10 Holiday Gifts for Budding Scientists

A skull might be a pretty cool present, but our gifts provide more interactive fun while teaching a thing or two about science. Mieke Dalle/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

This year, skip the usual suspects. No more socks, over-hyped toys or argyle sweaters masquerading as thoughtful gifts. There just isn't any wrapping paper festive enough to mask the disappointment that's sure to ensue.

Instead, hit the holiday equivalent of a bases-loaded homerun by putting a bow on these hot gifts for budding scientists. Rather than a fake smile and perfunctory "thank you," you'll be greeted with chemical reactions that result in fake snow, "crime scene" investigations that lift stray fingerprints, solar panels that power race cars and bacteria colonies that materialize right before your eyes. This has all the makings of a merry season, doesn't it?

Big Bucket of Science
The Big Bucket of Science features favorites like Insta-Snow, Energy Beads, and Magic Sand that teach scientific principles like polymers, hydrophobic materials, and UV-sensitivity. Steve Spangler Science

You just can't go wrong with a bucket chock full of scientific marvels -- especially if you're offering it as a gift. Steve Spangler's Big Bucket of Science is filled with 18 test tubes containing some of the science geek's most popular experiments. Spangler, a science teacher, author and toy designer, made his mark as the mastermind behind the Mentos Geyser experiment that resulted in a symphony of exploding sodas (and a viral YouTube video). He's also designed dozens of test tube experiments that offer a hands-on way to see scientific principles in action.

The Insta-Snow test tube experiment, for example, illustrates how absorbent polymers react to liquid. These polymers, which are supercharged microscopic sponges similar to those used in disposable diapers, erupt into fake snow the minute kids add water. Better still, if this powder-perfect faux snow is exposed to air for a few hours, the polymers turn back to dry powder. Sure, it's fun to own reusable snow, but there's something more to be learned: the Law of Conservation of Mass. This discovery dates back to 1789, when French scientist Antoine Lavoisier figured out that a chemical reaction -- like the one that affects Insta-Snow -- doesn't change total mass. The Insta-Snow, by the end of the experiment, will have returned to the same mass it started with, despite the chemical reaction in between [source: Sterner]. The Big Bucket of Science, designed for children ages 8 and older, also contains experiments using hydrophobic materials and illustrating UV-sensitivity.

Crime Scene Investigation Kit
This kit includes all the stuff a budding forensic scientist would need, like a microscope and equipment for fingerprinting and deciphering secret messages. Creative Kidstuff

Some good has come out of the pop culture phenomena that is televised forensic mysteries: a cultural bend toward science. And you can capitalize on the trend by wrapping up the Detecto Lab Crime Scene Investigation Science Kit.

This CSI investigation kit is sure to turn children ages 8 and older into pint-sized detectives as they paint charcoal dust on fingerprints and then lift them with clear tape or explore the splash patterns of water balloons thrown at surfaces from a variety of angles. From tracking footprints in the sand to deciphering secret messages or examining evidence under the kit's microscope and lab equipment (included), the 65 different activities mean this kit is designed to last long after the wrapping paper has been recycled.

The best part is what children will learn in the process: Critical-thinking skills may just become second nature as they note myriad details, compose disparate facts into theories and hypothesize solutions.

Solar Power Plus
You can assemble 22 solar-powered models including a scooter, locomotive, forklift, solar-wind sail car and a cement mixer. Amazon

Solar Power Plus is a science kit that could have long-term, positive implications, especially if it inspires a child to someday invent new ways to harness sources of renewable energy. Just think: Your gift could inspire the next big thing! In the meantime, however, you can count on Solar Power Plus to entertain and educate as children ages 8 and older use the kit's 265 building pieces to create solar-powered vehicles. It's a fun way to discover more about energy circuits and photovoltaics while honing the skills necessary to solve problems in design and construction.

With the help of two solar panels included in each kit, each vehicle can be powered with up to 3 volts of electricity when parked or driven in sunlight (about the equivalent of two AA batteries). The solar panels can even be used to recharge AA batteries, which can be used to power the vehicles indoors or on cloudy days. And thanks to a 48-page instruction book designed just for young minds, children can create all kinds of vehicles ranging from airplanes, scooters, motorcycles and cable cars to street sweepers, backhoes, oil tankers and amphibious boats.

