What has Santa got for budding scientists? Enter the gadget grotto!

So, it’s that time of the year again. No sooner has the last firework fizzled down to a damp squib, and we have to turn our attention to the sprouts (to slice crosses in the stalks or not, that is the question!)

And presents. As a consequence of the transport and man-power problems caused by Brexit, compounded by the impacts of the dreaded Covid, this year the prezzie choices must be considered with more urgency than usual.

Those who have been following my witterings on this worthy publication will know that it is my mission in life to ensure that every single member of our next generation grows up into a fully functioning research scientist. Failing that, for those who fall by the wayside, I hope they, at least, have an appreciation of the value of science and its countless and varied benefits for society.

And, let’s not forget that our little charges already have a head start. Children are born pre-programmed with many of the skills essential to the scientist. They are naturally curious. They problem-solve in order to seek solutions, and, when necessary, they are so determined. Children appreciate the importance of detail and are naturally creative. They’re communicative; by golly, can they communicate!

I present, for your delectation, my list of favourite scientific toys for this year. To begin, some caveats:

  • Apart from the Science Museum and the RNLI charity, I have not recommended a particular store. I thought it best to leave that choice to you; perhaps balancing the retailer’s price with how much tax they actually choose to pay! Where possible I’ve provided a ballpark price.
  • The age range given is a very rough guide. Each child develops at a different rate and all become experts beyond their years in at least one, self-chosen area. As an example, my eldest grandson has just turned six. We bought him his third (or is it fourth?) Snap Circuits kit for his sixth birthday. I think he received his first one around his fifth birthday. He has plenty of toys, but this is the one as far as he is concerned. And yet, although the recommended age for the different Snap Circuit kits varies, none specify an age limit lower than eight years.
  • If I’ve whetted your appetite with a particular type of toy, please don’t take my top recommendation as gospel. As an example, take the microscope I recommended. Having looked at a range of standards, styles and prices, I opted for the best one to suit the needs of most children. But do look at other options in the company’s collection and, indeed, at other manufacturer’s offerings. You might find one better suited to your young one’s requirements.

So, without further ado…

  1. The Science Museum.

My first choice is, I admit, a bit of a cop out. You can click on the link and get lost in their massive range of toys and gadgets. You can filter by ‘type of activity’, ‘key-stage’ and ‘age’ to refine your search. Most importantly, you can be totally confident on the quality and value of the toys carefully chosen by The Science Museum.

2. Wowwee Coji (£50, Age 8+ years)

This is a programmable robot. It has built-in programs which younger children can simply operate. The instructions direct Coji’s movements and even respond to certain tactile actions. Older children can connect Coji to a tablet or phone (via Bluetooth) and create more complex programs using a range of emoji symbols. I cannot think of a more welcoming way to introduce programming concepts to a young aspiring software engineer.

3. Sphero Mini (£50, 8+ years)

This is another programmable robot, but this time we are controlling the movement of a rolling ball. You can direct it around a maze, for instance, either by programming or by using a ‘joystick action’ from your chosen tablet or phone. You can even use the phone’s ‘tilt’ function to control its direction driving it like a car. In the later versions of the Sphero, there’s a ‘face function’. Here you control its motion by pulling funny faces (obviously!). It comes with a whole range of two-person games and one-person challenges.

4. Snap Circuits (Age 8+)

There is no shortage of electronic kits from which to choose with a variety of complexities, intended for differing age ranges and aptitudes. However, this is the one picked by the World’s leading expert. And to quote my grandson:
‘It is bright and colourful, the components are easy to clip into place and the instructions are lucid and engaging’. (OK, I’ve paraphrased!)
Kits range in price from about £10 up to £80, with many in the region of £40. The one depicted is priced at £19. It contains 30 parts which can be used to construct 100 different projects including a radio, a burglar alarm and, of course, the all-important doorbell.

5. Magic Garden from the RNLI (£7.50,  Age 5+ years)

Okay, so ‘garden’ might be pushing it a bit. After all, it is just cress seeds which your little ones can water and watch sprout and grow in a few days. It’s set in a little cardboard make-believe garden diorama.  But our darlings have to start somewhere, and if this is the catalyst for an enduring interest in horticulture, who knows, maybe in a few years’ time, they’ll be mowing your lawns. Result! [And it supports the RNLI! Double result! Ed]

6. Science Mad 50mm Telescope (£35, Age 6+)

I learnt the hard way that it’s no good skimping on astronomical telescopes. 50mm is about the smallest useable aperture which will allow you to see the details of the Moon’s craters and all the planets with the exception of Neptune and Uranus. I’m afraid Saturn’s rings might be a challenge to spot with this telescope as well. But, with a solid base for the tripod, patience, and an adult who has a vague idea of where and when to look, a young astronomer can carry out some serious planet and star watching. However, for more serious observations, a 70mm ‘scope will be required and these can cost upward of £70, most being around the £100 mark.

