What to Do with Summer Vacation, Part 6: Subscription Reviews for Older Kids

Happy Monday!  How is your (restful?) summer working out?  As I mentioned last week, we’ve been blessed to be part of a homeschool charter school that allows us to use our funds on educational subscriptions as well as curriculum, classes, and field trips.  There are so many cool STEM- and art-themed subscription box kits out there, and my big kids have really enjoyed spending their Friday afternoons on box kit activities rather than other, formal curriculum.  They’re also a great way to keep boredom at bay this summer!

Like I said in Friday’s review, I didn’t receive any of these for free from the publishers.  It’s so hard to know how decent a subscription really is until you’ve bitten the bullet and committed, so I’ll share our family’s opinions of a few of the options out there.  My criteria: For kits for my 10 year old, I’d really rather that he be able to do the activities pretty much on his own.  His are more science-themed, and I know that it’s my worst subject.  Big props to projects that work like they’re supposed to.  Duds just reinforce my frustration with science that dates back to failed experiments and demonstrations in my own childhood.  Some people want their science projects to be able to last; in our house, we set up the experiment/demonstration, play with it a few times, and toss it.  So I can’t comment on how sturdy they are.  For art activities, I also like things that my son can do with minimal supervision, that are open ended yet teach him a new skill, and that have quality materials.

STEM Reads Book Club is heavy on the curated book content and light on the activity content.  For $40/month (or less depending on how many months you order), they send you two or more kids’ books (at least one nonfiction and one fiction) correlating to a STEM theme (space/astronauts/coding) and a treat that has to do with the theme (funny seeds to plant, astronaut ice cream, math dice, etc) as well as an ideas inspiration card with further suggested activities to explore the topic (supplies not included).  Essentially, this is a spendy and fun way to build your science/tech/engineering/math home library.  I really do like the look of these books (they’re not cheap dollar store junk), and since these are my weakest areas academically, I can use the professional help in selecting these.  The website says that these are intended for ages 4-8, but my 10 year old will definitely be poring over them, too.  I am pleased so far, and we’ll request this as a grandparent gift in the future.

Steve Spangler Science Club has a variety of STEM-themed subscriptions.  We chose Stem Lab, which has 4 or 5 activities for $20/month (all you need is included).  These are less building-oriented and more about observing and recording scientific phenomena.  In terms of directions, the cards are very clear and well-written.  These demonstrations have actually all worked for us–this is a huge deal for me!  Many of them can be done over and over, so if you were the type to save boxes and not pitch them, you’d really get your money’s worth with these.  My son says he remembers what he learned because the activities were pretty cool.  I think Steve Spangler gets the “wow factor” that helps get kids excited about science.  This is my favorite of the science ones we’ve tried and one I’d highly recommend for grandparents looking for subscription gift ideas.

Tinker Crates have been a hit with my 10 year old–he likes them just as much as the Spangler ones.  For $20/month, he’s sent a new STEM type project to build.  I like that he has done these all totally on his own–the directions are apparently very clear and easy to follow, and my son says what makes them the best are the pictures showing you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing/building.  All supplies (plus extras) are included, and while they are kindof fiddly, I don’t care about the lack of sturdiness because we will throw them away in a couple of days.  I would definitely not ever go to the trouble of picking up supplies to make a hydraulic claw, so he’s doing science-y crafts that he would not otherwise be doing.  I’ve seen online reviews mention that some folks have had broken or missing pieces.  We’ve never had that, but they are certainly lower budget projects that are not intended to last for months or years.  For the price, I don’t mind too much.  My son says he’s learned some science, but they’re mostly just fun.

Groovy Lab in a Box is a kit I just wanted to love.  For $30/month, they include supplies to do several STEM activities (heavier on the engineering/building side) for ages 8+.  The problem is that the instructions are brief and very open-ended, and last week my son asked me to cancel our subscription because he gets frustrated by them and needs a lot of help that I don’t have the time/expertise to give right now.  My 8 year old would not be able to do any of this on her own.  Even my engineer father-in-law had trouble figuring out what exactly they were supposed to be doing, and the experiment aspect is hard to do when you’re not even sure if you have set things up properly.  These epitomize all that I hate about science as it was taught to me all the way from grade school through college–be open ended and try things out yourself!  Except that you should be coming up with results that will demonstrate this scientific fact that you already know!  But do it with cheap tools that don’t really work!  For my temperament (and apparently my son’s, as well), it’s maddening to have so many open variables when I still have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing/learning (and when I’m trying to derive scientific principles using cheap homemade “equipment” that can be sent through the mail in a shoebox-sized box).  Perhaps true scientists would love that.  I’m probably a bad mom and destroying my childrens’ future because I want them to have more direction at this stage of their scientific journey.  Oh well.  We’ll stick to the above boxes and lots of nature journaling.  My son can’t articulate anything STEM-related that he’s learned from Groovy Lab, other than that with science you often can spend a lot of time on something and still have it not work.  I guess that is an important lesson, but I don’t feel the need to spend $30/month to teach him that.

And we’ve tried one art-related subscription, too!  I know there are some open-ended crafty-type kits out there, but two years ago, I emailed my sister-in-law (the professional artist who designed the art for our blog!) and asked her what quality art supplies we should order.  So we have Prismacolor colored pencils (that even my 4 year old uses), Pelikan watercolors, Winsor & Newton brushes, and Strathmore Watercolor Paper for special watercolor projects.  Wow, there is a difference when you use good art supplies!  I can never go back to Crayola.  We do a ton of open-ended art with these supplies, and two of the kids have taken art classes, as well.  So we’re kindof beyond the cheapo stuff we’d get in many kid kits.

So MarkyBox is a subscription with real art projects (for advanced kids or adults).  We got three huge boxes for $33 apiece that each had a pretty intense activity (plaster mold of your fist, paper marbling, tin printing) with everything you need included, plus pretty detailed directions.  My son loves art and tried these mainly on his own.  With minimal help from me, they turned out…okay.  They’re a fun introduction to real, “grown-up” art, but I’d definitely recommend them for an older kid or plan to be actively involved in every step of the process.

In the future, we’re looking forward to trying out a robotics or coding subscription.  Anyone have favorites they’d like to share with the rest of us?  Have you tried any of the ones here?


(The amazon links for the art supplies are affiliate links–if you purchase through them, we get a tiny percentage back to help fund our blog hosting fees.  The subscription links are not affiliate links–we get no kickback for sending you to any of their sites.)

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One Response to What to Do with Summer Vacation, Part 6: Subscription Reviews for Older Kids

  1. Anitra says:

    Thanks for reviewing the Tinker Crate in there! Confirms my suspicions that it’s still a great set, just not right for my daughter. I have two half-done projects sitting on my desk (Hydraulic Claw and Infinity Mirror) that she just isn’t interested in trying to finish, and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with them. It hurts a little to just throw them away not done.

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