I was having a conversation recently with an editor at the NY Times about the trends in science toys in the last 30+ years. One of the things that came out of that discussion was that many “educational” toys today are limiting in terms of what a child can do with them.
It used to be you gave a child a bucket of Legos and walked away. When you came back an hour later, she had built things. Lots of things. When she was done she broke them up, threw the bricks back in the bucket, and started over next time.
Now you give a child Lego Set # 7946 King’s Castle and you sit with the child reading pages of instructions and telling her not to mix up the pieces and correcting her when she does it wrong. Eventually you (the child having wandered off an hour ago) finish the Castle. Now the child may play with it. And she does for a while. And when she’s done you set it carefully on a shelf so it doesn’t get broken because you don’t want to go through that 3 hour process again just so she can “play Legos.”
The same is true with science kits and toys. Today’s kits and science toys for children tend to fall into one of two categories: Things that demonstrate a scientific principle —The Amazing Hand Boiler! And kits like the Lego kits, with recipes that are to be followed exactly – Make slime! Once a child has made the slime (or made a mistake and instead just made a wet mess), that kit is finished. The ingredients are used up and there is nothing left to do.
So for those of you who’d like to put some real exploratory science in front of kids, I decided it would be useful to make Gift List of science things for children to allow them to DO science.
What you will find here:
- Tools not toys
- Things that scientists or school labs really use.
- Things that lead to infinite open-ended exploration.
- Things that do not have instructions to follow (except initial setup of some equipment).
- Things that don’t require a parent’s help to explore and enjoy.
What you will NOT find are kits, toys, “for kids” models, one-off activities or things that merely demonstrate scientific principles.
Admittedly, the list is skewed heavily towards natural sciences and field work. I left out physics, electronics, and construction-based toys because I’m not really familiar with that world. I leave that list to someone else to blog.
So now, on with the Gift List!
Not just for looking things up!
Yes, you can look everything up on the internet. And yes, there are field guide apps. I have a few myself that I use for quick reference. But nothing comes close to having your own hard copy field guide to whatever topic you’re interested in – birds, rocks, nests, trees, butterflies, animal tracks, edible plants, stars, snails, even poo.
Field guides are not just for identifying things. Over time they become the naturalists’ record. A well-used field guide will fall open to favorite pages and be filled with notes on things you’ve seen and when and where you saw them.
For Exploring the Invisible
See & hear things nobody else can
- Binoculars, night-vision goggles or binoculars
- Microscope, magnifying glass, hand lenses
- Stereoscopic or dissecting microscope
- Telescope, spotting scope
- Camera, telephoto lenses, macro lens, microscope adapter, camera trap
- Ultrasound listening device, Bat detector , bird listening device
For Finding & Collecting Specimens & Data
Out in the field
- Rock hammers, chisels, picks
- Insect net, trap, sweep net or insect aspirator
- Sieves, scoop net, heavy aquatic net, plankton net
- Containers, buckets, jars, specimen bags, glassine envelopes, canvas bags
- Metal detector
- Flashlight, headlamp
- Weather station, portable wind meter
- Field thermometer (for water)
- Waterproof notebook, All-weather pen
- Pocket knife, multi-tool
For Displaying & Storing Specimens
- Collection box, Shadow box
- Curio display box ; Portable display case; storage drawers
- Magnifying bug box
- Pinning boxes & Riker Mounts (for insects)
- Plant press, Silica Gel (for plant drying)
- Labels, tags, stickers, insect pins
Lab Ware & Supplies
- Chemistry Hardware & Glassware
- Dissection kit or individual tools
- Mineral Testing kit
- Agar & Petri dishes
Weights & Measures
- Beam balance, kitchen scale, milligram (jewelry) scale
- Thermometer, Temperature probe
- Liquid measuring containers, syringes
- Micrometer, calipers
- Height gauge
All my hyperlinks above are just to give an idea of what’s out there. I’m not promoting any particular brands or companies. The list below is provided as a quick reference, but aside from Edmund & Carolina Biological, both of whom I can attest for, I can’t specifically recommend any of them.
- Acorn Naturalist
- Carolina Biological Supply
- Compleat Naturalist
- Edmund Scientifics
- Flynn Scientific
- Home Science Tools
- Science Lab
- Science Fair Approved Suppliers
That’s it for my first pass. Please feel free to make more suggestions.
Excellent column, Kim.
Yeah, I remember those Lego blocks; wonderful and creative.
I also remember Meccano sets — the old one, with actual metal not plastic parts, with brass gears and both electric and wind-up motors.
Your budding scientists are all set with the items you mentioned…with the critical exception of…a lab notebook. A lab notebook has bound, numbered pages and usually features lined or square-graph paper. Now, get outside and start exploring your world, kids!
Wow, I seriously LOVE this post and the list you’ve started here! Today’s Lego’s sets and science kids just make me pull my hair out. And I think they annoy the kids just as much because they require so much adult intervention and guidance … they just want to play with their things on their own!