Top gifts for aspiring scientists

Beyond the Bunsen burner and microscope: Mind-blowing fun for inquisitive kids of all ages.

By GreatSchools Staff

What's hot in gizmos, gadgets, and games

Want to raise a little scientist? We searched for the latest and greatest science toys and games that have parents raving and children learning on their own initiative. These toys, books, DVDs, video games, and kits will get kids hooked on learning — and keep ’em engaged with the joys of scientific discovery.

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.

Ant-o-Sphere

Ages: 6-8

A science toy that requires kids to design and build an ecosystem for an ant colony, then trap several dozen live ants and their pupa, isn’t for faint-of-heart, hands-off parents. But if you are willing to invest the time, this is no ordinary toy.

Designed by former entomologist Peter Smith, Ant-o-Sphere from Wild Science offers a flexible kit of multiple pods in transparent red and clear plastic, connected by tubes that mimic ant colonies in nature. This toy encourages real scientific learning. Kids can test, observe, and draw conclusions —  important skills typically absent in project-oriented science toys, where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. For instance, the kit encourages kids to create their own pod design and see how it changes ant behavior. By the same token, children can learn about the eating habits of ants by offering them different kinds of food.

Bottom line: Bring science to life with this interactive and engaging kit.

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.

Why?

by Catherine Ripley, illustrated by Scot Ritchie, Maple Tree Press (2004)
ages 5 and up, $20

This book is an excellent resource for any classroom, school, or home library. Colorful illustrations accompany the fun and informative text, which is broken into bite-size categories such as "Bath-time Questions" (for example, why do my fingers get so wrinkled in the tub?) and "Kitchen Questions" (why do onions make you cry?).

Bottom line: The title sums it up: Why? The Best Ever Question and Answer Book About Nature, Science and the World Around You.

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.

The Nature Treasury: A First Look at the Natural World

by Lizann Flatt, Maple Tree Press (2005)
ages 6 and up

Answering your youngster's questions about plants, animals, water, and just about anything else having to do with nature is easy with this reference book in hand. Broken up into 22 sections, The Nature Treasury covers topics like "How animals grow", "Soil up close," and "What animals eat." With double-page spreads depicting ecosystems ranging from savannas to tundras, this book will have kids searching the panoramas for the animals that live there. Large labeled ovals with the animals superimposed on them act as guides, so children can scan the scenes to find where the sea stars are hiding in the coral reef or the sidewinder in the desert. Children will be enchanted by the lush illustrations.

Bottom line: A great go-to book for curious kids — and parents who don't know all the answers!

Life in the Undergrowth

Ages 9 and up, $35

Every kid needs a little David Attenborough in his or her life, but for budding entomologists, this five-part BBC series of DVDs is indispensable. The famed broadcaster and naturalist makes for an inspiring and entertaining guide, as fascinating gnat-size dramas unfold across your TV screen. The macrophotography is stunning — you'll never look at your garden the same again.

Bottom line: Life in the Undergrowth will change how you see insects — literally.

Weird Slime Laboratory

Ages 8-10, $16.99

You might think that a toy with "weird slime" in its name would only appeal to boys who can't get enough of gross 'n' gooey things (or Nickelodeon for that matter). Wrong! Our intrepid girl tester not only listed "gross stuff" as one of her interests but also gave Wild Science's Weird Slime Laboratory a rating of "super cool."

And for good reason: The Weird Slime Lab comes with eight hands-on activities (like how to make green jelly worms), each of which builds on skills learned in the previous one. But what could a kid possibly learn from a DIY slime kit? Why none other than lessons on the properties of matter, hydrated crystals, and how to control different polymers and catalyst reactions. And you thought those were merely green jelly worms.

Bottom line: It's gross, gooey, and a great way to introduce kids to chemistry.

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.

Going Green Science Kit

Ages 7-10, $19.95

Green science is flourishing, and it’s calling out to budding scientists. The beloved Magic School Bus series has been creating quality science-related products for years, and Going Green Science Kitis one of its best. Young scientists can recycle and make new paper, build a tiny compost pile, make Styrofoam packing cubes magically disappear, and watch decomposition using fungus. This affordable kit is certain to spark interest in future scientific endeavors integrated with global concerns.

Bottom line: Kids will see that recycling works and gain hands-on experience with the cycle of life.
 

My First Lab Duo-Scope

Ages 9 and up, $80

Every young techie requires a microscope at some point — the only question is, which to get? There are certainly better ones out there, but for the price, My First Lab Duo-Scope gets high marks. Its dual LED illumination means kids can look at slide specimens as well as solid objects (hello, worm guts!). Up to 400x magnification.

Bottom line: A quality scope that will thrill young naturalists.

Natural Disasters

by Claire Watts and Trevor Day, DK Publishing (2006)
ages 8 and up, $16

Part of the Eyewitness Books series, Natural Disasters covers a wide variety of natural disasters, from earthquakes to epidemics. Written in plain language and illustrated with spectacular photos and diagrams, it contains a wealth of valuable information, including a historical timeline of major disasters, a glossary, and a list of Web and real-world resources (natural history and science museums) for additional research.

Bottom line: The striking visuals will draw even science-shy kids into the thrall of nature.

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.

Trauma Center: Second Opinion

Wii
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.

Hydrodynamic Starter Set

Ages 10 and up, $50

Hydrodynamic Starter Set gets your kid's hands wet in the woefully underexplored world of siphons, pipes, valves, and pumps. Comes with parts for building a variety of structures, from toothpaste factory to manufacturing plant. In each, the water flows from one area to another, delivering a hands-on lesson in hydropower and making for a much livelier construction project than your average set of blocks allows.

Bottom line: Kids will learn about water with this inventive kit.

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.