Magnetic Science Sorting Center
Younger kids will love playing with this board and magnets and learning about the senses, seasons and animals. Lakeshore Learning Materials

Beginning to wonder if gifts for budding scientists are only available in the 8 and older range? No worries. The Magnetic Science Sorting Center is designed for children ages 3 to 6. It teaches early scientific concepts and classification skills, all under the guise of a magnetic sorting game.

The fun starts with a freestanding board and three sets of magnets coded by color. Simply choose a topic -- five senses, seasons and weather, or animals -- and its related categories. Then, sort the remaining photo magnets into columns, placing them on the board under the categories.

The visual cues offered by the magnets allow children to sort them into the appropriate categories, even if they aren't yet able to read. By the time teachers are ready to introduce scientific concepts, the little scientists on your gift list will be ready to move to the head of the class.

Perfume Science Kit
Girls will particularly enjoy this gift which comes with eight essentials oils, plus decorative bottles and labels for their perfume creations. Home Science Tools

What if learning and loveliness were one and the same? The Perfume Science Kit for ages 10 and older pairs science with scent (and a sprinkling of history and art) as it encourages young explorers to mix their own perfumed scents.

Children can work their way through the kit's 20 different activities as they learn about the history of perfumes and experiment with four base oils (lemon, wood, floral or musk) and four top-note oils (Orienta, Mentha, Mella, Tropica) to mix perfumes. Scentologists can use decorative bottles, measuring cups, droppers, stirrers, smell strips and more to bring their ideas to life. The detailed instruction manual is as much textbook as guide; it includes steps to brew plant extracts, teaches French scent extraction terms and identifies the plant parts from which the most expensive fragrances are reaped. Even better, budding scientists will be able to get a hands-on understanding of physiology as they learn how the nose and brain work in tandem to recognize smells and store the information for use years later.

Chem C100 Test Lab
This kit contains all the equipment and instruction for doing hands-on experiments on ordinary household ingredients. Creative Kidstuff

Mad scientists unite! Help the kids on your gift list stir up some scientific fun with this beginning chemistry kit. The Chem C100 Test Lab includes two test tubes, a stand to hold the test tubes, litmus paper and safety goggles, as well as a manual that contains a variety of experiments that reveal the chemical properties of common items. For example, one suggested activity tests the acid level of a solution by using a pH test.

The test lab also offers a way to determine gas reactions, illustrate how heat creates carbonization and discover why a solution crystalizes. Scientists can then record their findings and compare them to the included chemical identification cards to check their work. And, with 12 cards that identify specific chemical compounds, the detective work can continue as children ages 8 and older experiment on household items long after the kit's supplies run their course.

Deluxe Root Beer Kit
Science can also be mighty tasty with this root beer kit that leads you through the process of making root beer and the chemistry behind it. Steve Spangler Science

Science just got a little more delicious. Help a budding scientist become a mini-brewmaster with Steve Spangler's Deluxe Root Beer Kit, which provides the key ingredients and equipment to make two gallons of root beer-flavored soda.

So where does the science come into play? As children ages 8 and older follow a few simple instructions, they add carefully measured ingredients -- yeast, root beer flavor crystals and root beer mix -- and watch the chemical reactions take place as the concoction travels through tubes, past gaskets and into 1-liter bottles. The process offers an up-close look at the breakdown of glucose and its transformation into energy, as well as fermentation. In fact, it is this fermentation process that creates carbon dioxide and gives homemade root beer its fizzy nature.

Rock Science Kit
If your kids (or you) have ever wondered why one rock has a different color than another, this is the perfect gift. Creative Kidstuff

Kids love rocks, and thanks to the Rock Science Kit, they can now see what they're made of, too. This kit contains 15 different varieties of rocks, a handheld magnifier and a guide that walks fledgling geologists through the identification process. They'll learn to classify rocks according to three primary types -- sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic -- and put scientific skills to use, including observation and testing. Specifically, children can learn to test rocks for certain characteristics that can help in identification, such as hardness, shine or color streaks.

The kit itself keeps children busy as they study and identify rocks, but it also can become a springboard to future rock-collecting activities. Encourage the sampling of local rocks and the comparison to geological souvenirs from other locales. The collection can even be expanded to include vials of soil samples that can be used to compare and contrast composition.

Bacteria Growing Kit
The bacteria growing kit is the basis for one of the most popular science fair projects. Steve Spangler Science

Categorize this under both "yuck" and "awesome." A combination which, by the way, means that you're about to give a young science enthusiast the best present -- ever. The Bacteria Growing Kit includes six petri dishes that are a sizable 4 inches (10.1 centimeters) in diameter, a plastic beaker, agar (used to feed the bacteria), cotton swab and an activity guide.

