Part I: Liquids, edibles, slimy things. (The next part will tend towards the electronic and robotish.)
Focusing on elementary school, mainly around 2nd or 3rd grade, this is what I see on the market this year. A lot more water, day to day pragmatic science, and specialized kits that generally produce stuff you eat, throw out, or otherwise dispose of, which saves a lot of closet space in your home! Continue reading What are this year’s best science toys for young kids?→
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.