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Top 4 Tried and Tested STEAMy Toys for Christmas

This article is written by Kirsty Childs, Associate at WYG Group and WIB Regional Lead for Manchester, United Kingdom

Now, for those of you who might be concerned that this post is going to include links to the Ann Summers website, please rest assured that these are not that sort of toys! STEAM, previously known as STEM, are toys which encourage and enable the growth of skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and recently added, the Arts – because what is the point of the rest without that creative spark that leads to innovation?

I do not have any children but I am not ashamed to say that, between my husband and I, we have quite an extensive collection of these toys, which we regularly play with ourselves. Apart from the fact that we find this relaxing, it is never too late to develop new skills or sharpen those we already have. Plus, what’s wrong with just having fun now and again? And the way things are at the moment in the world, when our recreational options are significantly reduced, why not treat yourself to something you can do in the comfort of your own home?

So, here are my top 4 tried and tested recommendations to inspire you. You may notice a bias towards construction-type toys…I’m not sure if my love of these lead me into this career or vice versa!

1.       GraviTrax

This is my current favourite. Since my husband bought me the starter set for my birthday a few years ago I have become slightly obsessed with this stuff. I have added trampolines, catapults, loop-the-loops, tunnels and bridges, but the starter set is probably the best place to begin.

It is basically a marble run, which can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. The starter set comes with a booklet with step by step instructions to build 9No. different runs, of increasing complexity, and once you have mastered those it is over to you to design your own. And this is where this is a great toy for BIM geeks, because there is a free app, available for both Apple and Android (which is the version I have on my tablet), which is designed to help you do just that.

Not only will the app allow you to build a digital model of the run you have in mind, it also allows you to test whether or not the run will work before you build it! Sound familiar? It gets better. The app also analyses your model, creates a step by step guide to help you build your creation, and gives you a list of how many of each part you will need to build it. You can even watch a simulation of the completed run from the POV of the ball bearing!

Of course when you start to add in some of the additional parts that are available to buy separately from the starter pack, like trampolines, which can be a bit unpredictable, the As Built run does not always work exactly as in the simulation when in use, but once you have identified the problem and resolved it, you can go back and edit your model in the app to match. This is as close to the experience of working in BIM that I have found in a toy, and it is so much fun!

Time to make – anything between 5 minutes and several days depending on the complexity of the run you are building.
Ease of build – Very easy. Not at all fiddly. Nothing required which is not included in the box.
Age range – 8 to 99
https://www.smythstoys.com/uk/en-gb/toys/science-tech-engineering-art-math-steam/engineering/ravensburger-gravitrax-starter-set/p/166520

2.       Lego

This one was my first love, and that love shows no signs of abating. It was such a relief when I met my other half that he also loves Lego. We have both played with this since early childhood, as I am sure will be the case for others reading this. However, I am not sure if this will have carried on into teenage years for many people in the same way it did for me.

My dad, who was a teacher at my secondary school, was one of the first to teach Technology in secondary school and did a secondment to actually bring the first computers into the schools in the area where we lived (showing my age!). He was given the opportunity to work with Lego to produce Technics sets which could be used in Technology lessons, so we had loads of the stuff at home, some of which was not even commercially available at the time. No wonder I never lost a love of playing with the stuff.

There is a Lego set for all tastes, ages, and budgets. For budding architects there is and Architecture range which has included some of the most iconic buildings and skylines in the world over the years. However, if you spot one you like do not hang about before placing your order. These are only available for a limited run and are therefore highly collectable, commanding ridiculous second-hand prices on Ebay. The Lego Creator Expert range also includes some amazing buildings but, like several of the Architecture sets, these can be on the expensive side. If you have had enough of looking at buildings at work then there are robots which you can code yourself, dinosaurs, spacecraft, sports cars, and even artwork which can be hung on the wall.

One of my favourite ranges is the Lego Creator 3-in-1 range, precisely because you get 3 models for the price of one – the same bricks can be used to make 3No. different models. For this post I decided to try out a festive offering in this range, the Creator 2-in-1 Christmas Wreath/Advent Crown. Full step-by-step instructions for both of these is included in the box, and the pieces are separated into numbered packs to make finding the right piece easier. I made the wreath, which was an enjoyable build and is making me feel like going early with the decorations this year. I may even treat myself to one of the LED light kits available from 3rd parties to adorn my creation and make it even more festive.

