Did you know playing with blocks can improve math scores as kids get older? Certain toys really do give kids a leg up in important science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills.

Every year, GreatSchools.org presents its Golden Apple Awards for the best learning toys of the holiday shopping season. For 2011, the education website added the STEM toy category to highlight new toys that can help your child build STEM skills—and make learning fun. These nine toys, in age categories from 3 to 9 and older, are all Golden Apple Winners. For more information about educational learning toys and STEM toys, visit GreatSchools.org.

For Ages 3-5

Kaleido Gears by QuercettiKaleido Gears

Quercetti; $25.99; ages 3–6
For children who are obsessed with mechanical and transportation toys, this one allows for a close-up look at how gears and wheels work in an open-ended, playful way. For the visual child, the multi-colored parts can inspire mini-design projects about how colors fit and mesh together.

What it teaches: small-motor skills, 
fluid intelligence, engineering fundamentals about interconnected parts.

Citiblocs Cool Colors by CitblocsCitiblocs Cool Colors

Citiblocs; $25; ages 3–100
All 200 of the precision-cut blocks are identically shaped—narrow rectangles that scream “build, create, collaborate!” Younger testers played for long periods of concentrated time. Older testers worked in teams to create building games, intricately shaped towers, and domino-effect boobie traps.

What it teaches: structural engineering basics, pattern recognition, cause-and-effect, collaboration, problem-solving, creative thinking, small-motor skills.

My First LEGO SetMy First LEGO® Set

Lego; $14.99; ages 3–7
The youngest tester needed pretty constant adult guidance as she strove to build a village, but luckily this toy comes with instructions for quick-gratification constructions like two-piece flowers and a five-piece cat. When they feel ready, pint-sized builders can progress to more complex construction projects, such as the house and windmill.

What it teaches: building, constructing, following instructions, small-motor skills.

For Ages 6-8

Geomate Jr.Geomate Jr.

Geomate; $69.95; ages 5–8
The device comes preloaded with 250,000 “treasure” locations nationwide. When you turn it on, Geomate finds your location and instantly locates the closest “geocache”—coins, toy jewelry, plastic jewels, a note—that are hidden in, say, the crook of a tree, under a rock, or behind a brick in a wall.

What it teaches: navigating and using a compass, exploring the outdoors, following directions, using technology.

The Klutz Guide to the GalaxyThe Klutz Guide to the Galaxy

Klutz; $19.99; ages 6+
This simply elegant learning kit packs a world of learning into one tidy box that includes a telescope, sundial, night-sight flashlight, star and moon maps, and scores of activities. Constructed out of stiff paper and simple lenses, the telescope is fairly easy for a child to assemble and get working. The sundial is also a cinch to assemble and to use—no batteries required.

What it teaches: astronomy, cosmology, navigation, hands-on learning.

Zoomy Handheld Digital MicroscopeZoomy™ Handheld Digital Microscope

Learning Resources; $59.99; ages 5–15
This handheld microscope projects its images onto a computer screen, thereby allowing kids to explore micro realities via a large image that’s easy to see, share, and discuss. This tool offers kids a way to explore an 
otherwise inaccessible world that’s right 
under their fingertips.

What it teaches: scientific observation, biological exploration, technical skills.

For Ages 9 and Up

Math Magic by 4M Kids LabsMath Magic

4M Kidz Labs; $12.95; ages 7-–13
This collection of brain teasers, miniature card games, and magic tricks exemplify what an innovative teacher might do on a Friday afternoon for a fun break—building brain cells and having no end of fun to boot. It’s a great way to teach kids that math isn’t about worksheets, it’s magic.

What it teaches: math concepts and fundamentals.

Sustainable Earth Lab from Thomas & KosmosSustainable Earth Lab

Thames & Kosmos; $54.95; ages 8–13
Having trouble explaining to your child why the world is getting warm and sea levels are rising? Do you know how CO2 affects the atmosphere? Sustainable Earth Lab, a multi-faceted science kit, will go a long way toward making your child more knowledgeable about climate science than your average well-educated adult.

What it teaches: climate science principles, laboratory practices, and earth science fundamentals.

ReCon 6.0 Programmable RoverReCon 6.0 Programmable Rover

SmartLab Toys; $69.99; ages 9–13
Aside from doing chores, this mighty little toy will make a robot-obsessed child’s dreams come true. Kids can program this big-as-a-breadbox robot to walk and turn, talk, and deliver small items. Big fun!

What it teaches: a basic introduction to computer programming.