Keeping kids engaged while everyone is home can be a great time to explore new activities while learning skills. We’ve reached out to families to find their favorite toys, puzzles and games to find out which ones are a hit at home. Our list focuses on STEM type products for children 8+ through teens. Adults can also get in on the fun with many of these! Starting around $20 and most are well under $100.
For Young Engineers – Snap Circuits Kits
We like the Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 (about $20) for any child to teenager that is interested in electronics. Think of the Snap Circuits kits as the new version of the Radio Shack kits. Except these are more modular, easier to work with and have a lot more options.
The great thing about the Snap Kits is these are safe – no need for hot soldering irons or wrapping wires. No tools at all are required.
As the name says, the pieces snap together similar to a Lego block. It also means it’s quick and easy to make changes to the projects and to build on what’s already been created.
The Jr. SC-100 comes with the plastic base plate and over 30 electronic parts. Each part is color coded and has standard electronics symbols printed on it. Parts include:
- snap wires
- battery pack
- slide switches
- an alarm circuit,
- music integrated circuit
- a speaker
An illustrated guide is clear and easy to understand. You get the details for building over 100 different electronic circuit project. Some examples are :
- photo sensor / motion detector
- flashing light
- adjustable-volume siren
- sound-activated switch
- musical doorbell
- voice-controlled lamp
- flying saucer
It’s a great started kit for anyone interested in electrical engineering or electronics. You could easily spend a couple of hours a day for a week going though all the projects and diving deep into how the electronics work.
Another kit with more (60+) components is the Snap Circuits Classic SC-300 Electronics Exploration Kit (about $60). The full color project manual has 300+ projects to work on.
If you think your child will enjoy either the Jr. SC-100 or the Classic SC-300, you can add more functionality with the Snap Circuits UC-30 Electronics Exploration Upgrade Kit (about $35). This was developed to complement both the JR. SC-100 and the SC-300. It includes 30 new parts including AM radio components, transistors, ICs, capacitors, resistors, etc. to create 200 more projects.
You can also go all-in with the “Pro” version Snap Circuits Pro SC-500 Electronics Exploration Kit (about $75). You get over 75 parts to build over 500 projects. Like the other kits, it comes with a full color project manual.
You may want to pick up some extra AA batteries for these kits.
For Beginning Coders / Programmers – Base Kit
The Base Kit 2 (about $70) is a great way to get started learning computer programming and circuits. You will need Windows/PC, Mac, or Chromebook computer with a USB port, along with internet access. These are compatible with tablets or smartphones (because of the USB port requirement).
We like this because it’s easy to get started, and you can quickly build on all the projects. The Maker Board has all the basic hardware needed to be able to develop real software with the C++ language. On the board you’ll find 12 electronic pieces including:
- microcontroller (i.e., a programmable computer chip)
- 1 Speaker
- 4 Buttons
- 2 tri-color RGB (red-green-blue) LED lights
- 1 Red LED light
- 1 Blue LED light
- 1 Green LED light
The board is powered from the (included) USB cable connection to the computer, so no batteries are needed.
We like the reference cards for all of the hardware components and for the code. You also get a carry case so that nothing gets separated, and its great for packing.
Kids will learn how to use the board and write code by watching the 3.5+ hours of video tutorials and step-by-step walk-throughs. Additional coding challenges are provided to for budding programmers to try out their new skills.
There are over 55 online projects, with 1,000+ lines of code to experiment with and customize. The examples are really just a good starting point to learning how software is written, and how to control the hardware through coding.
By following the step-by-step projects, kids will learn about:
- Analog vs. digital logic
- How fast computers can process logic and sensor reading
- How computers are programmed to “make decisions”
- Building basic electrical circuits
One of the best features of this type of kit is that it is open-ended. Kids will learn how to modify their programs and write their own creative code with these skills!
You could also choose the Ultimate Coding Kit 2 (abut $129) with access to 100+ online projects – these step-by-step projects are complete with over 2,200 lines of example code and over 8 hours of video content.
