If you have children who want to do more than a casual exploration of science, but no one is sure where to start, using a kit is a great way to open some doors and explore some possibilities.
The science kit market has boomed in recent years and you can find kits everywhere, of varying quality and complexity. My son received a solar-power "robot" kit last Christmas and when we put it together, either the parts weren't machined for free movement or the teeny solar panel didn't work, as the thing didn't budge. Not even in direct sunlight in July. It was rather disappointing. Fortunately, we have other solar panel and robotics opportunities in the house, so this wasn't a big blip in our science journey. Still, in my mind, it's important to purchase kits of high quality that a child can use and reuse, confident of a good result. There may be an initial cost difference, but a good kit will save you money (or at least break even) in the long run.
This list contains the ones we know about. There may be manufacturers of kits that I don't know of, so please feel free to add your suggestion in the comments.
Yes, Lego again. It is seriously difficult to beat Lego quality when it comes to their educational kits. Their renewable energy kit, complete with solar panel, is fantastic. We have an older model of the kit, but the new one looks even better (isn't that always the way!). You can watch a video about the components here. You can now incorporate this kit into the Lego Mindstorms robotics kit and do even bigger and better things with it.
Lego Dacta is only available in Canada through Spectrum Education.
And speaking of Mindstorms, yes. I realize that not all kids are into robots or Lego. But if your kids are science minded at all, then Mindstorms is brilliant. You don't have to join a League or be part of a competition to enjoy making robots. You also don't have to buy a fancy "education" kit - buying the basic kit from the local toy store (or online) is a good place to begin. If you don't live with a computer whiz yourself, you may want to hold off this purchase until your kids are old enough (9+ years) to figure out the object-oriented programming that's required to make the robot work. The programming was created with kids in mind, so they will be able to figure it out.
Thames and Kosmos
Thames and Kosmos science kits cannot be beat. Some of their "kits" may be a bit of a reach in terms of what's actually in the box (look at the site... each kit's contents are on full display), but if you settle for some of the hard-core science kits, there will be a lot to work with. In addition, there are great kits for those kids who spend hours in the bathroom making concoctions of our your toothpaste, hair products, and hand lotion. And there are kits for kids who like to putter in the kitchen.
Some of these kits are quite an investment and some are hard to find in Canada (especially the Chemistry sets, which is too bad as they are fantastic and can't be shipped across the US/Canada border). You can find some of the kits at Mastermindtoys.com and Efston Science (both Canadian online stores). If you find a local or Canadian online supplier for the Chemistry kits, could you please let me know? (Thanks!)
The ScienceWiz kits are very well done and tend to be most suitable for kid ages 6 to 12. We had a lot of fun with the kits when my son was 5 and 6. Most of the materials you need come in the kit and the instruction booklet is the best I've seen yet. It's sturdy (so you can repeat everything), colourful, with easy-to-understand text and illustrations.
They are adding new kits to the series all the time, so it's good to check back now and then. You can find these kits through Spectrum Education (hard to find online, easy to find in their print catalogue), Efston Science, or MastermindToys.com.
Elenco Snap Circuits
These sets are a fantastic way to learn about electronics - nothing else on the market can touch them. There are hundreds of project ideas in each kit, and it's really worthwhile to get the largest set you can (the SC-500) so that your children have lots of opportunities to try out the experiments suggested before they go on to make their own. Snap Circuits are easy to use, with no soldering, and the sets are very sturdy. There are also add-on sets you can get, as well as things like remote controlled vehicles.
You can get a set through Mastermindtoys.com, Efston Science, or directly from Elenco (via Shopatron).
One of my favourite places to browse for science ideas is Steve Spangler's website. We've also ordered some kits and materials from his site (braving the border "ding"), and we've been really happy with what we've got so far. He puts together an assortment of science kits, including a fabulous Halloween Science kit (coming up soon!), based on some of his wacky experiments (his YouTube channel is great, too).
I've already mentioned Spectrum. There is one other excellent Canadian-based supplier of science equipment and supplies (including live specimens for biology, such as caterpillars and tadpoles): Boreal/Northwest . These supplies tend to be more traditional school-type supplies, which are very helpful to have on hand for kids whose science interests take them deeper.
Other suggestions for both science kits and suppliers most welcome!!