Kids develop better through exploration than flash cards or instruction… so how can we set the stage? Putting the right engineering toys in their path and stepping back can be the best way to go.
Yesterday, I presented two suggestive experiments making the case for unstructured exploration over direct instruction or modeling. While not definitive on their own, the body of modern educational research backs the conclusion that children will behave much more like proto-engineers if allowed to play, explore, and experiment. (To dive further into the academic state of play on early childhood education, NAEYC is a great place to start.)
Cultivating your young engineer starts off as a very hands-off affair, but that doesn’t mean we’ve no control over the process. For good or ill, we determine the possibility space of a child’s play through several variables: structure, environment, and opportunity. This last can be understood, simply, as what we allow our kids to mess around with. Toys which encourage the exploration of basic engineering principles and the development of core competencies are definitely part of that.
Today, we’ll suggest two engineering toys for each of the three main age brackets: preschool, grade school, and teens. They might not be the perfect toys for your particular young ones – kids are people and people vary – but they’re solid choices for parents hoping to raise the next crop of engineers.
(Note: We’ll link to pages with the best description or imagery, as opposed to the best price or reputation in business. Due diligence and comparison shopping is advised.)
Preschool: Ages 3 to 5
An interesting building block variant, something of an intermediate step between cardboard bricks and Lego-style blocks. Dado cubes can nest, hang from each other, or stack directly, letting kids play with concepts of structure, proportion and balance more broadly than with classic blocks.
There’s as much controversy as acclaim surrounding the GoldieBlox toys, but one thing is pretty clear: they’re great for getting kids to build and mess with simple machines. Featured here is the Spinning Machine, a functional belt drive.
Grade School Kids: Ages 6 to 12
Set kids free to mess with mechanical engineering in this friendly, modern variant on the Erector set. With offerings for all age groups – and a forthcoming robotics platform – Engino are simple enough for kids to get started immediately, while versatile enough for actual prototyping.
Engino offers a range of advanced mechanical engineering kits not featured on their main product page. Look around over here for a sampling. (And stay for the rest of the site – very cool stuff here.)
Little Labs Intro to Engineering
This introductory kit gives kids a ton of parts and twenty-five projects to mess with as they explore basic engineering principles. They learn by designing simple machines operating on basic forces, such as simple machines, pneumatics, and hydraulics, eventually working their way to electronic and chemical projects.
Teens: Ages 13 to 17
No list of cool engineering toys is complete without mentioning the Lego Mindstorm series. Their newest offerings – the EV3 – give kids the power to make and program Lego-based rovers, bipedal robots, and more.
Beyond robotics, I’ve found that Mindstorms are a great introduction to object-based programming. Kids ‘snap together’ code modules when programming their robots and literally watch their work execute.
For messing with electronics engineering basics, the SparkFun Inventor’s kit is fantastic. Built around the Arduino Uno microcontroller board (either the SMD or R3), the kit ships with a solder-free breadboard and components for twelve basic circuit types. Adding sensors, controls, servos, and motors allows your child to build actual, functional electronic inventions – moving from the toy to the prototyping stage.