Q: I want to buy my kids STEM toys. (I have a 9-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy.) I've found robotic toys related to "Star Wars" that would thrill them, but how do I know if they're worth it? What resources can help me?
A: You're not the only parent thinking about this. Parents want good-value toys that pique curiosity, capture kids' interests, boost their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills and teach them problem-solving.
"Parents' instinct is to spend big bucks," says educator Warren Buckleitner, the founder and editor of Children's Technology Review (childrenstech.com). "Before shelling out, ask: What type of play does this toy promote?"
Buckleitner thinks that the best thing you can give a kid is a toolbox from Home Depot. Really.
"Buy a screwdriver and wrench set, safety goggles, plastic gloves, magnifying glass, wire cutters, a hammer and maybe a 9-volt battery," he says.
"Makerspaces" are the rage these days, but Buckleitner advises parents to clear a "breaker space" where kids can take apart old cellphones, CD players or your dead lawnmower.
"Let them discover O-rings and pistons and the guts of a computer keyboard," he explains. "Sure, it's messy, but real STEM learning is finding out what's inside and then creating something new, whether that's a robot that fans the dog or a sculpture for the wall. Many great inventors -- from Thomas Edison to Gordon Moore -- started by taking things apart."
Once kids have a toolbox, get them a "bicycle for the Information Age." That's what Buckleitner calls laptops and tablets.
"Kids need a reliable device to access digital materials to tinker with, and it needs to be their own," he says. "A $200 Chromebook provides email and Internet access."
As for tablets, Buckleitner says some form of an iPad gives you the best bang for your buck: "Apple is the leader in offering great educational apps."
When shopping for any device, Buckleitner says to remember the 90/50/10 rule.
"You can get 90 percent of the functionality for about half the cost simply by waiting 10 months," he argues. "For example, rather than spring for the new $800 iPad Pro, spend $394 for an iPad Air for 90 percent of the functionality. Add a $30 Big Grips Slim case. Spend the money you save on apps."
So, how do you choose from the thousands of kids' apps? Buckleitner's review staff of kids, parents and other experts puts software and hardware to the test all year. He publishes the Children's Technology Review monthly; it maintains an active review database of 11,800 products. Chris Abraham, a New York-based dad and an elementary robotics team coach, refers people to Buckleitner's newsletter because "we can trust their reviews."
For example, if your goal is to find toys that teach coding, Buckleitner suggests Tynker, an app that allows kids to program robots Sphero and Ollie; Scratch 2.0, where kids can create, edit and view projects right in their web browser; the Dash and Dot Wonder Pack, which are responsive, programmable robots; and littleBits, electronic building blocks that snap together with magnets. (For more information, go to childrenstech.com.)
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)