Do you remember in the movie “Toy Story,” when puffed-up superhero Buzz Lightyear finds out what he really is?
“I’m not a Space Ranger,” he tells Woody sadly. “I’m just a toy. A stupid little insignificant toy.”
“Whoa, hey, wait a minute,” Woody says. “Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger.”
Woody’s right. Being a real toy is better than being a pretend space character. And Buzz would be thrilled to know that space and science toys are superhot right now.
Microscopes, robots, rockets, marble mazes — these are just a few of the latest STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) recommendations from Stephanie Oppenheim, co-founder of the independent Oppenheim Toy Portfolio ratings group.
If you want to become an engineer, scientist or space explorer, you need to be comfortable with math and science, “and that begins by making STEM fun and engaging,” she says, adding: “We love the new crop of toys that engage kids to learn how to code, rather than passively playing a video game. Learning how circuits work or building with blocks — all are hands-on experiences that build problem-solving skills essential for future advances in science.”
Check out the STEM and space-themed toys on this page as well as other can’t-miss toys at toyportfolio.com. Prices are those of the manufacturer. Shop around, and you might find a better deal.
Learning Resources, $79.99. Age 5 and older.
Botley pops out of the box ready for action. Even kindergartners can learn simple coding in minutes, with no phone or tablet required. Older kids will like the advanced features, with up to 120 steps to code. Kit has 77 pieces, including 40 coding cards, a remote programmer and various obstacles to challenge Botley. A 45-piece set is also available.
My First Lab, $19.99. Age 6 and older.
At last you can put your smartphone to good (that is, educational) use. This nifty gadget clips to any smartphone or tablet and turns it into a portable mini-microscope with 60x magnification. Take your own pictures or examine 15 prepared slides with 3-D specimens, including human hair and an insect leg. With this, your cellphone may be a welcome sight in science class.
Mattel, $29.99. Age 6 and older. Use out of reach of younger children.
What better inspiration for a budding female scientist than a real one: Katherine Johnson. A brilliant mathematician and physicist, Johnson calculated the trajectory, launch windows and emergency backup plans for several U.S. spaceflights and was critical to their success. She and other women who broke racial and gender barriers at NASA were featured in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.”
MindWare, $99.95. Age 6 and older.
It’s another marvelous marble maze from the magicians at MindWare. This year’s set has 82 cubes, 18 straightaway rails, four coaster tubes, four marble catchers and 30 marbles. Double-exit cubes keep you in suspense about which way the marbles will run. Easy to assemble and reconfigure in many ways. “Great toy for any age, even 82,” said one reviewer.
Lego, $29.99. Ages 7 to 12.
With this Creator 3-in-1 kit, you can build a shuttle with an opening payload bay and robotic arm, and then rebuild it as a moon station or a space rover. With 285 pieces, and the ability to add more from other Lego construction kits, the sky is the limit. Or should we say, space is the limit? The set includes a mini-astronaut for your own “one small step” adventures.
Elenco Electronics, $44.95. Age 8 and older.
This intro to engineering and electricity combines circuitry kits with plastic building bricks. Kids can wire their builds with Snap Circuits lights, sounds, moving parts and 3-D circuits. In the process, they’ll learn how skyscrapers light up, how drawbridges move and other cool things. The set includes 20 modules, 75 adapters and more than 140 colorful bricks. An idea booklet gets you launched with 20 projects.
American Girl, $115. Age 8 and older.
This aspiring astronaut is ready for an adventure in space. Like her American Girl doll predecessors, Luciana comes with a book relating her life story. And if your Nana’s feeling extra generous this holiday season, tell her that Luciana would really love the flight suit ($28) and spacesuit with astronaut helmet ($75), both made just for her.
LittleBits, $149.99. Age 8 and older.
Marvel characters such as Bruce Banner (a.k.a. the Hulk), Iron Man and Shuri help kids create high-tech gear and invent identities with special powers for their own superheroes. The 18-plus activities focus on lights, sound, speed and action — controlled from a wearable sensor sleeve. To operate, an iPhone (iOS 10.0 or later) or Android (5.0 or later) is required. The good news: No grown-ups necessary.
My First Lab, $69.99. Age 9 and older.
This microscope uses the same technology that real lab technicians and scientists employ. “Duo” refers to two light sources, allowing for viewing of solid objects like bugs as well as slides. Duo-Scope is capable of 40x, 100x and 400x magnification. Accessories include five blank slides, four prepared slides, stains, tweezers, a petri dish and a manual with suggested experiments.
Lego, $24.99. Age 10 and older.
Do you recognize the names Mae Jemison, Margaret Hamilton, Nancy Grace Roman and Sally Ride? If not, you will after building this 231-piece set honoring these pioneering women at NASA. The builds are small, but the women’s accomplishments in the fields of astronomy, computer science, physics and engineering are big.