Time to make – Approx. the time it takes to watch 4 episodes of a sitcom.
Ease of build – Quite easy. Some of the smaller pieces were a bit fiddly. I needed the brick separator which comes with the set a couple of times to fix mistakes. Nothing required which is not included in the box, but I recommend a sorting tray. I used one sold for sorting jigsaw pieces.
Age range – 9+
https://www.lego.com/en-gb/product/christmas-wreath-2-in-1-40426

3.       Meccano

This is one I never had when I was younger, but I believe all the parts were made of metal back then.  Alas some of these have now been replaced with plastic parts, but there are still metal screws and nuts in this. The kit I chose to build for this post was the 25-in-1 Supercar kit. Yes, you can make 25 different vehicles from the same kit, apparently. I only made one of them so far – the one shown on the front of the box. There are step-by-step instructions for 2No. further vehicles in the instruction book included. The remainder can be downloaded from the Meccano website, where you can also see details of the other kits they have to offer.

I have to admit, I did not notice until I got this home that this is one of their intermediate kits. I should probably have started with something simpler, as this was the most difficult thing I have built for years, including a huge Ikea wardrobe complete with sliding glass doors. But do not let that put you off, as the sense of achievement when I finished this was huge. This was in no small way because not only is this model motorised, but it also has working lights built in. It moves, very slowly, but it moves on its own. It does now anyway, after the second time I built it.

I have two top tips for anyone attempting this one. Firstly, make sure the motor is working properly before attaching all the pieces to it. I had not screwed this up tight enough for the contacts to touch the first time I built this. Secondly, have a good look at the final page before you start, and then as you are building this make sure the holes which the rear axle is going to go through align as you are building it, because trying to adjust it to make it fit later on will be extremely difficult.

This is definitely one for people with more time and more patience. Often the angle at which the pieces are to be fitted together is not immediately obvious. But if you like a challenge, and fast cars and twinkly lights are your thing, you will love this.

Time to make – Approx. the time it takes to watch half a season of The Crown.
Ease of build – Quite difficult. There were some really fiddly bits were I had to use a tool in each hand. Again, I recommend a sorting tray. Also this one needs 4No. AAA batteries, which you need to put in the motor pack before you start building this one.
Age range – 10+
https://www.argos.co.uk/product/8542876

4.       Build Your Own Kits

If you are concerned about the amount of plastic going into these toys that could one day end up in landfill – although rest assured none of the above are going to be single use, and I know for a fact that Lego is still good to play with even when it is more than 40 years old – then you have something in common with the team that created “Build You Own Kits”. There are committed to using as little plastic as possible in their kits, with most of the components being made of cardboard. Their range so far comprises of a microscope, a telescope, and a marble run, but I chose to build the Paper Plane Launcher.

The only thing in the kit not made from paper or cardboard are rubber bands. Nonetheless, when built this feels really sturdy. It is a quick build, but has the added advantage of still being a toy once it is built. It comes with 10 different plane designs to make, but works equally well with paper planes of your own design. For the really competitive amongst you this comes with distance targets to aim for as well.

It has to be said, the reason we know that this works equally well with your own planes is that despite finding the launcher really easy to build, folding the planes was quite the opposite. Once you have mastered folding these, you may want to head to the website’s Makes page, here you can find instructions for making a paper plane holder, and a hoop to try and shoot them through.

Time to make – Approx. the time it takes to watch on episode of The Mandalorian.
Ease of build – Quite easy to make the Launcher. The paper plans were trickier. Nothing required which is not included in the box, which even has spare elastic bands included. You may want extra paper to make more planes though.
Age range – 8+
https://buildyourownkits.com/product/plane-launcher-kit/

There are so many of these types of toy available these days, if none of the ones mentioned above tickles your fancy, I’m sure you could find one which does. And don’t just get one to inspire the kids to follow in your footsteps. Get one to inspire yourself. If you still need convincing, have a look at how much fun I’m having in this short video: Kirsty tries STEM Toys – YouTube. Enjoy!

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