscope, then you should probably get a microscope. I’m going to recommend two types, but there are many options out there.
First is a USB microscope. There are many kinds out there, and which one you get may depend on age, how many different individuals will use it, and if you already have one. We have the Digital Blue Computer Microscope Digital Camera – QX7, which is simple to use, hooks up easily, is not expensive, and seems pretty sturdy. This is entry level. One thing to note: Software that comes with this sort of microscope is generally useless, may not work, and is more troubler than it is worth. Just hook up the microscope as though it was an external camcorder and use it that way. You’ll be able to use your system’s (or installed) cam software to take stills or movies.
The other kind of microscope I recommend, and you should have both kinds, is some sort of simple hand held pocket microscope. We have the Carson 60X-100X MicroMax LED Lighted Pocket Microscope (MM-200), and it is fantastic. Give it to a bunch of kids and they will run around everywhere taking turns looking at things up close. Whatever pocket microcope you get should have a light in it. (I think they all do, but check).
Go back to the Illustrated Guide to biology experiments noted above, or other references, to find out what higher-end microscope (and related equipment) you want to go beyond these entry level items. Our higher-end microscope is actually a late 19th century design using reflected light. And, now and then, Amanda brings Huxley into the lab to show him the big fancy scopes. When he is a bit older, we’ll get some real optics, such as a medium level binocular scope with a camera.
Getting back to the basic idea that learning patience, planning, forethought, and integrating these skills with something creative and productive, as a way to start out in science, I suggest one or more electronic project kits. People of a certain age will remember the old fashioned kits, using telegraph board style wires to hook up components fixed to a large board in different ways to produce various circuits. These days, this approach is replaced with something that reflect the process of building more accurately. I suggest a Snap Circuit kit. There are many levels, and as far as I can tell, one can upgrade from a given level to several different higher levels, with upgrade kits. The total cost is less if you go for the higher level kit right away, but that is pricy, and the difference in cost between serial upgrades and getting the biggest kit at the start is not very large.
For this reason I recommend starting with the Snap Circuits SC-300 Electronics Discovery Kit, not the lowest end, but not very expensive. From there you can easily upgrade to a higher level kit, or, get a second specialized kit, such as the Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Green.
A few words of advice on Snap Circuits. When working with Huxley, staring at late age 3, I insisted that about every other time we played with them, we followed the instructions exactly to demonstrate this or that feature of electronics. The other times, he was free to do whatever he wanted as long as he did not make a short circuit with the battery pack, and always installed a switch in the off position while working with the circuits. In truth, there was no real danger in breaking anything (probably) or getting shocked or anything else untoward, but this helped him learn that circuits needed to be handled a certain way for effectiveness and safety. Eventually, Huxley started to design his own circuits to demonstrate complex switching, parallel vs. serial setups, etc.
Also, after observing this for a while, I realized the whole thing would be more fun with a few additional switches, so I separately ordered some of them. Then, a student of Amanda’s, hearing of Huxley’s interest, gave us his old set, so we suddenly had two of almost everything. Huxley really has learned quite a bit about how electricity works, mainly by working with the power supplies (battery packs), various switches, and, mostly, the small electric motor.
I’d love to see your suggestions, or commentary about your experiences, in the comments section!