7. KidzLab Crystal Science from the RNLI Shop (£8 on offer at the moment). Adult supervision required

There are many crystal growing sets available. Generally, because of the nature of the chemicals included they require some degree of adult supervision. More expensive kits allow larger and more impressive crystals to be grown, and some include some form of electrical illumination. However, this cheaper model still offers an impressive range of large crystals and some are luminescent (glow-in-the-dark), negating the external lighting requirement.

8. Amscope 120 to 1200X Kids Beginner Microscope Stem Kit (£36)

Although described as a ‘Kids’ microscope, it has most of the features you’d expect to find in a professional instrument, albeit in a more robust casing than you’d find in a typical laboratory.  The samples are lit by modern LED bulbs. The magnification is sufficient to investigate such samples as cells, bacteria and leaf structures. The kit is comprehensively equipped with the prerequisite tools such as tweezers, scalpel, slides, vial, petri dish and much more, all housed in a well-constructed travel-case. 

9. Thames and Kosmos 627929 Wind Turbine (£29, Age 8+) 

There are many wind turbine kit models to choose from, in prices ranging from about £15 to £40 and they all broadly do the same thing. Put them outside on a windy day, the turbine blades spin and a small light illuminates to show that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. My feeling is that once these are assembled and the bulb lights, interest will soon fade and it’ll be ready for the charity box. This is one of the more expensive examples. It’s much bigger than most, being almost a metre in height. But the key point is, it does much more for its money than light a boring bulb. A rechargeable battery clips into the back of the turbine which is then charged by wind energy. Once you think it’s charged enough, you unclip the battery pack from the turbine and plug it into a trolley car. Then, set the vehicle into motion and see how far the battery gets you. Furthermore, you can experiment by ‘tuning’ the blades for maximum energy collection for a given wind speed.

10. Hydraulic Cyborg Hand (£30, Age 10+)

This has been recommended from two different sources, one being the Director of The Science Museum. I suspect it’s quite complex to construct, having over 200 pieces. Once built though, the hydraulics are filled with water and you can then ‘don’ the cyborg hand (ie attach it to your own hand). Movement of the human’s fingers then force the water through the various pipes to produce cyborg joint movement which mirrors the human hand and finger motions. Sounds like it could be fun and a good way of demonstrating the power of hydraulic action.

Some books and magazines worthy of consideration:

You are probably familiar with the Horrible Histories series of books. But lesser known, though no less informative and just as yucky are the Horrible Science series. Titles such as: Vicious Veg, Disgusting Digestion, Bulging Brains and Painful Poison might appeal. There are also some Horrible Science lab kits and experiments (Slime Lab is a stand-out title) to complement the books.

Mr Alom Shaha is a physicist, teacher, film maker and TV presenter. He has written several books but he has created two good ones for the younger readers. Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines (Age 5-12)and Mr Shaha’s Recipes of Wonder: Adventures in Science Around the Kitchen Table (ages 5-9) offer projects and activities for children to carry out at home with items that can be readily found at home.

Magazine Subscriptions – How it Works is a fabulous, engaging magazine full of brightly coloured illustrations, cutting edge scientific photos, educational articles, puzzles and projects. Perhaps a little more ‘formal’ but none-the-less interesting, especially for older teens, is Science Focus. It was originally simply called Focus, but the name was changed when the BBC took over the publication.

And what is Christmas without a family board game? There are many science-themed games but one of the most popular is Evolution (£40, Age 12).

The aim is to collect and combine ‘trait’ cards (such as hard shell, horns or carnivore) and compete with other players to combat starvation, predation, and win by becoming the most populous species.

Another game, Terraforming Mars, is of a similar price and age range. It has won awards and is ranked as the fourth best game by BoardGameGeek. In the game, you are a corporation with the aim of making Mars habitable by adjusting variables such as the temperature, oxygen levels and the ocean coverage. Only when you have been successful in these challenges will you be allowed to commence infrastructure development. But will you and your team survive?

I’ve decided not to include any particular computer game in the list. There are many and varied titles with a range of scientific themes including; bouncing gooey balls around a make-believe landscape using counterweights (World of Goo), biological games (Immune Defence), geology (Grand Canyon Canoe Quiz) and many more. They are designed with differing age ranges and educational levels, as well as for all the available platforms (X Box, PlayStation, PC, tablet etc). Most importantly, they have a very wide range of prices. Some are free, advert-ridden demos, and then, if you like the game, you can pay to have the ads removed. Some are actually ‘ad-less’ and totally free. For guidance, I suggest you go to sciencegamecenter  which reviews many science-themed games They also host a discussion forum and even let you play certain web-based games by clicking directly from the site.

And there we have it. I’d like to thank all my science colleagues for their suggestions, and my apologies to those whose ideas didn’t quite make the mix. Also, thanks to those who answered the call on Twitter (@BeastofExmoor – don’t ask. It’s a long story!), and a special commendation to Mr Roger Highfield, Director of the Science Museum for harvesting and curating suggestions from his team.