I’ve reviewed, researched, and generally looked around for a selection of gifts that could work for kids ranging from very small to High School (and beyond!?!?) that are science oriented.

Coding

The best kids coding books these days are probably those that use scratch. Before suggesting a couple, though, consider, especailly for older kids (middle and high school) this fairly recent Python language book that focuses on Minecraft: Learn to Program with Minecraft: Transform Your World with the Power of Python HERE is my review.

My favorite scratch programming book is Scratch Programming Playground: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is a brand new offering from No Starch Press.

Never mind all the other programming books for kids, this is the best so far.

Scratch is in the Logo family of object oriented programming. Indeed, Scratch itself, as a language, is a very short distance from the original object oriented programming, much closer to the source than many professional object oriented language.

Scratch 2.0 can be run as a stand along program in windows and on a Mac, but works better on the web, in a browser, on all platforms. Working in that environment, on the browser, has the important advantage of immediate access to a large amount of work done by others, that you can freely borrow from. And, of course, you can show off your own work.

Al Sweigart, author, has really nailed a kids oriented programming book better than I’ve seen done before, and I’ve seen them all. I’ve got a full review of this book HERE.

Computer Coding Projects In Scratch: A Step-By-Step Visual Guide

Coding Projects in Scratch uses fun projects to show children how to code with Scratch, teaching essential coding and programming skills to young learners. Built on the basics of coding, each project follows simple, logical steps that are fully illustrated. Kids learn a new, important language through simply explained projects, with key coding concepts broken out in separate panels and illustrated with Minecraft-style pixel art. Learn how to create animations, build games, use sound effects, and more before sharing projects with friends online. Coding Projects in Scratch is highly visual and unique step-by-step workbook will help beginners with no coding skills learn how to build their own projects without any instructions, and helps them develop key programming skills that will last a lifetime.

Technology

Get a robot. I highly recommend the mBot robot kit (pictured above).

The simplest project in the new book Electronics for Kids: Play with Simple Circuits and Experiment with Electricity! by Øyvind Nydal Dahl is the one where you lean a small light bulb against the two terminals of a nine volt battery in order to make the light bulb turn on. The most complicated projects are the ones where you make interactive games using LED lights and buzzers.

In between, there is quite a bit of detail.

I’ve written a detailed review of this excellent book HERE.

Super Cool Tech is a book that looks like a laptop. Or do the kids, these days, call it a notebook. Whatever.

This is one of those innovative format DK books, and is great for kids around Middle School age through High School, in my opinion. This book …

… explores how incredible new technologies are shaping the modern world and its future, from familiar smartwatches to intelligent, driverless cars.

Packed with more than 250 full-color images, X-rays, thermal imaging, digital artworks, cross-sections, and cutaways, Super Cool Tech reveals the secrets behind the latest gadgets and gizmos, state-of-the-art buildings, and life-changing technologies.

Lift the unique laptop-inspired book cover to see incredible architectural concepts around the world, such as the Hydropolis Underwater Hotel and Resort in Dubai, and the River Gym, a human-powered floating gym in New York City. Discover how a wheelchair adapts to its surroundings and learn how a cutting board can give the nutritional information of the food being prepared on it.

From 3-D-printed cars to robot vacuum cleaners, Super Cool Tech reveals today’s amazing inventions and looks ahead to the future of technology, including hologram traffic lights and the Galactic Suite Hotel in space. Perfect for STEAM education initiatives, Super Cool Tech makes technology easy to understand, following the history of each invention and how they impact our everyday lives, and “How It Works” panels explain the design and function of each item using clear explanations and images.

This book could be in a kid’s gift guide or an adult’s gift guide, depending on the kid or adult: Arduino Project Handbook: 25 Practical Projects to Get You Started.

I’ve read quiet a few Arduino project books. There are two kinds. The intro book, such as the one being reviewed here, that provides a large number of projects that illustrate how the system works, while at the same time, providing a number of practical projects mixed in with some that are just for fun but that show important physical and programming principles. the other kind are more specialized, and cover how to use this system to build, say, environmental sensors, or robots, or to work with Lego Technic, or whatever.