Soon, novice researchers ages 6 and older will realize how much bacteria there is on common surfaces like door knobs, toothbrushes (and even the dog's mouth) as they swab samples to use as experiment fodder. After rubbing the used swabs on the agar contained in the Petri dishes, they can grow a crop of bacteria in about a week. While this kit doesn't include a guide that helps identify bacteria (just think of how many pages that would need to contain!), it does offer a surprising look at the bacteria that exists all around. And could encourage better hand-washing to boot.

Weather Match-Ups
These cards let kids learn facts about the weather in a very fun way. Lakeshore Learning Materials

Weather is science that happens every day, so what better way to keep a budding scientist busy? With Weather Match-Ups, the researcher on your gift list can keep one eye to the weather and another to learning more about the systems that cause it. Designed for children ages 7 and 8, Weather Match-Ups will dovetail nicely with at least one earth science unit that's sure to appear in second- or third-grade classroom curricula.

More to the point, it's a fun way to start learning a few fun weather facts ahead of schedule. The set includes 12 three-piece puzzles that focus on earth science facts. Simply connect a picture to its matching word and definition, and voila -- the match-up becomes a flashcard that illustrates the basics of wind and hail, stratus and cumulus clouds, tornadoes, lightning and more. Before long, you could just have a meteorologist on your hands.


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Author's Note: 10 Holiday Gifts for Budding Scientists

When I was in the second grade, I found my older brother's science kit in the game cabinet. I still remember setting up the test tubes and mixing potions and concoctions in my room for most of the winter, the winds howling outside as I played mad scientist. Well, not really "mad." I was neither crazy nor angry, just incredibly curious and, frankly, quite happy with my scientific discoveries, whatever they were. This early foray into chemistry led to rock collections, summer science camps and homemade rocket launches. Although I never made a career out of it, science is still a long-held interest. But now I explore it with my 10- and 4-year-old daughters, who are currently plotting ways to record the voyage of their Beanie Boos into near space. They've been collecting materials and diagramming their plan for weeks. All that stands between them and their budding "Beanstronaut" is a weather balloon. Guess I know what's on their holiday gift list.

Related Articles


  • Creative KidStuff. "Chem C100 Test Lab." (Oct. 25, 2012) http://www.creativekidstuff.com/chem-c100-test-lab-science-kit.html
  • Creative KidStuff. "Detecto Lab Crime Scene Investigation Science Kit." (Oct. 25, 2012) http://www.creativekidstuff.com/detecto-lab-crime-scene-investigation-science-kit.html
  • Creative KidStuff. "Rock Science Kit." (Oct. 25, 2012) http://www.creativekidstuff.com/rock-science-kit.html
  • Home Science Tools. "Perfume Science Kit." (Oct. 25, 2012). http://www.hometrainingtools.com/perfume-science-kit/p/KT-PERFUME/
  • Lakeshore Learning. "Magnetic Science Sorting Center." (Oct. 25, 2012). http://www.lakeshorelearning.com/product/productDet.jsp?productItemID=1%2C689%2C949%2C371%2C925%2C371&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=2534374302174774&ASSORTMENT%3C%3East_id=1408474395181113&bmUID=1351548166237
  • Lakeshore Learning. "Weather Match-Ups." (Oct. 25, 2012). http://www.lakeshorelearning.com/product/productDet.jsp?productItemID=1%2C689%2C949%2C371%2C925%2C910&ASSORTMENT%3C%3East_id=1408474395181113&bmUID=1351557219441
  • Science Castle. "Solar Power PLUS." (Oct. 25, 2012) http://sciencecastle.com/sc/index.php/sciencekits/view/Solar+Power+PLUS
  • Sterner, Robert. "The Conservation of Mass." Nature Education. 2012. (Oct. 25, 2012) http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/the-conservation-of-mass-17395478
  • Steve Spangler Science. "Bacteria Growing Kit." (Oct. 25, 2012) http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/bacteria-growing-kit
  • Steve Spangler Science. "Big Bucket of Science." (Oct. 25, 2012) http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/big-bucket-of-science
  • Steve Spangler Science. "Deluxe Root Beer Kit." (Oct. 25, 2012) http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/product/deluxe-root-beer-kit