Our family has been busy this month playing with some of the cool new STEM gifts the kids got for Christmas this year. I am really happy that some of the presents that they received this year really fit well with some of the lessons and projects we have been working on.
One big lesson I have slowly learned as a homeschool dad is that the best kind of learning is fun learning. Some kids have a very sensitive radar to “school work” and do not want to do any more school work than they have to. I am impressed at how some great toys and games are able to fly under this radar and disarm those defense systems.
Here are 3 gifts that were able to engage and teach our kids from Christmas 2015:
Klutz LEGO Chain Reaction Craft Kit
This Klutz LEGO Chain Reactions Craft Kit includes a great book of Rube Goldberg machine type projects. There are 10 projects that form different stages of the chain reaction. The stages can be pieced together in many ways which allows much room for creativity and scalability. Here is a link to the short commercial to get an idea what the kit looks like. This was a perfect gift for our family since we have recently become fascinated with Rube Goldberg projects.
Each project in the book gives clear build instructions, a brief lesson on why the stage works the way it does, and debug instructions to help troubleshoot if something goes wrong. I was very impressed with how well thought-out the projects were presented. There was much excitement in the room even as we finished the first small project.
Within a few days, the kids went on to build a larger machine that can be seen in the video below. I was really happy to see their creativity in how they made modifications where needed and especially how patient they were to debug the larger machine with many stages. I lost count how many times they needed to carefully reset everything to get the successful run we captured in the video.
There is one big detail I should mention about our experience. The book is excellent, but the kit comes with a small set of LEGO pieces. For all but one project, the instructions say to get most of the pieces “from your collection”. It didn’t seem like it would be a big issue for us since we have a giant bin full of LEGOs that we have collected over the last 12 years, but it did actually turn out to be where we spent most of our time – hunting for pieces and building workarounds in the many cases where we did not have the right pieces. I imagine this will be a challenge for many families and it is mentioned very frequently in the Amazon reviews. There are actually 167 additional pieces needed if you want to build all 10 projects together. Make sure you have lots of spare LEGOs of many shapes and sizes on hand.
We bought the Robot Turtles Game this year for my youngest daughter (5). This board game invented by Dan Shapiro has tons of buzz surrounding it since it is the most backed game in Kickstarter history. It is very different from traditional board games in that its main purpose is to teach the concepts of coding to kids. Since teaching the kids to code is already a serious endeavor in our house, this game seemed like it would fit right in.
The goal of robot turtles is for each player to use their cards (instructions) to guide the turtle along the board to their prize. They must deal with or move around obstacles along the way. There are multiple versions of the game depending on what level the child is at. They can play one card at a time, or for the bigger kids they can try to lay out the instructions for the entire program before they move the turtle. There are even function cards that the kids can use for repeating sequences. The kids cannot move the turtle themselves as a parent needs to serve as the “computer” to test their program.
We found that the kids easily understood and engaged in the game and were very happy to see how well our five-year-old was able to calculate and sequence together instructions. We found that while the older kids lost interest after a few games, they still enjoy putting together harder challenges for their little sister and serving as the “computer” for her. I would say this is a great game for younger kids, 4-6 years old.
For a quick video demo of the game, watch here.
Meffert’s Gear Cube
Our family has a great love for all things Rubik’s. My son brought home his first Rubik’s cube a few months back and it quickly became an obsession in the house as we learned to solve it together as a family, as we started racing each other (inspired by all of the record-breaking videos on Youtube from the past couple years), and we even built a cube solving robot from instructions we found online. You can read all about those crazy adventures here and here.
The Mefferts Gearcube is a fascinating cube puzzle with more things moving around than the traditional Rubik’s cube. As the sides turn, gears along the front and back of the cube also rotate adding a new element to the puzzle. Like the Rubik’s cube, it is easy to get occupied for long periods with little progress, but once we learned how to solve it, we realized it is not as difficult as we imagined. It is still a good challenge, just not on par with the classic Rubik’s cube.
For a bigger challenge, many recommend Meffert’s Gear Cube Extreme. Apparently the algorithms to solve this one are much more difficult, so this might be the better product for those who want to take things up a notch.
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