Toys for Techies
By Donald Christiansen
With the holidays rapidly
approaching, I embarked on my annual search for
hands-on toys that might help launch youngsters
on the path to becoming future engineers. At
what age might a tot be enticed toward our
profession, I wondered.
My initial venues included
Barnes & Noble and Toys ‘R’ Us. I quickly found
the VTech Roll & Learn Turtle ($16.95) for
9-month- to 3-year-olds. With a shell covered
with colorful gears and activated by pushing a
button or pulling the turtle, the turtle might
teach lessons related to colors, sounds, and
counting. Not exactly high tech, its gears
notwithstanding—but nevertheless likely to
prompt some serious thinking on the part of a
9-month-old toddler. Still another VTech
offering, the Explore and Learn Helicopter
($19.95) is a step up in complexity, and is
designed for 1-year-olds and up. Not that
surprisingly, it is piloted by a puppy.
For 3-year-olds and up I found
the 60-piece Magformers Kit ($99.95). Its
magnetic building elements include squares,
triangles, and other geometrical shapes that
encourage building imaginative structures.
Other age 3+ toys include:
starter set ($29.95) includes pulleys,
wheels, axles, connectors, and panels, plus
instructions for four particular models.
The 13-piece Diggin Build &
Play Rocket Ship ($49.95) includes an
astronaut, space shuttle, and wheeled robot,
plus connectors, for a total of 25 all-wood
Quercetti Kaleido Gears
($29.95), 55 pieces with 16 various-diameter
Lincoln Logs, 120-piece,
real-wood set ($39.95). Lincoln Logs date
At the 8-year-old-and-up level I
was impressed by the Thames & Kosmos
Remote-Control Machines Experiment Kit, with 182
pieces including three motors and a wireless
remote control unit, plus a 42-page manual
Other age 8+ candidates:
320-piece Thames & Kosmos
Physics Solar Workshop ($64.95). Includes a
motor and a 64-page manual for 12 projects.
ScienceWiz Cool Circuits
($19.95). A 40-puzzle challenge with
light-up board and eight fluorescent 3-D
KidzLabs Soda Can Robug
Green Science Kit ($12.95). Built around an
empty soda can, it emits sound, vibrates,
Erector Multimodels Sets.
The 15-model set ($36.95) has 240 metal
parts. Includes gears, pulleys, and
necessary tools. Projects include race cars,
motorcycles, airplanes, and autogyros.
Larger sets (20 and 25 models) are also
Magnetic Levitation Kit ($19.95). Materials
for seven projects, including a maglev
robot. Based on seven plastic-coated, 1
5/16-in. diameter bored disc magnets.
Toys for Girl Techies?
The argument as to whether tech
toys for girls should differ from those for boys
seems to have cooled a bit. Perhaps some who
were startled by the recent introduction of
“pink” LEGO sets had forgotten that back in the
1950s a pinkish Lab Technician Set for Girls (a
“career-building science set”) was marketed by
In my recent visit to Barnes &
Noble I found, for girls 4 to 9 years old,
GoldieBlox and the Dunk Tank ($22.95) and, for
girls 7 to 12, GoldieBlox and the Builder’s
Survival Kit ($59.95). The 52-piece Dunk Tank
includes an instruction book, a ball to throw at
a target, and a dog who gets dunked if the
target is hit. The 190-piece Survival Kit
includes wheels, tires, axles, washers, pegs,
and various joints, plus a “diary of
The Tinkertoy Pink Building Set
($44.99) for girls (or boys) ages 3+, contains
150 plastic parts including rods, wheels, and
spools. A flower, a castle, and a cat are among
the possible projects.
When I shifted my search from
the mall to the Internet, I found several
complex (and expensive) kits that might be more
appropriate for teenagers and college students
and, perhaps, father-son or father-daughter
teams (Oops! mother-son and mother-daughter
teams, too). Among them:
The LEGO Mindstorms EV3
($350) includes 17 suggested builds with
three levels of programming and permits
robot operation via smartphone.
VEX Dual Control Starter Kit
($499.99). Includes Clawbot Robot Kit with
four motors, microcontroller, joystick, and
USB adapter keys, battery and charger.
Programming software is sold separately.
FlashForge Creator 3D
Printer ($977). Dual extruder, heated build
platform, build size 8.9” x 5.7” x 5.9”
(tape and filament sold separately).
Make:it Robotics Starter Kit
($72) creates either a line-following or
walking robot (but requires the Arduino Uno
Rev 3, $29.99).
The Make:it Robotics Starter Kit
Scanning the online reviews by
purchasers can be helpful. For example, the
Robotikit 6-in-1 Solar Kit ($22) featuring a
motor, gearbox, and solar panel, plus parts to
build a car and five other projects did not fare
well in reviews. Low outputs from the solar
panel, even with augmented lighting, kept buyers
from getting the motor to run. Others noted the
parts did not fit together well.
The Erector 25 Multimodels Set
mentioned earlier was given 5-star reviews for
fun and educational value, but a few defects
were reported, including a poorly designed
switch that can melt if in a between-position
state. Also, an old-timer who built Erector sets
40 years ago noted that tiny rubber friction
collars have replaced the nuts and threaded
axles formerly used to lock wheels and pulleys,
and can easily fall off under pressure.
In some cases, when a toy does
not quite meet expectations, the user may be
prompted to experiment to correct the fault. A
case in point is the generally highly-rated
Make:it Robotics Starter Kit, co-marketed by
RadioShack and Maker Media. The user can build
either a walking robot or a line follower. A
printed circle on a sheet of paper is supplied
with the kit to test the line-following robot.
When one owner placed the robot on the test
circle it could make it only about one-quarter
the way around before losing its way. His
attempts to correct the shortcoming are
described at the Joe Pilz Technology Blog.
Might it be that, except for
those that are absolute lemons, tech toys and/or
kits that prompt some alterations or “fixes”
could have an advantage over those that work
perfectly? Doesn’t the need to evaluate, tinker,
or redesign represent one of the engineer’s
Just a thought!
Games, Gadgets, and Gizmos,
makershed.com, Make Magazine,
Best S.T.E.M. Toys for
Sullivan, J., “Science Kits:
Try This at Home,” Discover, Dec.
Lipkowitz, D., The LEGO
Ideas Book, (ages 7+), DK Publishing,
Lipkowitz, D., and G.
Farshtey, LEGO Play Book (ages 9+),
DK Publishing, 2013.
Christiansen, D., “Toys for
Future Engineers,” Today’s Engineer,
Donald Christiansen is the former
editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and
an independent publishing consultant. He is a
Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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