You could buy your kids a meagerly stocked science kit, or you could create your own brainy toys at home using basic and affordable items from your local grocery store. The following STEM toys and experiments will keep your kids thinking for hours.
Why STEM is important
STEM is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering, mathematics." With too few college students pursuing degrees in these fields, STEM-related programs have become a priority. The economy needs to develop more STEM-related experts; data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows these fields have the potential to offer millions of job opportunities over the next decade.
STEM activities — in or out of the classroom — build critical thinkers, problem solvers, and encourage innovation. Unknown worlds are opened to children through STEM projects. When kids realize that the experiments they're doing for fun are the foundation of adult job skills, the future becomes brighter, they realize their interests can be their livelihood, and that these fields rely on each other for growth.
Teach through hands-on science experiments
STEM education isn't just for the big kids. Preschool and elementary school students benefit greatly from STEM play. “This is such an important age! It is when kids learn to observe, discover, experiment, and make their own conclusions about the world we live in," says Victoria Lioznyansky, owner of Nutty Scientists of Houston. Simply put: practical, hands-on activities help kids learn. One great example that embodies all of this is- making fluffy slime.
Super Fluffy Slime
Slime is an excellent STEM project, offering an opportunity to experiment with ingredients and quantities to see how the final results change. Explore the properties of slime to see how far it can stretch before it breaks or test its level of stickiness by trying to pick up objects with the slime. Compare the properties of slime to other consistencies, like that of oobleck. Or grab a magnifying glass and examine the substance up-close-and-personal.
- School glue
- Shaving cream
- Shampoo (choose a scent you like!)
- Food coloring
- Use a funnel to add 1 cup of warm water and 1 teaspoon of borax to a water bottle. Shake well.
- Pour contents of a 4-oz bottle of school glue into a bowl.
- Add 1/2 cup of shaving cream to glue and mix well.
- Add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch to the bowl and mix well.
- Add 1 tablespoon of shampoo and mix well.
- Add a few drops of food coloring to the bowl and mix well.
- Add 3 ½ to 4 tablespoons of borax solution from the bottle in the first step and mix well until the substance no longer feels liquid.
- Add lotion (a few squeezes) to the substance to make it stretchy and knead with your hands.
- Super fluffy slime is done! Keep it in a zip lock bag, and it will last for a very long time.
Engineer new construction
“Some of the best STEM activities present a problem that has an almost unlimited number of solutions. This kind of open-ended task encourages deep thinking which, in turn, leads a student to become an independent learner," says Jonathan Polley, a science teacher and owner of Make Science Easy. “Of course, the best STEM activities – to students of any age – are also fun and inspire an interest in the sciences." Two simple ingredients make engineering a blast in the following project.
The Spaghetti Tower Challenge
- Uncooked spaghetti
- Collect 50g of uncooked spaghetti and about 10 marshmallows.
- Using only these materials, construct the tallest tower you can that does not fall when you let go.
- For competitive kids, add a time limit to make this a harder challenge. “It is possible to build something over 20 feet tall, but most people will struggle with anything over 4 feet," says Polley.
Recreate nature from root to tip
You've probably had a discussion or two with your children about how plants grow. Provide excellent visual evidence of the way soil provides nourishment for flowers and vegetables. The following experiment – easy for toddlers to help with – shows how plants absorb water and nutrients.
Rainbow Roses and Colorful Cabbage
- Cabbage leaves (or celery, or a flower)
- Food coloring
- Clear glass jars or cups (or Ziploc bags)
- Fill your container about half full of water.
- Add 10 drops of food coloring (or enough to make the water look vibrant). Add a separate cabbage leaf to each container.Allow to sit overnight.
- Ask your child to make predictions about what they think will happen. Young researchers can then observe the progress of the leaves changing color and make notes or draw pictures to represent the sequencing and timing of the experiment.
- To truly wow kids, slice the stem of a rose into four sections and soak each part in a separate Ziploc bag of food coloring and water. In the morning: rainbow roses!
Create natural and beautiful disasters
Even if you don't like the idea of your child becoming a storm chaser, there is no changing their interest in science. Nurture the passion! Create miniature weather with this water vortex project. Hard to top the cuteness of a child saying, “centripetal force."
Tornado in a Bottle
- Clear plastic bottle with a tightly sealed cap
- Dishwashing liquid
- Pour water in the bottle until it's about three-quarters full.
- Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid.
- Sprinkle in a little glitter to make the tornado easier to see.
- Cap the bottle tightly.
- Turn the bottle upside down, hold it by the neck, and quickly spin in a circular motion. Stop after a few seconds and look inside for a mini tornado.
STEM Comes Full Circle
Any of these projects can be dissected or augmented digitally for the tech-inspired young minds in your midst. Kids who are extremely interested in taking their STEM interests further can access databases like SciStarter. Their “citizen science" projects offer older students and adults hundreds of opportunities to help real scientists collect research data. “No matter what career one ends up pursuing, it's important to be able to distinguish facts from opinions and make evidence-based decisions," says Rebecca Fuoco with the March for Science Los Angeles.In other words, give your iPad-happy child access to programming or app-building tools. Figure out how to incorporate other STEM elements into their focus to represent the value of both offline and online work. From hands-on experiences in the kitchen to design by tablet, it's all in the name of STEM learning.