Mad Scientist

Top science gifts for the curious kid

By GreatSchools Staff

Your junior wizard

is motivated by the same goal as Albert Einstein and Madame Curie: to unlock the very secrets of the universe. Fervent curiosity and never-ending sense of wonder make your child question just about everything: "Do butterflies sleep?" "What happens when I mix ketchup, eggs, baking powder, vinegar, and pickle juice together?" "What existed before the beginning of the universe?" Happiness is an afternoon brewing up a potion, taking a magnifying glass to the garden, or building a rocket ship out of a cardboard box. Our list of 19 science-minded gifts will take your worldly wonderer to infinity… and beyond.


By Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Maria Frazee

Ages: 3 and up

This sweet ode to stars begins and ends with the night sky. In between, Stars explores all sorts of other places where stars can be found, both literally and figuratively: on pajamas or school papers; in snowflakes or the flowers in a pumpkin patch. A star can transform a stick into a magic wand or a kid into a sheriff. Ray’s simple prose and Frazee’s playful illustrations combine to create a lovely stream-of-consciousness feel that encourages a child's mind to wander and wonder.

Bottom line: Reading with your child is sure to spark conversation and inspire star-related crafts and a star hunt of your own.

Butterfly Garden box

Live Butterfly Garden

Ages 4 and up

How many toys come with a mail-in voucher for larvae? Not enough, in our opinion. The award-winning Live Butterfly Garden kit includes an easily assembled mesh habitat and feeding supplies (bring your own sugar and water). Once the larvae arrive in the mail, your child will have a front-row seat over the next three weeks as they grow, form chrysalides, and finally become beautiful painted lady butterflies — which should then be released. An excellent and memorable intro to biology.

Bottom line: Raising butterflies encourages curiosity and wonder.

On Earth

by G. Brian Karas, Putnam (2008)
ages 5-8

With minimal text and colorful pictures, On Earth offers children "a giant ride in space/spinning like a merry-go-round" as it explains the earth's daily and yearly cycles. Kids get a rudimentary explanation of the planet's orbit, rotation, and tilt; gravity; why we have seasons; and what happens as day turns into night. Vocabulary is simple for early readers, but some adult explanation of complex scientific concepts may be necessary.

Bottom line: Kids will get a first glimpse of how their everyday observations are connected to the larger life of the planet.

Mind Blowing Science Kit

Ages 4-8

Winner of the Parents' Choice Approved Award and Dr. Toy’s One of the 10 Best Educational Products 2005 Award, Scientific Explorer's Mind Blowing Science Kit is the premier beginner science kit to motivate young children to pursue the wonder of chemistry. Kids can make color-changing grapes, giant giggly crystals, and an underwater volcano while measuring ingredients, mixing solutions, making predictions, and learning new vocabulary. For the price, it’s an unbeatable intro to a scientific career.

Bottom line: Hours of engagement for younger kids, and low stress for parents.

ScienceWiz Books and Kits

Ages 5-10

Give a young techie a science project, and he'll be entertained for a day. Give him a whole kit, and he'll putter happily in his room for the next two years. ScienceWiz Books and Kits let you pick from a number of subjects, from magnetism to electricity to DNA to light. Each comes with a full color book, a goodly collection of activities, and all the parts your child will need to complete them.

Bottom line: Science lessons that last.

Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Inventions You Can Build Yourself

by Maxine Anderson, Nomad Press (2006)
ages 11 and up

Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Inventions You Can Build Yourself begins with an introduction to the Renaissance and a biography of da Vinci, including excerpts from his notebooks and reproductions of his drawings. But the main attraction is the step-by-step instructions for making 19 of da Vinci's inventions, including a perspectograph, a camera obscura, a hydrometer, invisible ink, walk-on-water shoes, and miniature versions of his helicopter and tank. Adult supervision is recommended where appropriate.

Bottom line: DIY kids will love this book. Parents will love what they're learning.

Zoomy Digital Microscope

Ages: 5-15

Microscopes are an awesome tool for scientific discovery – no matter your age – but cheaper versions made for kids can be arduous to use. Little kids often have trouble coordinating the focusing of the lenses and seeing through a tiny aperture. But the Zoomy Handheld Digital Microscope projects its images onto a computer screen, thereby allowing kids to explore micro realities via a large image that’s easy to see, share, and discuss. Want a close-up-and-personal look at fingerprints? Cool. Dust bunnies? Yeah. Housefly wings? The flies the limit.

