Top gizmos for wee techies

The past decade or so has witnessed an explosion of creativity in the toys-for-techies arena. Where budding geeks once had to limit themselves to model rockets and ham radios, there now exist countless do-it-yourself kits, introductions to a particular field of science, and just-plain-neat gadgets to tinker with. We welcome this era and are happy to highlight a few particularly nifty toys, projects, and doodads.

By Chris Colin

Snap Circuits SC-300

Snap Circuits SC-300
Ages 8 to 14, $60

Even the name is geeky. This award-winning introduction to electronics is essentially a naked circuit board, set up for more than 300 fun projects. Kids can wire their own doorbell, speaker, fan motor, burglar alarm, and AM radio, just by snapping the components together on a simple plastic grid.

The bottom line: An adapatable circuit board for kids.

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.

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.

Solar-Powered Seagull

Solar-Powered Seagull
Ages 10 and up, $14

Having mastered water power, your kid may as well foray into solar power ... and bird life. This simple and inexpensive introduction to the topic is more of a stocking stuffer than a full-on project, but it's neat nonetheless: The builder constructs a lifelike seagull model from the included parts, suction-cups it to the floor, and watches as the sun's rays cause the wings to flap in place. Remember those perpetual motion balls from the '80s? Think of this as the updated sea bird version.

The bottom line: See the sun's energy at work with this high-tech seagull.

Lego Creator

Lego Creator: Fiery Legend (Dragon)
Ages 7 to 12, $40

Somehow Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and Erector Sets didn't quite stand the test of time, however fondly we parents recall them. But Legos have managed to evolve and grow with the ages. When it comes to building other worlds — perhaps the essence of proud geekdom — it's hard to beat this endlessly entertaining classic. From transport ferries to triceratops, an ever-growing array of creator kits is available.

The bottom line: With a light-up brick for its flaming breath, this Lego beast is ferociously fun.

Perfume Science

Perfume Science

Perfume Science
Ages 10 and up, $60

How much did you spend on that last bottle of Eternity for Women? From now on, let your child make your own perfume for you. This mini-laboratory lets kids design their own signature scents, while delivering a primer on the biology and chemistry of scents. Comes with 20 experiments and activities all together.

The bottom line: L'amour, le scents, le sigh.


Ages 8 and up, $60

We like gizmos that kids actually have a hand in creating. But sometimes it's fun to play with someone else's creation, especially when it's the kind that might take over the planet one day. The Robosapien is a pintsize, remote-controlled robot capable of executing 67 functions, from dancing to kicking, rapping to walking, and picking things up to throwing them. Eerily human and fun for kids to learn to control. At least until it learns to control us.

The bottom line: Robosapien's a remote-controlled robot who's got the moves.

Basswood Bridge Building Contest Kit

Basswood Bridge Building Contest Kit
Ages 10 and up, $90

What is it about techies and building bridges? This kit contains materials and plans for 10 bridges, each a lesson in physics, engineering, and spanning the distance from the couch to the coffee table. Developed through a partnership with Brookhaven National Laboratory, so its bona fides are in order.

Magformers Building Set

Magformers Building Set
Ages 5 to 9, $35

Geometry plus powerful magnets for an early builder. This combination of squares and triangles — each embedded with strong magnets — lets kids create their own shapes without requiring the dexterity of more-advanced building sets. Endlessly rearrangeable.

The bottom line: A geometry-based toy for your child's inner architect.

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.

Chris Colin is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and writes the "On the Job" column for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as stories for the New York Times, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and GOOD magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter.