Critical Thinking Toys For Toddlers

Have an older child who still loves playing with cars? Maybe it’s time for an upgrade to a toy moon rover. Or your daughter really digs magnetic puzzles—she might like to try her hand at solving tougher logic problems.

Honestly, maybe you just want an excuse to play with a funny little robot.

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of science- or tech-themed toys out there, fear not. A team of testers and engineering educators at Purdue University has done some of the heavy lifting for you.

At Purdue University’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering, Monica Cardella and Elizabeth Gajdzik plucked 10 stand-out gifts from a suite of more than 130 toys either submitted by toymakers and publishers for evaluation or requested by the researchers. After rigorous testing by dozens of kids, parents, college students and engineers, the group compiles an annual Engineering Gift Guide.

When they’re not testing toys for the guide, the institute’s researchers study how children learn about engineering concepts inside and outside of school, with the goal of helping kids of all interest increase their interest in engineering-related disciplines.

The institute’s researchers judge books, games, apps and toys not only on their fun factor, but also on how the products help develop “engineering thinking.” With the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting a sharp increase in jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, there is a critical need to get the next generation of students and workers ready to step into those roles. Intangibles like creativity, perseverance, learning from failure, and evaluating the effectiveness of a solution are necessary skills for those jobs, not to mention valuable for life outside of them. Even very young children benefit.

“There are toys for kids as young as one and a half that let them put pieces down and see a different reaction or result,” adds Gajdzik. “Little kids do realize those things happen, and make different choices the next time they play. That’s an example of computational thinking that helps them become better problem solvers.”

John Mendoza-Garcia, a recent Purdue doctoral graduate, was able to test out a variety of the lab’s toys at home with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. Even though he’s an engineering educator himself, he says the testing gave his family a deeper appreciation of the power of toys to shape valuable life skills.

“Engineering and science are disciplines that try to make people’s lives better,” Mendoza-Garcia says. “Toys like this help to shape that understanding. Plus, as someone who learns about how people learn, it was amazing how different that experience is when you play along with your kids.”

Ages 3+

Brackitz Pulleys 77 PIece Set Educational Construction Set - Learning Toys & Building Blocks for Kids

From the 77 pieces in this set, budding engineers can hoist up their Lego figurines in a homemade drawbridge, zip line or bucket escalator. Guided at first by an illustrated manual and some adult help, kids can go on to put together simple machines of their own design after getting comfortable with the mechanics of a pulley system. “Engineers have to get creative in their projects along with the math and applied science they use,” Gadjzik says, and adds that this toy is on the top of her own 4-year-old son’s wish list. (Brackitz, $39.99)

Gears! Gears! Gears! Space Explorers Building Set, 77 Pieces

Gajdzik and Cardella say the fact that Purdue claims 24 astronauts as alumni had no bearing on their recommendation of this toy, whose rotating planets may very well inspire cosmic curiosity in some of the kids who play with the crank-and-gear toy this holiday season. The endless variations for stacking and interlacing the chunky cogs encourages repeat play, all while building problem solving and design skills as you talk to your kids about the solar system and outer space. (Learning Resources, $39.99)

SmartGames Snow White

Though “preschooler” and “logic” may seem like odd bedfellows, Gajdzik and Cardella say Smart Games’ Snow White Deluxe puzzle game strikes the right balance between imaginative play and problem solving. With prompts from an illustrated story book and an instruction booklet with 48 challenges, kids employ logical reasoning and critical thinking to arrange the Seven Dwarves correctly to keep the Wicked Witch away from Snow White. And when they tire of the game, kids enjoy just playing with the set’s sturdy figurines. (Smart Games, $26.99)

Ages 5+

GeoSmart Moon Lander

Magnetic toys are another perennially popular category with the Purdue lab’s young testers. Easy to put together, take apart, and re-arrange into new configurations, magnetic toys readily foster creative design and intuitive play. GeoSmart’s Moon Lander adds a dash of robotics to the mix with a motor and remote control, giving kids the ability to put their vehicles through their paces. But they’ll need to think critically about how the various components work together and where to make connections to have the motor drive the rover. The “Mars Explorer” is a similar option, though at a slightly higher price point. (GeoSmart, $59.99)

Osmo Coding Jam Game (Base required)

In a crowded field of toys, games and apps intended to help kids learn the principles of computer coding, Gadjzik and Cardella say that Osmo’s new offering has drawn young testers in like the Pied Piper. By snapping together “coding” blocks that the game’s app reads and then translates into animated musical compositions, kid-users make music through programming. Though families do need an iPad or iPhone to run the app and play kids’ pop hit creations, this open-ended digital toy encourages creative thinking, spatial reasoning, critical evaluation and computational logic. “Kids may not know they’re interested in engineering until they know their interests can relate to engineering,” Cardella says. (Osmo, $59.99. Does not include base)

Learning Resources Playground Engineering & Design STEM Set, 104 Pieces

What kid doesn’t dream of building their own playground? Along with blanket forts and castle doodles, kids can use this kit to construct fantasy-land playgrounds, either from their own imagination or with help from one of the 20 challenge cards included with the 104-piece set. The included parent guide offers open-ended questions to get kids thinking about prototyping and refining their initial designs. The company offers several similar sets, but Gadjzik and Cardella say they liked this one best because slides, merry-go-rounds, swings, zip lines, bridges and see-saws appeal to kids everywhere. (Learning Resources, $24.99)

Ages 8+

E-Blox Circuit Builder 120 Building Set

What if your Legos could make a fan spin, or play a little tune? That’s the idea behind the 120 circuit-building projects kids can build with the bricks in this electronics learning toy—and they’re compatible with the aforementioned Danish bricks (and others.) Builders can also design their own circuits, creating linkages to light up blocks, or turn on a noisemaker to annoy their older sibling. Similar to Snap Circuits, Gadjzik says they appeal to kids because they’re a bit more intuitive to use, and can be used with other toys likely to already be in the household. (E-Blox, $44.99)

Clue Master Game

The blocky, pixelated dog on this puzzle-game’s packaging will draw in Minecraft enthusiasts, but the magnetic board game is completely unplugged. Players work to correctly arrange nine tokens on a grid by following an incomplete series of clues, and fill in the gaps, Sherlock-style, based on what they know must be true or false. Don’t be fooled by the game’s low price point: by following clues to the logical solution of each puzzle, kids develop valuable reasoning skills that are central to success in math, science and engineering. (ThinkFun, $9.99)

Coding Board Game: On The Brink

Developed with the help of NASA programmer Mark Engleberg, these board games teach computer coding techniques—without requiring hours in front of a screen. Players angle to “program” a path for the game’s robot to get it from start to finish, and each game includes 40 puzzles of increasing complexity. Beginning with the set’s entry-level game, On the Brink, players gain ever-more advanced programming skills by building on concepts and skills acquired by solving easier puzzles. “I’ve had undergraduates flip to the back of the puzzle book, thinking the starting puzzles would be too easy for them, but the entry points get you in the right mindset to solve the harder problems,” Gadjzik says. Rover Control and Robot Repair are the second and third games in the series, respectively. (ThinkFun, $14.99)

Best STEM Toy Overall

Cozmo (Old Packaging)

“Everyone from three-year-olds to university level students get excited about Cozmo,” says Gadjzik. While there are many coding toys and games that aim to get kids to move a robot from point A to point B, half of the fun of doing that job with Cozmo is the little robot’s attitude. A little bulldozer with shifty, expressive eyes, the bot reacts with glee or indignance as he wins or loses games, rolls past the resident cat or dog, or works with you to solve the daily challenges it puts forward. Gadjzik and Cardella say that hands down, Cozmo wins for fun—while also effectively teaching coding principles and problem solving. The downside is the somewhat hefty pricetag: this might be your big gift of the season. (Anki, $179.99)

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About Michelle Z. Donahue

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Learning toys do more than sit there and entertain—they stimulate and teach kids important skills like critical thinking, problem solving, logic and even coding. Learning toys—open-ended games, kits, toys and crafts—make for great Christmas gifts.

To help you get past the shock of realizing Christmas is fewer than six weeks away, here’s my list of the best learning toys. I love them because they’re fun but at the same time stimulate learning through creativity and mind-challenging play. I think the kids in your life are going to love them, too. Enjoy!

1. Sit-to-Stand Learning Walker.  This early learning center for babies who are not yet walking, is just adorable. It’s a clever toy that encourages and teaches a baby how to move from sitting to standing position and then walking, all the while encouraging interactive play. The learning walker has 70 sing-along song onboard, sound effects, and fun phrases. Meant for babies and toddlers from 9 months to 3 years. About $25.

2. Chat and Count Smartphone. There’s some kind of magnetic attraction between babies and mobile phones. Have you noticed this? Now you can separate little ones from your phone without stifling their curiosity by giving them their own smartphone! This adorable “phone” from the folks at LeapFrog mimicks the real thing with more than 15 phone activities, a music button to sing along to tunes about counting and phone manners. Skills to learn: numbers, pretend play, social interaction and conversational skills, as well. Ages 18 months to 3 years. About $12.

3. Pretend & Play Teaching Cash Register. This working register encourages imaginative play while teaching measurements, basic math and early money skills. Kids will easily learn currency denomination and have fun handling life-size money and this working cash register. Features a solar calculator, pretend credit card, play bills in various denominations as well as plastic coins and more. This realistic toy will give children endless hours of fun pretending, playing and developing math skills! Ages 3 and up. About $28.

4. Little Apps Tablet. This kid-size toy tablet keeps little ones busily learning for hours on end with its color-changing screen, letter buttons and piano keyboard. Includes 12 learning activites with progressive learning levels. Thankfully, it also features volume control and automatic shut-off to conserve on battery life. And if that’s not enough, check out just how adorable it is! Ages 2 years to 5 years. About $15.

5. KidiBeats Kids Drum Set. What a great toy to encourage a toddler to develop rhythm skills and an ear for music. But don’t worry—this is not a full-size set. It’s small—toddler size. It sits easily on the tray of a typical high chair. Toddlers can play along to nine different melodies in styles including rock, dance and pop; music toy teaches letters, numbers, and music. Has four modes of play: Free Play, Letters, Numbers, and Follow-Along. You won’t believe how much fun this is (for older kids and parents, too). Ages 2 years to 5 years. About $19.

6. Three Little Piggies. This game teaches early logic for preschoolers. The familiar theme makes learning fun. Three Little Piggies is a perfect brain game for young children. It features three big puzzle pieces that are easy to hold. Kids love the way the pigs fit inside the houses and look through the windows. The game includes a story book with images and a booklet with 48 challenges. Ages 3 years and up. About $25.

7. Farmers Market Color Sorting Set. Creates bushels of fun while developing color recognition and sorting skills. Includes 25 kinds of food in 5 different colors and 5 baskets. The challenge is to get all of the “produce” sorted by color into the baskets. This toy will also expand a child’s vocabulary by naming familiar favorites and learning new foods. Ages 3 years and up. About $23.

8. Shape-Mags. What kid doesn’t love magnets? And when the magnets are actually construction pieces, that’s gives the magnets a purpose. This set of Shape-Mags includes 30 pieces in a variety of shapes and colors. Provides for endless fun and serious building. Develops a child’s creativity, design and engineering skills. Ages 3 years and up. About $25.

9. Magformers. These magnetic tiles allow a child to create 3-D objects! Very well made and sturdy, Magformers offer endless hours of creative play. Designed in such a way that the magnets attract on all sides. These tactile, colorful translucent tiles are sized just right to make them easy to use in building flat or 3-D images. Ages 3 years and up. About $36.

