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Julie Misener is Executive Assistant to the President, Let’s Talk Science

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Ignite curiosity and wonder this holiday season with these simple, inexpensive and environmentally friendly gifts that will get young children, aged 4 to 8, excited and engaged in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). These ideas can also be adapted to suit other ages.

Up Close with Magnifiers Mix

A magnifying glass, simple microscope or bug viewer opens up a whole new world. Just about anything manmade or from nature can be examined to reveal the unexpected. To get kids started, collect a few interesting items to include with the magnifier: insects, animal fur and skin, pieces of plants and trees, seeds, rocks and minerals, fingerprints, textiles, stamps, coins and computer chips. Let your aspiring engineer take apart and explore a piece of old technology - before it goes to be recycled! Here are some resources for digging deeper into the details of soil and insects.

Clever Chemistry Collection

Create a simple chemistry kit with ingredients from the kitchen to inspire your young scientist. Include baking soda, dish soap, vinegar, cooking oil and food colouring. Package them in safe, colourful containers if you like. With the addition of plasticine, a straw, Q-tip and plastic bottle, kids can create a bottle-rocket. There are loads of other activities too including exploring the best way to clean up an oil spill or why some liquids don’t mix well – with this kit, they can create goop that isn’t easily defined as either a solid or a liquid or make a volcano.

Happy Horticultural Kit

Take some dried beans, peas or other seeds, include a small bag of potting soil and an interesting container, and watch your kid’s passion for plants blossom. You could also purchase an interesting, easy-care plant like a touch-me-not or kalanchoe, pair it with a clear container with a lid and share these instructions for how to create a terrarium. There are many activities to engage kids of all ages in horticulture on Let’s Talk Science’s Tomatosphere pages and other experiments including one to explore how water moves in a plant.

Builder’s Toolbox

Spark creative thinking and problem-solving skills with an inventor’s kit. Include things like straws, pipe cleaners, styrofoam pieces, plasticine, different kinds of tape (e.g. scotch, duct), popsicle sticks, rubber bands, toothpicks, paper clips, sponges or foam, small paper or plastic cups, a ruler – any interesting building ingredient you might have or can get at a dollar store. Share these design and build challenges to get them started: musical instrument; rollercoaster; tall tower; marble run; seed sorter; soil sifter.

Geology Gift Pack

Gather or purchase some inexpensive but interesting rocks to ignite their interest and include a book about rocks and minerals. You could also include a segmented plastic box for sorting and saving rocks in a collection. Here are some resources including explorations of different types of rocks and minerals, crystals, the rock cycle in Canada and the effects of acid rain on limestone.

Magnetic Mish-Mash

Get a variety of magnets (horseshoe, bar, ring magnets, magnet marbles, magnetic tape). Many of these are available at a dollar store. Add a penny (if you can find one), a nickel and other coins, paper clips, brass fasteners (some people call these elephant clips). Include some items that look like metal and are not e.g. metallic plastic items so kids can experiment with what is attracted to a magnet. You can include pompoms and other craft materials so kids can design and build their own decorative magnets with the magnetic tape. Magical magnet resources include what magnets do, exploring magnets, and a challenge to design and build a toy that moves.

Dinosaur Delight

Let your child be a paleontologist! Get a collection of plastic dinosaurs. Sort the meat-eaters from the plant-eaters. Using Plaster of Paris, modeling clay, a container and spoons for mixing the plaster, create casts of different dinosaur footprints to learn how fossils were formed. Search for real fossils in found stones and stone buildings. Here are some great resources to help kids dig into this fascinating prehistoric topic.

Science is all around us and kids are naturally curious. In an increasingly complex world, it is worth taking time to explore the simple things. These gifts can open up infinite possibilities and develop important life and future career skills. And they may even inspire your own sense of wonder and curiosity.