As we approach the holiday season, we are often asked for ideas for gift giving for young children. One area of play and learning that is very attractive to young children is science and nature. Young children don’t require highly specialized or expensive equipment to learn how to explore the natural world scientifically. They do need, as Rachel Carson mused in The Sense of Wonder, is “the companionship of at least one adult who can share it.”

Simple toys and tools can engage children as they explore natural phenomena in ways that will support their later science learning. Adults who allow children to play and work through small difficulties by themselves support children as they build an understanding of how the world works.

Below, we share five toys and tools, as suggested by NAEYC for Families’ Peggy Ashbrook, that are relatively inexpensive – and easy to find – that young children find irresistible.

  1. Spinning Tops

Concept: Use these toys as tools to explore motion.

How to support exploration: Ask your child open-ended questions, such as, “How hard do you have to push each type of top before it begins to spin?” Use these toys as tools to explore motion.

Where to purchase: Look for tops in party stores or in catalogs that sell small plastic party favors.

  1. Magnifiers

Concept: Magnifiers extend our sight by making objects look bigger.

How to support exploration: Magnifiers reveal aspects of nature that are too small to see with just our eyes. Examine skin, coins, flower structures, and insects—all objects with small parts that make up the whole.

Where to purchase: Drug stores and discount stores sell inexpensive plastic magnifiers, or you can order them from a scientific supply company.

  1. Eye Droppers or Pipettes

Concept: As children use eyedroppers and pipettes to move liquids, they learn a lot about how liquids behave. For example, they learn that when they squeeze the bulb, the dropper pushes air out, and when they release the bulb, it pulls water in. Children this age can also observe that water forms drops.

How to support exploration: Show your child how to squeeze the dropper to force the air out of the bulb, and how to release it to allow it to pop back into shape. Your child can feel the air as it leaves the dropper by holding the dropper up to her cheek (but away from her eyes) as she squeezes the bulb. Use the dropper to suck up small amounts of rain from a puddle, or to mix colored water from one dish with water of a different color in another. All of these activities have the added benefit of helping your child develop small motor control.

Where to purchase: A pharmacy or dollar store.

  1. Mirrors

Concept: Playing with mirrors to reflect light and wondering how our image is reflected teaches children a beginning understanding about the properties of light.

How to support exploration: Bounce light off of different surfaces. A large plastic “baby” mirror, held freely, is especially good for this. Have your children use mirrors to look behind themselves. “Catch” some sunshine and reflect it to another surface outside or inside. Children can use a mirror to examine their face to draw a self-portrait. Children are more likely to draw from the observations they see in the mirror and not from memory if they are encouraged to focus on parts of their face they don’t usually begin with, such as their nostrils. Ask, “Do you see the holes in your nose? How many are there?”

Where to purchase: Buy mirrors at a pharmacy or dollar store. “Baby” or designed-for-preschool plastic mirrors can be ordered from preschool, or scientific, education supply companies.

  1. Magnets

Concept: Children can play with magnetic force and explore this property of materials. By using the phrase, “attracted to the magnet,” instead of “sticking to the magnet,” you reinforce that there is no “stickiness” involved – magnetism is a force that pulls or pushes. How it does this involves understanding that all materials are made of tiny pieces too small to see (atoms), a concept that children will build toward understanding around age 10. There is no need to rush this understanding. In early childhood, children can understand that being attracted by a magnet, or not, is the nature of a material.

How to support exploration: Ask questions such as, “What objects in my house can be attracted to a magnet?” and “Can magnetic force work through fabric?” Put the magnet in a sock and see if it can still attract objects.

Where to purchase: Be sure to buy magnets that are too large for a child to swallow. These can be found in hardware stores or toy stores, or they can be ordered from preschool, or scientific, education supply companies.

With these simple instruments, children can learn to explore their natural world. Without the natural world we could not manufacture any of the human-made materials that make our lives easier and more comfortable. The natural world is the most important science tool of all, so go outside with your child, breathe, look around, and explore.