10. Gears! Gears! Gears! A big box of gears that snap together with axles and extenders, creating spinnable mechanical structures. Different every time you build, this versatile, interconnecting gear set fosters imagination and provides opportunities to experiment with simple mechanics and science. Introduces children to sorting, grouping, counting, designing, constructing and putting physics into play with spinning gear movement. Ages 3 years and up. About $22.

11. Robot Turtles Game. This board game stealthily teaches youngsters programming fundamentals. Kids quickly learn to write programs with playing cards. Ingenious! Perfect for 2 to 5 players.   Ages 4 years and up. About $19.

12. ZOOB BuilderZ.  This tub of 250 brightly-colored pieces comes with six instruction guides to make over 30 creations including a ZOOBasuraus or a ZOOBcycle. Or create your own!. ZOOB is not like any other building set because the pieces include gears, axels and joints that snap, click, and pop together! With rotating, spinning and extendable parts you can actually design a toy to play with, instead of just building something to look at. Create monsters or vehicles—or monsters that turn into vehicles! The possibilities are as endless as a  child’s imagination. Ages 6 years and up. About $33.

13. Snap Circuits. This fabulous toy comes with over 60 pieces to create 305 different electronic projects. The pieces, which include snap wires, a slide switch, a resistor, a microphone, and capacitors, snap together easily onto the included plastic grid—no soldering required. Each piece is numbered and color-coded to make identification easy. These components combine to create working circuit boards just like the ones found inside televisions, radios, and other electronic devices. Ages 8 years and up. About $39.

14. Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set. This Robot Mouse Coding Activity Set, the perfect way to introduce children as young as five to important concepts like coding, critical thinking, and more. With Colby, the Programmable Robot Mouse, kids will have hours of fun while they learn to build their own mazes, and then program the mouse to get the cheese. This deluxe set includes maze grids, maze walls, tunnels, a robot mouse, and materials to help guide the play. It’s a fun, easy, and affordable way to add an hour of code, or more, into your home. Ages 5 years to 15 years. About $36.

15. Rule Your Room Kit.  Kids learn to create touch-activated inventions to control their stuff. With a handful of Bits and the brains in their heads, children can transform any boring old object into an awesome, interactive invention. They can prank a parent, create games from scratch and defend your domain from intruders—all with the power of electronics and the stuff they own. Ages 8 and up. About $99.

16. Rush Hour.  Traffic jam logic game. This single-player (at a time) game offers four levels of play—beginner to expert. It comes with forty mind-challenge cards with solutions, 16 cars and trucks, a traffic grid game board and storage bag that makes this toy. To play, set up the traffic challenge and then battle the gridlock to find a path for your red car to exit. This is really fun! Ages 8 and up. About $16.

17. Kano Computer Kit. A computer anyone can make, this kit come with simple steps and a storybook. Just imagine getting to build your own computer and bring it to life! No technical skills required! Ages 6 year and up. About $146.

18. Dash Robot. Dash is a real robot for children that is responsive to its world. Your child can bring it to life with free apps available on iOS and Android. Dash comes with hundreds of exciting coding adventures and projects. Comes fully assembled, no batteries requiredl includes USB charging cable. Ages 8 years and up. About $149.

19. Foxy Tote Sewing Kit. With this kit, your little artist can create his or her own fox friend to take anywhere! Comes complete with pre-cut felt materials, plastic needle and string, button nose, and more. Ages 4 years to 7 years. About $11.

20. Designer Doll Kit. This basic doll-making kit offers a wide range of possibilities for all levels of sewists. The cotton doll serves as a blank slate ready to be transformed into a character from your child’s imagination. Younger kids will need supervision and help with sewing and troubleshooting. Adorably project that will bring out the fiber artist in any youngster. Ages 4 years and up. About $32.

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