Bottom line: A tool that offers kids a way to explore an otherwise inaccessible world that’s right under their fingertips.


Klutz Guide to the Galaxy

Ages: 6 and up

The Klutz Guide to the Galaxy teaches: astronomy, cosmology, navigation, hands-on learning

This simply elegant learning kit from the ingenious Klutz team packs a world of learning into one tidy box that includes a telescope, sundial, night-sight flashlight, star and moon maps, and scores of activities. Constructed out of stiff paper and simple lenses, the telescope is fairly easy for a child to assemble (although kids may need some adult help) and get working. The sundial is also a cinch to assemble and to use — no batteries required. Our kid testers enjoyed assembling the telescope and the sun dial, and figuring out exactly how they worked and why.

The kit also includes a Lunatic Wheel for Moon Gazers, a Galactic Passport your child can use to record the phases of the moon and constellations, easy-to-use star maps, and a plethora of fascinating facts about the sun, moon, and planets.

Bottom line: Everything to launch your child into a hands-on galactic adventure.

Kitchen Science

Ages: 6-11

Kitchen Science teaches: early chemistry, math (measurement), cause and effect

What do you do with a fork, tomato, and lightbulb? This is no joke — it's a science experiment!

Aspiring Madame Curies and Dmitri Mendeleevs (not a science history buff? Mendeleev developed the first periodic table) will unleash magic and mystery with this science-in-a-box that incites kids to muck up the kitchen, all in the name of chemistry.

Along with creating electricity (see above: tomato, fork, and lightbulb), your young chemist can claim that she is, in fact, a rocket scientist after launching her own rocket. Unlike some DIY junior science kits, this one is smartly put together: its creators understand what an elementary schooler actually can do and wants to do. However, like most science kits, parents must provide plenty of ingredients — and of course be on hand to oversee measuring and to make sure the science lab, a.k.a kitchen, doesn't end up a complete disaster zone.

Bottom line: Pure amusement, with plenty of learning tucked into every experiment.

Perfect Perfume Laboratory

Ages 7-12

This mini-chemistry set by Wild Science offers a glimpse into the science of scents. The Perfect Perfume Laboratory comes with ready-made essential oils that need to be filtered and processed to be made into perfume, but it also explains how kids can use the simple science tools to explore other natural scents from herbs and flower petals. The kit includes such guaranteed-to-please projects as scented slime and crystals.

The kit is mostly a hands-on science lesson in using simple scientific instruments and techniques to play with changing forms of matter, rather than an explicit lesson on scientific principles. But this limitation is easily remedied: The downloadable Teachers Notes: Perfume Laboratory exponentially ups the learning ante by offering a step-by-step process for kids to create new scents, record the results, survey others about the scents, and draw conclusions.

Bottom line: This DIY perfume kit smells like tween learning.

Sustainable Earth Lab

Ages: 8-13

Having trouble explaining to your child why the world is getting warm and sea levels are rising? Do you know how CO2 affects the atmosphere? It may be daunting, but our children need to know the fundamentals of climate science so that they can be smart stewards of a rapidly changing planet.

Conversations about the dangers of global warming may not really end up teaching kids that much if they don’t understand the science behind the news. Sustainable Earth Lab, a multifaceted science kit, will go a long way toward making your child more knowledgeable about climate science than your average well-educated adult.

Bottom line: A great way for kids to learn climate science principles, laboratory practices, and earth science fundamentals

Wild Science Future Farm

Ages: 9 and up

Future Farm provides everything your future farmer needs to build her own mini garden: tweezers and pipettes, mask and gloves, sand and water purification supplies — all you need to buy are the seeds. The kit teaches the science of hydroponics – the plants are cultivated without soil — as well as lessons on growing, feeding, watering, and propagating plants.

We have a single caveat: The kit, which smartly conveys lessons about caring for the earth, is made almost entirely of plastic, which sends a confusing message about environmental stewardship.

Bottom line: Your child can grow a cornucopia of miniature crops, right in her bedroom!


Chemistry Kit CHEM C1000

Ages 10 and up

Build a solid foundation in chemistry for your preteen with 75 experiments designed to provoke rigorous scientific thinking. Each fun experiment reveals underlying principles of chemistry using professional equipment. Build a mini fire extinguisher, cause water to flow uphill, and propel a boat powered by soap. Kids can perform chemistry magic tricks, then enlighten their audience with scientific explanations. CHEM C1000 is a classroom in a box.

Bottom line: Practical chemistry knowledge that'll last a lifetime.

ReCon Programmable Rover

Ages: 9-13

ReCon Programmable Rover teaches: introduction to computer programming

Lurking inside the brains of all science-fiction-loving children, there’s an overwhelming desire for their very own robot that’ll do whatever their young masters command: telling pesky younger siblings to stay out of their bedroom, delivering a hand-written note, and even taking out the trash.

Aside from doing chores, this mighty little toy will make a robot-obsessed child's dreams come true. Kids can program this big-as-a-breadbox robot to walk and turn, talk, and deliver small items. Big fun! One tween tester, enthralled with the toy, spent many quiet hours getting Rover to do his bidding. He was disappointed, though, that there weren't more fun features "like a hidden camera." As well, he bemoaned that the programming instructions weren't more detailed.

On that note, parents, consider yourself warned: unless you have a mini in-house Bill Gates, you may be spending a lot of time figuring out how to get Rover to walk the robot walk and talk the robot talk.

Bottom line: A nice starter robot for science-fiction and computer-science lovin' kids.

Astronomy: Out of this World!

Astronomy: Out of this World!
by Simon Basher and Dan Green
Kingfisher (2009)

Part of a highly original series, Astronomy features eye-popping illustrations in the style of Japanese animation. In Simon Basher's world, the planets talk about themselves, offering facts, statistics, and boasts — and a little bit of whimsy. Basher's books make learning science fun.

Physics: Why Matter Matters!

Physics: Why Matter Matters!
by Simon Basher and Dan Green
Kingfisher (2008)

With a new spin on a taxing subject, the authors group concepts into accessible topics: "Old School," "Hot Stuff," "Wave Gang," "Light Crew," "Atom Family," "Nuclear Heavies," and "Electric Cuties." This book covers everything from gravity to the theory of relativity. As with the others in this series, the writing is lively and not afraid to get weird.

The Periodic Table: Elements With Style!

The Periodic Table: Elements With Style!
by Simon Basher and Dan Green
Kingfisher (2007)

Learn about the elements with The Periodic Table, which zeroes in on 64 elements and presents their relevant data in creative, punchy prose. "I may be undersized, but don't underestimate me," says Hydrogen. This book makes a great reference, with all the information your child would want to know about these elements — everything from density to melting point. It's also a great way to spark your children's curiosity about chemistry.

Mercury Hg

Ages: Middle School and up

Who knew the periodic table of the elements could make for such obsessive fun? Set in a surreal, 3D version of the periodic table, Mercury Hg PS3 or Xbox 360 invites you to wind your way through mazes as you add element after element until completing the table. In truth, the periodic table is there to create a science-y feel to what is simply a fun, challenging, arcade puzzle game where a blob of mercury is your playing piece and you rotate a constantly changing periodic table to slide the blob to the goal. It’s a challenge to keep your mercury from splitting apart and slipping off the table into oblivion. Some levels require you to split your blob of mercury into pieces, change its color, and recombine it to create a new color. Your child may not memorize the entire periodic chart after hours of play, but at the least will have a great time playing around with the elements.

Bottom line: An unbelievable value for game play that makes science spirited fun.

Trauma Center: Second Opinion

Ages 13 and up

For teens desperate for gore, this Japanese simulation game lets them wield their own blade — not to mention forceps, syringe, bandages, and antibiotic gel. The task at hand is saving people, not hurting them. The gamer is an OR surgeon, charged with battling disease and sewing up injuries. Yes, there will be blood. But it's not the gratuitous kind. Actually, Trauma Center: Second Opinion overflows with the kind that might lead your kid to med school one day.

Bottom line: Teens can immerse themselves in the grit of medicine.