All the intro books that don’t suck (some suck) are similar, give you similar tools, similar information, etc. But this new book, Arduino Project Handbook: 25 Practical Projects to Get You Started, is better than the other intro books for two simple reasons.

First, the instructions themselves are VERY clear and have EXCELLENT illustrations to show the wiring. The second reason this book is good is that it is current, new, up to date. This is the most current project book available, so if you are looking to get started with Arduino, this is the one you want today. I’ve written a more detailed review of it HERE.

This is not new, but look at the still current and fantastic new version of David Macaulay’s “How Machines Work: Zoo Break!” reviewed in detail HERE.

Not sure what category Wall-E goes in, but if you order quickly (supplies are limited) you might be able to get your hands on the LEGO Ideas WALL E 21303 Building Kit.

The official description:

Build, display and role play with WALL•E! Construct the LEGO® Ideas version of WALL•E with posable neck, adjustable head and arms, gripping hands, opening trunk and rolling tracks.

Build a beautifully detailed LEGO® version of WALL•E—the last robot left on Earth! Created by Angus MacLane, an animator and director at Pixar Animation Studios, and selected by LEGO Ideas members, the development of this model began alongside the making of the lovable animated character for the classic Pixar feature film. It has taken almost a decade to perfect the LEGO version, which incorporates many authentic WALL•E characteristics, including a posable neck, adjustable head, arms that move up and down and side to side, plus gripping hands and rolling tracks. With a trunk that opens and closes, you can tidy up the planet one pile of garbage at a time! This set also includes a booklet about the designer and the animated Pixar movie.

Math

Have a look at the Manga Guides to math and related topics.

I reviewed the Regression Analysis guide HERE.

Here is a list of most of the other guides, all of them are great:

  • The Manga Guide to Physiology
  • The Manga Guide to Physics
  • The Manga Guide to Electricity
  • The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra
  • The Manga Guide to Statistics
  • The Manga Guide to Biochemistry
  • The Manga Guide to Calculus
  • The Manga Guide to Databases
  • The Manga Guide to Relativity
  • The Manga Guide to the Universe
  • The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology
  • Climate Change

    Climate Change: Discover How It Impacts Spaceship Earth (Build It Yourself) covers many concepts in earth science, from paleontology to climate systems to how to make a battery out of apple (how can a kid’s science activity not include the apple battery!).

    This book represents an interesting concept, because it involves kids in mostly easy to do at home projects, covers numerous scientific concepts, and takes the importance of global climate change as a given. There is a good amount of history of research, though the book does not cover a lot of the most current scientists and their key work (I’d have liked to see a chapter specifically on the Hockey Stick and the paleo record, thought these concepts are included along with the other material).

    One of the coolest things about the book is the material on what an individual can do to address energy and climate related problems, including (but not limited to) advice on activism, such as writing letters to government officials.

    Climate Change: Discover How It Impacts Spaceship Earth (Build It Yourself) is listed as for reading ages 9-12 (reading level U), but with a parent working with the kid, this can work for much younger children, especially if you focus on the projects. I intend to work with my five year old on some of the projects, and use a couple of the sections as night time reading material. When he gets a bit older he can read the book himself. This would also be a good book to give as a gift to your kid’s school library, or even better, the appropriate elementary school teacher.

    Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!: A Story for Children and their Adults was a go fund me project that eventually evolved to become a real live book and an excellent one.

    magine if you could see CO2? In the book, it is imagined to be pink. The imagining takes the form of a quirky father, one imagines him to be an inventor of some sort, coming up with the idea of making goggles that would allow you to see CO2 as a pink gas. This is all described by the man’s patient but clearly all suffering son, who eventually dons the prototype goggles and sees for himself.

    I read this to Huxley, age 5, and he loved it. He kept asking questions, and saying things like, “Is that true? Really?” I knew he would enjoy the book for its witty chatter and excellent illustrations, but frankly I did not expect him to be enthralled. He is fairly laid back when it comes to matters of science, nature, and for that matter, mathematics. He tends to absorb, then, later makes up song about it or comes up with difficult questions. His reaction was unique.

