Backscatter: Toys for Techies

By Donald Christiansen

With the holidays rapidly approaching, I embarked on my annual search for hands-on toys that might help launch youngsters on the path to becoming future engineers. At what age might a tot be enticed toward our profession, I wondered.

My initial venues included Barnes & Noble and Toys “R’ Us. I quickly found the VTech Roll & Learn Turtle ($16.95) for 9-month- to 3-year-olds. With a shell covered with colorful gears and activated by pushing a button or pulling the turtle, the turtle might teach lessons related to colors, sounds, and counting. Not exactly high tech, its gears notwithstanding-but nevertheless likely to prompt some serious thinking on the part of a 9-month-old toddler. Still another VTech offering, the Explore and Learn Helicopter ($19.95) is a step up in complexity, and is designed for 1-year-olds and up. Not that surprisingly, it is piloted by a puppy.

For 3-year-olds and up I found the 60-piece Magformers Kit ($99.95). Its magnetic building elements include squares, triangles, and other geometrical shapes that encourage building imaginative structures.

Other age 3+ toys include:

  • Superstructs 96-piece starter set ($29.95) includes pulleys, wheels, axles, connectors, and panels, plus instructions for four particular models.
  • The 13-piece Diggin Build & Play Rocket Ship ($49.95) includes an astronaut, space shuttle, and wheeled robot, plus connectors, for a total of 25 all-wood parts.
  • Quercetti Kaleido Gears ($29.95), 55 pieces with 16 various-diameter colored gears.
  • Lincoln Logs, 120-piece, real-wood set ($39.95). Lincoln Logs date from 1916!

At the 8-year-old-and-up level I was impressed by the Thames & Kosmos Remote-Control Machines Experiment Kit, with 182 pieces including three motors and a wireless remote control unit, plus a 42-page manual ($79.95).

Other age 8+ candidates:

  • 320-piece Thames & Kosmos Physics Solar Workshop ($64.95). Includes a motor and a 64-page manual for 12 projects.
  • ScienceWiz Cool Circuits ($19.95). A 40-puzzle challenge with light-up board and eight fluorescent 3-D puzzle pieces.
  • KidzLabs Soda Can Robug Green Science Kit ($12.95). Built around an empty soda can, it emits sound, vibrates, and moves.
  • Erector Multimodels Sets. The 15-model set ($36.95) has 240 metal parts. Includes gears, pulleys, and necessary tools. Projects include race cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and autogyros. Larger sets (20 and 25 models) are also available.
  • KidzLabs Antigravity Magnetic Levitation Kit ($19.95). Materials for seven projects, including a maglev robot. Based on seven plastic-coated, 1 5/16-in. diameter bored disc magnets.

Toys for Girl Techies?

The argument as to whether tech toys for girls should differ from those for boys seems to have cooled a bit. Perhaps some who were startled by the recent introduction of “pink” LEGO sets had forgotten that back in the 1950s a pinkish Lab Technician Set for Girls (a “career-building science set”) was marketed by Gilbert.

In my recent visit to Barnes & Noble I found, for girls 4 to 9 years old, GoldieBlox and the Dunk Tank ($22.95) and, for girls 7 to 12, GoldieBlox and the Builder’s Survival Kit ($59.95). The 52-piece Dunk Tank includes an instruction book, a ball to throw at a target, and a dog who gets dunked if the target is hit. The 190-piece Survival Kit includes wheels, tires, axles, washers, pegs, and various joints, plus a “diary of inventions.”

The Tinkertoy Pink Building Set ($44.99) for girls (or boys) ages 3+, contains 150 plastic parts including rods, wheels, and spools. A flower, a castle, and a cat are among the possible projects.

Searching Online

When I shifted my search from the mall to the Internet, I found several complex (and expensive) kits that might be more appropriate for teenagers and college students and, perhaps, father-son or father-daughter teams (Oops! mother-son and mother-daughter teams, too). Among them:

  • The LEGO Mindstorms EV3 ($350) includes 17 suggested builds with three levels of programming and permits robot operation via smartphone.
  • VEX Dual Control Starter Kit ($499.99). Includes Clawbot Robot Kit with four motors, microcontroller, joystick, and USB adapter keys, battery and charger. Programming software is sold separately.
  • FlashForge Creator 3D Printer ($977). Dual extruder, heated build platform, build size 8.9″ x 5.7″ x 5.9″ (tape and filament sold separately).
  • Make:it Robotics Starter Kit ($72) creates either a line-following or walking robot (but requires the Arduino Uno Rev 3, $29.99).

Kit Reviews

Scanning the online reviews by purchasers can be helpful. For example, the Robotikit 6-in-1 Solar Kit ($22) featuring a motor, gearbox, and solar panel, plus parts to build a car and five other projects did not fare well in reviews. Low outputs from the solar panel, even with augmented lighting, kept buyers from getting the motor to run. Others noted the parts did not fit together well.

The Erector 25 Multimodels Set mentioned earlier was given 5-star reviews for fun and educational value, but a few defects were reported, including a poorly designed switch that can melt if in a between-position state. Also, an old-timer who built Erector sets 40 years ago noted that tiny rubber friction collars have replaced the nuts and threaded axles formerly used to lock wheels and pulleys, and can easily fall off under pressure.


In some cases, when a toy does not quite meet expectations, the user may be prompted to experiment to correct the fault. A case in point is the generally highly-rated Make:it Robotics Starter Kit, co-marketed by RadioShack and Maker Media. The user can build either a walking robot or a line follower. A printed circle on a sheet of paper is supplied with the kit to test the line-following robot. When one owner placed the robot on the test circle it could make it only about one-quarter the way around before losing its way. His attempts to correct the shortcoming are described at the Joe Pilz Technology Blog.

Might it be that, except for those that are absolute lemons, tech toys and/or kits that prompt some alterations or “fixes” could have an advantage over those that work perfectly? Doesn’t the need to evaluate, tinker, or redesign represent one of the engineer’s primary challenges?

Just a thought!


  • Games, Gadgets, and Gizmos,, Make Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2014.
  • Best S.T.E.M. Toys for Kids,  (retrieved 11-19-14.)
  • Sullivan, J., “Science Kits: Try This at Home,” Discover, Dec. 2014.
  • Lipkowitz, D., The LEGO Ideas Book, (ages 7+), DK Publishing, 2011.
  • Lipkowitz, D., and G. Farshtey, LEGO Play Book (ages 9+), DK Publishing, 2013.
  • Christiansen, D., “Toys for Future Engineers,” Today’s Engineer, December, 2013.

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum
 and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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