Troy Wolverton: These gifts might be educational, but your kids will call them 'fun'

Dec 05, 2013 by Troy Wolverton

When it comes to their holiday wish lists, my preteen kids are a lot like their peers.

My son wants video games and "Hobbit" themed Lego sets. My daughter wants stuffed animals and a doll based on the new "Frozen" movie to complement her collection of other Disney princesses.

They're both likely to get some of those under the tree this year. But they'll also likely find some things that are a bit more, well, educational. With U.S. students trailing behind their global peers in STEM education - science, technology, engineering and math - my wife and I, like many parents, want to encourage a love for such subjects in our kids.

I generally hated getting "educational" gifts as a kid, but they seem a lot cooler these days. Instead of cringing like I did, my kids enjoy getting such gifts.

If you're looking for something this holiday season to get your kids excited about , here are some ideas:

-Make: magazine. Serving as the Bible of the maker movement, Make ($35 for a one-year, 6-issue subscription) is filled with projects ranging from the simple to the hard and covering items and subjects as diverse as handmade musical instruments to food preparation. Past issues have given instructions on making homemade water and chemical rockets, an aquarium for jellyfish and a "machine" whose only function is to turn itself off once you turn it on. The projects can be time-consuming or costly, but many offer great ways to spend time learning and building with your kids.

-GoldieBlox. These may end up being the hip gift for girls this , thanks to a new marketing campaign featuring a rewritten version of the Beastie Boys song "Girls." Designed to get girls interested in engineering, the GoldieBlox sets (which start at $20) include pastel-colored pins, plastic rollers, ribbons and a crank. And they include a book with a story intended to set things in motion - literally. Budding engineers can use the parts to design any number of Rube Goldberg-like spinning contraptions for Goldi, the girl inventor who is the company mascot, and her friends.

-Roominate. Why have a boring old dollhouse when you can have one you design yourself that lights up and has a working elevator? The Roominate sets (starting at $30) include modular panels and pieces that can be connected to form the walls, roofs, stairs and furniture of a dollhouse. They include motors, switches, battery packs and, in some sets, fans that can be used to cool off houses, or lights to illuminate them.

-"Make: Electronics" and component pack. The folks behind Make: magazine have published a series of books to help instruct aspiring makers. For budding engineers of all types, "Make: Electronics" (from $20 online) is a great place to start. It takes users from learning the basics of electricity and building simple circuits to understanding complex electrical diagrams and working with a wide range of components. My kids loved the early experiments, in which they alternately licked and then intentionally shorted out batteries. While you can buy the components for the experiments piecemeal from Fry's and other places, Radio Shack sells a prepackaged sets of components for the first two sections of the book ($80 and $100, respectively).

-MaKey MaKey Kit. Have you ever wanted to control your computer with a banana or play a with Play Dough buttons? Maybe not, but your kids might have - and the MaKey MaKey ($50) makes it possible. The device, which is basically a circuit board, plugs into a Mac or Windows computer via a USB cable. Using wires with alligator clips, users can connect just about anything to the board and use it to control a particular key on a computer keyboard or a mouse.

-Scratch. If you're child has an interest in making video games, creating animations or computer programming, you should check out this program. Scratch allows users to program "sprites" - simple animations using an easy-to-learn coding language. Then they can share their creations with the world via the Scratch website. My 8-year-old son, with no background in programming, was able to put together a simple animation the first time he sat down with Scratch. And one of the best parts about it is that it's free!

-"The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science." A great way to get kids interested in science is through hands-on experiments. This book ($11 on Amazon) offers 64 of them that can be done at home, typically with materials already lying around the house or available at your local grocery store or Target. You'll find old standards, including how to make a "volcano" and use Mentos to create a soda-powered geyser. But you'll also learn how to make a rocket out of an old film canister and how to make "blubber" with oil and a Ziploc bag.

Explore further: Purdue engineer: Toys can help develop STEM skills in children

5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Early childhood educator recommends better toys

Dec 03, 2013

When it comes to Christmas gifts for young children, Anna Nippert, instructor of early childhood education at Kansas State University's College of Human Ecology, recommends parents be more focused on fostering imagination ...

Book, app help teens with autism make friends

Nov 14, 2013

Socially challenged teens and young adults, such as those with autism, often have trouble making and keeping friends and can become easy targets for bullying, a situation that challenges their coping skills.

Troy Wolverton: A gift guide for tech lovers

Nov 29, 2013

FOR THE LIVING ROOM: If your loved ones are looking for an easy way to watch Internet content on their big-screen TVs, Google's Chromecast ($35) is an inexpensive choice. Owners use their smartphones, tablets or computers ...

To teach kids math, researcher devises 'brain games'

Apr 13, 2012

( -- The world often breaks down into numbers and regular patterns that form predictable cycles. And the sooner children can inherently grasp these patterns, the more confident and comfortable they will be with the ...

Recommended for you

Study: Samsung phone durable, but iPhone has edge

Apr 14, 2014

Samsung's new Galaxy S5 smartphone is more durable than last year's model and other leading Android phones, but the iPhone 5s outperformed all of them in part because of its smaller size, a new study finds.

Invention loves collaboration at Milan show

Apr 14, 2014

Collaboration drove invention during Milan's annual International Furniture Show and collateral design week events, yielding the promise of homes without mobile phone chargers, and with more ergonomic seating, ...

Amazon 'to release smartphone later this year'

Apr 12, 2014

Amazon is preparing to release a smartphone in the second half of 2014, thrusting itself into a market already crowded with Apple and Samsung models, The Wall Street Journal reported.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

( —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.

Wireless industry makes anti-theft commitment

A trade group for wireless providers said Tuesday that the biggest mobile device manufacturers and carriers will soon put anti-theft tools on the gadgets to try to deter rampant smartphone theft.

Making 'bucky-balls' in spin-out's sights

( —A new Oxford spin-out firm is targeting the difficult challenge of manufacturing fullerenes, known as 'bucky-balls' because of their spherical shape, a type of carbon nanomaterial which, like ...

Gene removal could have implications beyond plant science

( —For thousands of years humans have been tinkering with plant genetics, even when they didn't realize that is what they were doing, in an effort to make stronger, healthier crops that endured climates better, ...