The Ultimate Kit has 17 components – similar to what you get with the base kit, but with the notable addition of the 3-inch LCD screen. We think this last addition alone is worth the added cost.
Of course, it’s not just the extra hardware pieces that make this kit ultimate. It’s the additional on-line tutorials and projects that are available.
As with the basic kit, the free software is only compatible with Windows/PC, Mac, or Chromebook computers and requires an internet connection to access. Not compatible with tablets or smartphones.
Another plus for these kits are the great reviews: it has won the Family Choice Seal of Approval, Gold Award, Modern Library Platinum Award, and Family Choice Award. Built by teachers, engineers, and designers to make learning fun!
A helpful companion book we can recommend is the ” C++ All-in-One For Dummies ” (about $25) which has is actually 6 books in 1, covering everything you’ll need to understand the C++ programming language.
Brain Power Puzzles – Gravity Maze, Safe Puzzle
The Ugears Model Safe Kit (about $50) is a 3D Wooden Puzzle. When completed, you’ll have a fully functional mechanical safe made of wood.
Recommended for ages 14+, the 3D puzzle is about “medium” on the difficulty scale. Expect to spend about 3 to 4 hours from opening the box to a fully assembled puzzle safe.
It has 179 laser-cut pieces of plywood and birch, and no glue is required. Although you may need to sand down a few edges for a precise fit. We’d also recommend having some candle wax on hand for the toothpick “axles” that hold the gears together. It’ll make it easier to slide the wood-on-wood, and make the final actions move a little more easily.
An added fun bonus is that after you’ve assembled the safe, you can play safe-cracker! Twist the knob and carefully listen to the wooden tumblers to hear when the movements drop into place so you can unlock the safe.
Assembled dimensions are 7.5 x 7.5 x 7.0 inches
The Gravity Maze Marble Run (about $30) is challenges you to think in 3 dimensions. The puzzle comes with 60 challenges of increasing difficulty, where you have to build mazes for marbles to roll down.
The game starts with a challenge card that provides the basic set-up for the starting point – the end tower for the marble destination along with one or more tower placements. It’s up to you to figure out how to place the other pieces so that when you drop the marble it will roll smoothly through the maze from start to finish.
We like that with each challenge you can flip the card to get a solution. It’s a way to easily get started with the game while learning how to think through the puzzle.
And it’s won a number of awards, including Toy of the Year.
Recommended for children 8 and up.
For Mechanical Engineering – Engino
The design and development team at Engino Labs has a few building kits focused on mechanical engineering concepts. We think of it as applied erector-set meets Lego’s.
The first one, Engino Discovering Stem: Levers, Linkages & Structures Building Kit (about $25) shows how levers can be used for increasing an applied force or changing the direction of motion and how they integrate with structures.
The step by step illustrated assembly instructions take you through 16 working models such as:
- a seesaw
- a movable weight scale
- a wheelbarrow
- a parking gate
- a toy with moving figures
- a panto-graph
Included is a 14-page booklet on the theory and principles of levers and linkages. There are also 4-pages of quizzes and 7 pages of illustrations of experimental activities.
Bonus material can be found online at Engino’ s website or using the Engino 3D app downloadable free for Android or Apple iOS.
Next is the Engino Discovering STEM Mechanics: Levers & Linkages (about $30) building kit with a similar set of 16 models. We recommend getting the 14 or the 16 model kits, but not both together since there is some overlap of the two kits. Of course if you have two kids at home, then getting one of each kit may be the best course – you can even have building challenges!
For a different set of models is the Engino: Wheels, Axles and Inclined Planes (about $28). Where as the two kits above were conceptually focused on linear applications, this kit takes things in a slightly different direction.
Here, you learn how wheels and axles use friction to move objects easily. The models demonstrate the mechanical advantage between large wheels and small wheels. You can assemble 14 working models including:
- mobile staircase
- levered ramp with car
- tow truck
A final kit, Engino: Physics Laws – Inertia, Friction, Circular Motion and Energy Conservation Building Set (about $30) has elements of all the other kits included. This was probably one of the favorites since it has a little bit of everything combined, but with more pieces it can be a little more challenging.