    Bill McKibben’s reaction was pretty strong too. He is quoted as saying, “I’ve often wondered what would happen if CO2 were visible. Now I know!” … except he already knew. There would be pink everywhere. At the density of about 400ppm. More than the 350 value that gives his organization its name!


    Doing Science

    Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests is an excellent new nature activity book for kids of a fairly wide range of ages.

    Like a tree, the pattern of the book is pretty straightforward but fractal like; you start off simple but end up pretty much anywhere in the world of ecology. The book begins with the basic definition of a tree, simple tree anatomy, some phylogeny, some tree physiology and biology, but then branches off (pun intended) into things that are related to trees, like things that live on them, eat parts of them, etc. Seeds and seed dispersal come in around this point as well, as one might expect. The role of trees, or tree related images or tree names, etc. in human culture is also explored.

    As indicated by the subtitle, these lessons are organized into thirty things you can do. Some of these things simply involve looking (dividing your local landscape’s larger plants into “tree” and “not a tree,”, etc.) while some involve more intense observation (like telling different trees apart) or interaction (including, of course, waxing leaves and similar activities).

    The book includes some great tips on observing (or attracting) forest insects. I think Huxley’s Buggy Camp could have used some of this info this week to help them find tree-related buggy creatures in the nearby woods.

    This book can probably work in any North American region, as it is not too specific at the species level, and pretty generic at the genus level. As it were. There is more than enough activity in this book, in terms of both amount and diversity, to keep a family with any number of kids busy on several weekends. The activities are also spread out across seasons fairly well.

    Monica Russo has written and illustrated several nature books for children, and authored “Nature Notes,” a column in the Sun Chronicle. Kevin Byron is a nature photographer who’s work is widely recognized.

    The Outdoor Science Lab for Kids: 52 Family-Friendly Experiments for the Yard, Garden, Playground, and Park is a good guide to home science experiments for kids, usually with adult involvement, ranging across a fairly wide range of age but mainly, I’d say, middle school for unsupervised work, or pretty much any age if supervised.

    All of the experiments can be done by adults with younger kids watching or being involved to varying degrees.

    Most of he experiments cost little or nothing, depending on where you live (like, do you live near a pond?) and what the phrase “common household ingredients” means to you.

    Many of the experiments involve things in nature, which is why it is the “outdoor” and not the “kitchen” or “bathroom” science lab.

    Make a pitfall trap, find and observe inverts, conduct plant warfare using the principle of allelopathy.

    For those in temperate zones, these are mainly spring-summer-fall experiments, so with 52 of them, this book is good for a few years.

    Each spread (two pages) has one experiment, richly illustrated with photographs. There is a list of materials, safety tips, the protocol, and a side bar on the science itself, along with a “creative enrichment” idea such as making graphs, or testing the allelopathic properties of invasives.

    The author, Liz Heinche, is a molecular biologist and mom, thus this book. From the publisher:

    Outdoor Science Lab for Kids offers 52 fun science activities for families to do together. The experiments can be used as individual projects, for parties, or as educational activities for groups. Outdoor Science Lab for Kids will tempt families to learn about physics, chemistry and biology in their backyards. Learn scientific survival skills and even take some experiments to the playground! Many of the experiments are safe enough for toddlers and exciting enough for older kids, so families can discover the joy of science together.

    I know of at least one pre-school that uses the book. I’m not a big fan of home schooling, but home schoolers will like this book. The book is not a substitute for middle school or high school science instruction in schools.

    Also in the same series are Kitchen Science Lab for Kids (where you will find an excellent milk rainbow protocol) and Gardening Lab for Kids, which I’ve not looked at.

    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.

    61HAQTA55SL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_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)

    bio-coverAt 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.

    350-944993-847__1There 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.

    LEGO Science

    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.

    5702015119283-2The 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.

    qx5_microscopeFirst 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.

    Electronics

    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.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 10.29.29 AMFor 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!

    Dinosaur Toys?

