Best STEM toys ages 3 to 5

Created for young learners, 2011 Golden Apple Awards winners masterfully lay a (fun) foundation for science, math, and technology.

By GreatSchools Staff

Citiblocs (Cool and Hot Color Set)

Appeals to ages: 3-100

What it teaches: structural engineering basics, pattern recognition, cause-and-effect, collaboration, problem-solving, creative thinking, small-motor skills

Those of us who study learning know blocks are one of those toys that pack an evidence-based punch. (Block play is associated with later math competence, among other academic gains.) But Citiblocs’ multi-colored wood blocks surprised even us with their universal popularity. All the kids (and truth be told, adults) loved these colorful reinventions of a toy that is so deceptively simple, irresistible, and age-proof. (So much so that two sister testers battled over who got to keep her set: 7-year-old sister: “They’re mine. My sister can only play with them if she asks.” 11-year-old sister: “But that’s not fair. I love them, too!”)

All 100 of the precision-cut blocks are identically shaped – narrow rectangles (4.5 x.75 x.25) that scream “build, create, collaborate!” For our younger testers, this toy had staying power: They played for long periods of concentrated time to construct things they were proud of. Our older testers worked in teams to create building games, intricately shaped towers, and domino-effect boobie traps.

For the browsing adult, some of the other block brands with multifarious shapes may seem more “fun,” but the simplicity of Citiblocs are really their secret to success. They are similar to two other precision-cut brands — Kapla and Keva Planks — but more affordable. Finally, the cool and hot color schemes – one with natural wood mixed with blues and greens, the other with reds and yellow – are so stylin’ that you’ll be less likely to be annoyed when your child allows them to take over the living room.

Bottom line: Blockbuster STEM learning in an old-fashioned classic form.

Where to buy it: Citiblocs 

My First Lego Set

Appeals to ages 3-7

What it teaches: building, constructing, following instructions, small-motor skills

Legos are timeless and you'd be hard-pressed to find a kid who’s not interested in playing with them. This particular set is a perfect gateway set for younger children who might be overwhelmed by a larger, more complex one (with even more than the 200+ parts in this one).

Our youngest tester needed pretty constant adult guidance as she strove to build a village, but luckily this toy comes with instructions for quick-gratification constructions like two-pieces flowers and a five-piece cat. When they feel ready, pint-sized builders can progress to more complex construction projects, such as the house and windmill. Finally, when they really get the hang of it, free-form building ensues — and this wondrous motor-skill-and-imagination combo can captivate even wee ones for up to 30 minutes.

Bottom line: The Danish toy company’s name says it all: “Lego” is based on the Danish phrase meaning “play well.”

Where to buy it: My First Lego Set

Kaleido Gears

Appeals to ages: 3-6

Kaleido Gears teaches: small-motor skills, fluid intelligence, engineering fundamentals, about interconnected parts

Little hands need activities that satisfy the need to move and think simultaneously. Gears is a toy that helps kids do both, while still seeming like a real toy — not a piece of curriculum. Its bright gears fit together in any number of ways to allow kids to explore how interconnected parts can create different effects. For children who are obsessed with mechanical and transportation toys, this one allows for a close-up look at how gears and wheels work in an open ended, playful way. For the visual child, the multi-colored parts can inspire mini-design projects about how colors fit and mesh together.

Some parents were concerned that the small pieces holding gears in place  might be choking hazards for children under age 3, so Gears requires some parental supervision. Still, the toy engaged our little testers and inspired a lot of curious, quiet play, something many parents will welcome!

Bottom line: A hands-on STEM toy that helps with fine-motor skills and interactive mechanical exploration.