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November 23, 2022  |  Baby & Kids

Best STEM toys for toddlers from our baby and child expert

From shaking a rattle to using a toothbrush to comb a doll’s hair, babies and toddlers engage in STEM learning before they can say complete sentences. However, these skills need to be continually developed as a child gets older, and one of the best ways to encourage STEM learning is through play. 

BestReviews baby and child expert, Aimee Ketchum, is a pediatric occupational therapist and assistant professor of early childhood development who is passionate about creating the next generation of innovators and problem solvers. We asked her to recommend the best STEM toys for toddlers that will make perfect presents for your little one.

In this article: Lego Duplo My First Number Train, Magna-Tiles Arctic Animals and Learning Resources Pretend and Play Cash Register.

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Unfortunately, there is very little focus on STEM as a whole for children in school, even though the foundation is established at a young age. “Some studies show that if STEM is not fostered by third grade, a child’s interest in STEM can be lost forever,” Ketchum said.

Luckily, according to Ketchum, encouraging STEM learning in toddlers isn’t difficult.

“STEM for babies and toddlers is simply fostering their natural curiosity and wonder and encouraging them to explore their world," she said. "When children categorize objects, find simple patterns and count out beats in music, that is early math. When children show an interest in the world, make guesses about how things work, then test their guesses, that is early science. When children build structures out of construction materials, that is early engineering.”

STEM toys and kindergarten readiness

An early introduction to STEM leads to kindergarten readiness because it lays a foundation in skills such as categorizing, matching, finding patterns, measuring, finding volume and identifying numbers. “STEM toys can also help children learn cognitive skills and critical thinking, spatial skills, creativity, imagination and innovation," Ketchum said.

What to consider when choosing STEM toys

When searching for STEM toys, you may be surprised that many popular toys or items you own are among them. “A STEM toy is anything that activates the part of a child’s brain for critical thinking or figuring out a problem," Ketchum said. "For example, Legos and Magna-Tiles are great toys for early STEM, as they both require engineering skills through building and putting the pieces together.” 

However, Ketchum advises parents to ensure that toys are age-appropriate and do not contain choking hazards, such as small, dangerous parts. She also cautions against electronic toys that take the place of human interactions and screens since the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend screen time for young children.

"Early STEM is much simpler than people think and does not have to involve computers," Ketchum said. "Technology does not mean screens. It means using tools to solve a problem."

Best STEM toys for toddlers

Lego Duplo My First Number Train

Introduce toddlers to numbers while also teaching them to think critically with this Lego train. With 23 pieces, kids can use their creativity to build a variety of designs while improving their fine motor skills. It’s recommended for kids 18 months and up.

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Magna-Tiles Arctic Animals

From creative thinking to stacking skills to imagination development, Magna-Tiles are a simple yet effective toy to encourage STEM learning. The durable, magnetic tiles are designed with safety in mind, which is made evident by the reinforced internal structure and material that's free of potentially harmful bisphenol A and phthalates. Plus, this is the only set that includes the lovable arctic animal pieces.

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Learning Resources Pretend and Play Cash Register

With this classic play cash register, kids will learn valuable skills while having a blast. The register is solar-powered and comes with 30 lifelike bills, 40 coins and a credit card. When toddlers play store, they also learn math skills and how to count money.

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STEM Master Building Toys

Older toddlers will have fun pushing, squeezing and snapping pieces together to create anything their minds imagine. This set promotes problem-solving, teamwork, creativity and more. It includes 176 pieces and an idea guide with 42 amazing designs, including both beginner and advanced structures.

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Kidtastic Dinosaur Construct and Play

Dinosaur enthusiasts will have a blast using tools to put together and deconstruct their favorite animal. This kit has 106 pieces that little minds can use to engineer a complete Tyrannosaurus rex, Alamosaurus and Triceratops. With this dinosaur kit, the learning opportunities are endless.

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Educational Insights GeoSafari Jr. Kidnoculars

You can get toddlers curious and excited about their world with these kid-sized binoculars that are focus-free and feature comfortable eyepieces for little faces. Binoculars can spark a child’s imagination and let them get up close to nature and learn about their environment.

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Melissa & Doug Wooden Building Blocks Set

While blocks seem simple, it’s often the basic toys that let toddlers use their imaginations to its fullest. This set comes with 100 wooden blocks in nine shapes and four colors that are ideal for a variety of ages. Playing with blocks promotes fine motor skills, spatial awareness and coordination.

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Insta-Snow Powder

Ketchum recommends this as an excellent STEM toy since it provides a great opportunity to talk about how to change matter, make predictions and record results. Within seconds of adding water, it erupts into a fluffy, snow-like material that expands up to 100 times its original size.

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Learning Resources Code and Go Robot Mouse Activity Set

Introduce early coding concepts without using a screen with this activity set. It has 83 pieces that let kids build their own maze that the included mouse can navigate. This coding toy teaches analytical thinking, problem-solving, sequencing and more.

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Cenove Flower Garden Building Set

This pretend flower garden is made with nontoxic, BPA-free and eco-friendly materials. In addition to teaching toddlers about the parts of a plant, it encourages hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Plus, all parts are dishwasher-safe and come in a convenient carrying box.

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Bre Richey writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.