Toys that Build Little Minds from our Resident Rocket Scientist

One of the most shocking things I found when we toured JPL was that they had toys in the Mechanical Design Center! They use them to demonstrate the designs they have in mind when they are brainstorming wild ideas in the early stages of a project. I am a geeky Mom and am pretty mindful about what kinds of toys I buy my kids. I really believe they can help their little minds when they are developing to think in creative ways. I would so much rather spend my money on something that is fun and educational at the same time. I was pretty happy to find some of the toys we had at our house were in the design center 🙂

I talked to our resident rocket scientist, Mars Rover builder, and most importantly father – Mark, to identify the toys they use to model and also to give us his input on other toys that are great for developing minds. (Before anyone points to government waste here – these were all purchased or donated by the employees themselves – NOT JPL) So here they are straight from the Mechanical Design Center at Jet Propulsion Laboratories:



ZOOB – These were the ones I saw the most of. They were in the Design Center and in Marks office. You can build all sorts of things with them. I’m pretty sure there are going to be some of these under our Christmas tree this year!

Geomag and Magnetix

Magnetix & Geomag – We actually have some of these and my boys like them. They are fun but you really do need two or three sets to be able to build anything substantial. These are not just toys for boys! They come in pink!  Its just as important for girls to develop the left side of their minds too, especially since these things might not always come as easily to them as they do to boys. These are definitely for older kiddos too! There are small round magnets included  so if you have smaller children be careful when these are around!


Quercetti – These are fun gears that can be built together. The board is not a set pattern, and can be build in various shapes and includes handle for making the gears turn. They also make marbles runs and sets of gears with wheels.

 Frigits Wall Coasters

Wall Coaster – This was awesome! Caleb and Davis had so much fun setting up their own track. The one at JPL is magnetic and stays really well on the wall. They have a ton of really cool add on’s like the launcher and corners.

Switch Pitch Throwing Ball

Switch Pitch Throwing Ball – Mark loves this ball and in his words, “its just a really cool design.” When you throw the ball the color of the ball changes so when the other person catches it, its a new color. They also have the Hoberman: Sphere.

LEGO Mindstorms NXT

LEGO Mindstorms NXT – Holy Cow these looks SO fun! Obviously for older kids but seriously so cool!

These next ones were not in the design center but they are Rocket Scientist approved. Mark said they take longer to get the design you are trying to demonstrate across which is why they are not used as much.



LEGO & LEGO Friends – Great for building and creating. It also helps with following directions. With Lego Friends Lego’s have totally become a more enjoyable toy for girls too!


KNEX – Definitely a toy for older kids. These are great for building and they even bring gears, pulleys, and mechanics into the mix. Great for helping naturally teach gravity and forces!

Battat Take Apart Toys

Battat Take Apart Airplane – This is just downright so cool! I Beckham really wants one! They also have a 4X4, Roadster, and Crane.

So there you have it – some fun and new ideas for toys to buy for Christmas that you can feel really good about!

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Previous author of Over the Big Moon. I shared my passion for home and family life! I love graphic design, DIY projects, cooking, and working in my garden! My favorite role is taking care of my husband and our 3 amazing and busy boys!

Comments (7)

  • Me and my fiance are both mechanical engineers, so I’m always looking for toys to help grow my kid’s minds and imaginations… while still being totally fun.
    Those Zoobs I have to say are AMAZING! Our daycare has them, and our three year old heads straight towards them during choice (or free play) time first thing in the morning.
    And, as far as stereotypical “boy” toys go, I do agree that there is so much gender segregation with how we allow our children to play. I try to encourage what might be more girlish play with things like dress-up, and home-making… like the chef’s hat and apron I made. He can pretend to cook, or be a waiter, or be and artist… Doesn’t have to be nerdy to help build minds 🙂

  • Great gift ideas. My oldest son is studying Mechanical Engineering now and his toy of choice when he was young was k’nex. I do think this toy really exercised his mind!

    • I only have sons so obviously our toys are geared more for boys at our house. But I do have all of my old Barbies and doll house furniture for when we have girls come to our house. Without fail when girls come to our house to play they play with Lego’s more than any other toy. I also have seen my boys play dolls when we go to homes where there are mostly girl toys. I think we do our kids a disservice by trying to clump them into one form of toy. Boys can learn so much by the role playing that comes more naturally with girl toys, and girls can use the spacial developments that comes with stereotypical boy toys.

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