It’s almost Christmas and time to buy scientific toys for children. Here are some random ideas, of course it’s probably too late for the online stores to deliver – but there’s always next year.
The MikroKopter is a kit helicopter based on four propellors (two rotating in each direction) and is capable of semi-autonomous flight while carrying a decent payload (such as a digital camera) . The parts cost over E700 and the skill involved in assembling it is significant, but it would be an excellent present for anyone who is 14+. Of course the type of helicopter described in my previous post  is a much more affordable present and can be used by a young child.
The scitoys.com site has a good range of scientific toys for sale , they are assembled into kits.
The United Nuclear site has a huge range of chemical supplies and related things  that can be used for making some great science experiments and toys. They also have really detailed information about the potential hazards of the things that they sell (not that I was planning to buy Cesium or Uranium anyway). If buying exotic alloys elsewhere it’s probably a good idea to check the United Nuclear site for the hazard information (not all sites provide as much information as they should).
Professor Bunsen is an Australian site selling similar produces to SciToys . The range is slightly different, and if you are in Australia then it’s safer to buy locally – there is a significant amount of stuff on the United Nuclear site that would be unlikely to pass Australian customs.
The Spirograph is a good way to introduce mathematical concepts to children , it would probably be a good present for children who’s parents are not interested in maths and science.
Lego  is always good, but there are also other similar products to consider. Meccano  is good for older children, but the ranges for younger children have some deficiencies (the 2+ stuff requires the finger strength of an adult to assemble all parts).
The Italian company Quercetti has some great products . Unfortunately their web site is only in Italian and they have no links to sites in other countries/languages (they do have the names of some distributors who may have web sites). Their products includes a gears set (suitable for teaching children as young as 1yo) and a model car with an engine that has pistons moving inside a clear plastic case, a two-speed gearbox, and a fully functional differential (designed for 2yo+).
For more hands-on tasks that require supervision (not something that can go under a tree) one good option for ages 3+ is to disassemble a variety of computers and computer parts. CD-ROM drives are good because you can connect a 9V battery to the head assembly motor or the tray eject motor to make it work. Hard disks have insanely strong magnets inside them – don’t give two such magnets to a child.
A multi-meter is a great educational toy that can be used for many great experiements (as well as for practical tasks such as determining which battery of a set is flat) . The parts from a hard disk can be used to demonstrate how a generator works (the mechanism to move the heads provides you with strong magnets and a coil that fits them). Note that an analogue meter is needed for such experiments as the amount of electricity generated is small and AC – a digital meter will average it out to zero (at least for the more affordable meters that I have used). It’s probably best to own both a digital meter and an analogue one, the minimum age for owning such a meter is probably about 10, the minimum age for using one with supervision is about 3.
An oscilloscope is a great educational toy , unfortunately they are quite expensive (Ebay seems to have nothing below about $450). They can be used for all sort of fun tasks such as measuring the speed of sound. The wikipedia page notes that you can get PC based Oscilloscopes (PCO) which are cheaper. I wonder if they have Linux support for such things…
For most children in first-world countries a second-hand laptop of a more traditional design is probably a better option. There are a significant number of old laptops gathering dust which can easily have Linux installed with a variety of educational software. Buying an OLPC on the “give one get one” deal costs $400US plus tax and shipping, while a second-hand laptop can be purchased for significantly less than that. While giving an OLPC to some random needy child is a good thing, as the person who gives a laptop locally is probably going to provide support for it there are some benefits to giving a regular laptop.
Conferences often have bags of random junk to give out to delegates, and trade shows always have lots of little toys with company logos on them. Such things are usually of little use – but children like them. Also the trinkets that computer companies give away are often educational. If you have a cupboard filled with such things then unloading them on some children is a good idea – of course you have to make sure that anything you give to young children can’t be swallowed and has no sharp points.
-  http://www.mikrokopter.de/ucwiki/en/MikroKopter
-  http://etbe.coker.com.au/2008/12/11/toy-helicopter/
-  http://scitoys.com/
-  http://unitednuclear.com/
-  http://www.profbunsen.com.au/
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirograph
-  http://www.lego.com/
-  http://www.meccano.com/
-  http://www.quercetti.com/
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multimeter
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscilloscope
-  http://laptop.org/
-  http://www.olpc.org.au/