    Glendon Mellow was asking the other day where to get “realistic” or “scientifically accurate” dinosaurs for kids to play with. There are a LOT of “realistic” dinosaur sets out there, but they are for the most part realistic in that they really look like the imagined dinosaurs of the last century and a half, and not the reconstructed dinosaurs of present day paleontology. I’m not sure if you can even get those. The 12 piece Large Assorted Dinosaurs – Toys 5–7" Larger Size Dinosaur Figures exemplify the results of an Interent search for “realistic dinosaur.” Yes, they are realistic but they are not so much revised. Among the highest quality but maybe not very toy-like are the Schleich models. The Schleich Dilophosaurus Dinosaur and other Schleich dinos such as the Schleich Triceratops and the Schleich Velociraptor are all very “real” looking but I don’t see much in there that is taking into account ALL of the more recent revisions.

    In the absence of scientific accuracy one might go for fun. For this you can’t do much better than dinosaur finger puppets. Little kids love stickers, and really, they hardly pay any attention to detail as long as they are sticking them on as many inconvenient places as possible. I don’t see any feathers in the Realistic Dinosaur Playset, but there are brilliant colors and the details are glossed enough that they might suffice, plus they are cheap. The Papo Running Tyrannosaurus Rex is the scariest one of all that I’ve seen, so that’s good. And if you have a spare few hundred bucks, you might as well go for the Pleo Robotic Dinosaur because it is a robot!

    Chemistry

    Chemistry sets are great for the right kids. I’ve often recommended this book for serious home chemistry. The current best chemistry set is probably buying everything individually on the Internet and then dealing with Homeland Security. If you are going to do that you might have a look at this: 16 Piece Deluxe Organic Chemistry Glassware Set. Inspiring.

    The Scientific Explorer’s Mind Blowing Science Kit for Young Scientists is highly ranked on Amazon for little kids (4 years old) and I’ve heard people rave about the various The Magic School Bus sets. The chemistry set that probably represents best the one many of us had when we were kids and that is currently highly ranked may be the Thames & Kosmos CHEM C2000 (V 2.0) or the Thames & Kosmos CHEM C3000 (V 2.0), depending on how much money you want to spend.

    Life Science

    Everybody needs a good dissection set. Here there are a few ways to go. One can get a reasonably good dissection set like this one, or one can get a kit with a specific critter to dissect that comes with some tools such as the Carolina Pig Anatomy Kit with Dissecting Set. Generally, materials from Carolina or Wards are going to be higher quality than randomly chosen items off the internet.

    There are dozens of kits and toys you can get that let you grow an organism and keep it alive for a while. I hate most of these kids. I recommend getting a 10 gallon aquarium from your local fish or pet shop, an external box filter (easiest to clean) and an aerator (yes, both) and then just go to your local swamps and ponds and scoop up mud and stuff and put that in the aquarium, along with water that has been properly handled or processed. Stuff will spontaneously generate from the mud, don’t worry. If it doesn’t work just get some more mud, clean it out, and try again (don’t use cleaning chemicals). You will learn to make it work over time … by doing science!

    Geology and Rock Collecting

    The best “Kit” for geology is a good book on geology that introduces you to some of the basic techniques, and then you go and find the parts you need around the house and at your local stores, although you might not find a proper geology hammer. Having said that, it is a good idea to get a hardness set of minerals (e.g. Mohs Scale of Hardness w/ Diamond Rock Mineral). But, “rock hounding” and “geology” are not the same thing. Someone interested in collecting rocks and minerals should visit rock shops and shows, talk to people there, and learn from them where your local collecting areas might be and learn the ropes from the people you meet along the way. If geology, no specifically rock collecting, is what you are into, try finding good books and geological monographs for areas you can get to and visit those areas with the books and the maps that come with them (a good book on the geology of an area will have good maps, or it is not a good book on the geology of an area!). A great if sometimes difficult to use resource is the roadside geology guides often put together for geology conferences or courses. These are travel routes that take several hours at most, often several in one document, that bring you to individual road cuts or other sites and explain, often in technical terms, what you are looking at there. Try Googling “geology road guide” and then a state or region name. You’ll find stuff.