Robotics – UBTECH, Mindstorms
For ages 8+, the UBTECH robotics kits are some of the best STEM toys we’ve heard about. The kits have a range of complexity and are great for all skill levels. These are engaging and will help develop skills like creativity, design, coding and robotics.
It’s great the JIMU series of UBTECH robots has a variety of options and price points. You can start with the 2-robot Muttbot & Buzzbot kit (about $48). These two, lively robots are made up with 6 robotic servo motors and over 250 snap-together parts. Or you can create your own custom bots from the parts. They snap together like Lego’s, with no tools required.
Once you have them assembled, you can program your robots using the ” Blockly ” coding platform or by creating entirely new, custom actions with the PRP (Pose, Record, Play) function. The programming is easy, using pre-defined sets of block code that you can add, remove, drag, drop and re-arrange until you have your bots doing just what you want.
There is also a well designed 3-D, 360-degree animated guide you can use to follow along for building your bots and learning how to activate them.
You will need an iOS or Android smartphone to install the free app. Use the app to develop your code and then program your bots over Bluetooth.
Another highly recommended JIMU robot is the Overdrive Truck (about $55), which can be assembled in two different options for variety.
With 410 snap-together parts, 2 smooth motion robotic servo motors, a 2 DC motor, an ultrasonic sensor and a light, there is a lot to like with these robot vehicles.
The favorite of the JIMU robots is the FireBot Dragon (about $95).
You can program the LED light in FireBot’s snout to glow a fiery red or an icy cold blue. There is a touch sensor on FireBot’s chest – you can program magical actions with its movable wings when activated. The Dragon includes two different sets of wings for customization – cool!
With this 606 piece set, you also get 3 servo motors and a DC motor in addition to the LEDs and sensor mentioned above.
In contrast to the Dragon, there is a 440-piece UnicornBot Kit (about $90) that appears friendlier and less menacing.
All of the JIMU robots work with the same free app and code. Even without all the amazing capabilities that come with the motors and your software, these are fantastic on their own as snap-together models.
Lego Mindstorms EV3
Of course, no list would be complete without mentioning Lego’s. While these have been around for a few years, Mindstorms set are still one of the most popular robotics kits for older kids (and adults!) on the market.
We think the EV3 Robot Building Set is truly the high-end for these “toys”, and what you can do with it is limited only by your imagination and your coding skills. There is always room to grow your skills and improve!
You build your fully-functional bot from the included 550+ LEGO Technic Elements, which are similar to the standard Lego’s blocks you’d find in other kits. You can use your existing collection of Lego’s to add to and re-configure your EV3 robot.
The controlling capabilities come from 3 Interactive Servo Motors, Color Sensor, Touch Sensor, and Infrared Sensor. The Remote Control brings it all together to make it work.
Here are two companion guide books to go along with the EV3: Learning Lego Mindstorms EV3 and Lego Mindstorms Beginners Guide To Building and Programming .
Links and Ordering
Here’s a linked list of everything from this review to help you get more information or place an Amazon order. No matter which puzzles, robots or toys you pick from this list you can be sure of many hours of fun and learning along the way. Enjoy!
Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 (about $20)
Snap Circuits Classic SC-300 (about $60).
Snap Circuits UC-30 Electronics Exploration Upgrade Kit (about $35).
Snap Circuits Pro SC-500 (about $75).
Base Kit 2 (about $70)
Ultimate Coding Kit 2 (abut $129)
Ugears Model Safe Kit (about $50)
Gravity Maze Marble Run (about $30)
Engino: Levers & Linkages (about $30)
Engino: Wheels, Axles and Inclined Planes (about $28)
Engino: Physics Laws (about $30)
UBTECH JIMU Muttbot & Buzzbot kit (about $48)
UBTECH JIMU Overdrive Truck (about $55)
UBTECH JIMU FireBot Dragon (about $95)
UBTECH JIMU UnicornBot Kit (about $90)
Lego Mindstorms EV3 Robot Building Set