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Editors’ Picks for Educational Toys

Dec. 9, 2009
There are a lot of educational and engineering toys on the shelves. Here are some that caught the attention of our editors.

Chicago Review Press,

DIY Drones,

Dream Cheeky,

Fat Brain Toys,



Owl Robots,

Robotkits Direct,

Rokenbok Toy Co.,

Zoom Doggle.,

Edited by MD Staff

One of the best ways to get kids interested in a topic, whether it’s engineering or astronomy, is to give them a toy or game that helps them explore that subject. Just don’t tell them it’s educational.

Here are some toys and kits that might kickstart a youngster’s interest in engineering and science.

Make books talk
The Tag interactive reading system from LeapFrog, Emeryville, Calif., helps children learn vocabulary and pronunciation. By touching words and characters in specially printed storybooks with the penlike Tag reader, the child hears words talk and characters speak. The reader combines state-of-the-art optical-positioning technology and high-quality audio software. And with 16 Mbyte of onboard Flash memory, the reader holds up to five books at a time.

Simply connect the Tag Reader to your computer, download the audio for your books and drag-and-drop stories onto the reader. The system is for kids 4 to 8-years old and the starter kit comes with the Tag Reader, USB cable, LeapFrog Connect software CD, and one book. It’s PC and Mac compatible, and more than 25 books and games are available. Price is $39.99.

Play with life-size buckyballs
The roundest and most symmetrical of the large molecules, the carbon molecule C60 is also known as a “fullerene” or a “buckyball,” after architect Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller. According to the developer of BuckyBalls Magnetic Building Spheres, when you come right down to it, fullerenes are just a collection of balls. A set of BuckyBalls Magnetic Building Spheres replaces those hard-to-play-with atoms with 0.125-in.-diameter rare-earth magnetic spheres. Have fun and learn about shapes by building simple or complex puzzles and patterns. Each set contains 216 BuckyBalls and costs $29.99. For kids 13 and up. From Zoom Doggle.

Build the train of the future
The radio-controlled monorail from the Rokenbok Toy Co., comes with over 200 pieces that lets you build a layout that includes a car that dumps its loads to the left or right, a 30-in.-tall lift for cargo, a water tower, two dispensing/collection bins, and several action figures. There are over 8 ft of track and a layout fits in a 14 × 45-in. play area. There’s also a radio-control center and a handheld control pad. The monorail requires a 9-V battery and seven AA batteries. The $170 kit is recommended for children six and older.

Solar-powered frog
A new science kit lets kids and adults build a solar-powered-frog robot. The Happy Hopping Solar- Powered Frog kit from Fat Brain Toys, Omaha, Neb., includes more than 20 pieces and picture instructions for easy assembly. The assembled frog hippity-hops when placed in the sun or near a nonflorescent light bulb. Recommended age, over 10. Price, $13.95.

Boom! Splat! Kablooey!
As kids, what inspired Machine Design’s editors to study science and engineering? We blew stuff up! Encourage your kids the same way with Boom! Splat! Kablooey! It’s a 60-page book from Klutz that comes with all the equipment to make ordinary ingredients from your kitchen explode in impressive — yet safe and nondestructive — style. A Geyser Tube and depth charge make table salt and a bottle of soda into a backyard geyser. Special balloons turn a regular pop into a boom. And the Can O’ Pops is specially designed to explode again and again. Kids learn about science and have a blast doing it. For ages 8 and up. Price: $19.95.

Kids, start your engines
The Turbo 3000 is a versatile kit car that can be powered by batteries, solar power, or air. It comes with a manual of experiments that let you explore electricity, circuits (parallel and series), friction, air power, motion, and solar energy. (But you need the optional solar battery to do solar experiments.) An air-blowing compartment keeps a Styrofoam ball “magically” floating in the air as the car runs. The tricked-out Turbo from Owl Robots comes with oversized tires and an independent suspension. It costs about $17.

Do-it-yourself blimp
The Blimpduino kit from DIY Drones is an affordable open-source autonomous blimp kit. It consists of a 52-in. Mylar blimp envelope plus controller board with onboard infrared and ultrasonic sensors and an interface for an optional radio-control mode, a simple gondola with two vectoring (tilting) differential thrusters, plus a ground-based infrared beacon. The controller is an Arduino board containing an 8-bit Atmel processor which is widely used in the hobbyist community. (Arduino software is open source.)

Prospective blimp makers should understand they’ll have to secure their own helium for filling the blimp, a 7.4-V LiPo battery and charger, a 9-V battery, and an FTDI cable for programming. The blimp will also work with a radio-control unit (for throttle and steering), but note that RC gear is extra and not included in the price. The whole thing weighs 17 gm. The controller board has all SMD parts already soldered. But there are a few through-hole components you’ll need to solder on. $89.99.

The Junior Missile Command wants you!
The USB MSN Missile Launcher from Dream Cheeky lets kids of all ages use their computer, MSN Messenger, and a Webcam mounted on a launcher to locate targets, then aim and rapidly fire up to three foam missiles, all over the Internet. The launcher can also be operated through a USB port on a PC, providing it has a Pentium 4 or its equivalent, and runs at 2.4 GHz or faster. Missiles have a range of 15 ft, and the launcher even provides it own sound effects. It costs about $50.

How to make a flamethrower
Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously is a 224-pg paperback from the Chicago Review Press billed as written for reasonable risk takers and suburban dads who want more excitement in their lives. It is not exactly something you want to give to your 10-year old. It details several interesting projects such as how to throw knives, tips on drinking absinthe and eating fugu, the fine points of cracking a bull whip, learning baritsu, making black powder, and, of course, how to build a flamethrower. The projects tend to be low tech and affordable. Each project includes step-by-step directions and illustrations plus sidebar tips from experts. Author William Gurstelle has also written other books of the same genre including Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices. $11.53.

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