There are some great developments in the solar toy world. The technology is scalable down as well as up, so miniature solar powered products are now commonplace, and most are great fun. Get ready to fill the Christmas stocking with some of these!
First up a a way to discover the world of 'solar thermal energy'. This is the principle behind the most wide-spread solar technologies installed today - solar water heaters and pool heaters. While most people think of solar electric panels, the reality is that thermal solar solutions often provide the most cost-effective entry into the world of solar energy. The Solar Science kit from Green Science shows kids how they can heat water and cook an egg using solar power. The kit fully involves them in the projects, and gives good explanations of the science behind the fun. Expect to pay around $10, but you'll need o buy your own eggs!
Also by the same company, Green Science, is the really cool Solar Mechanics kit. For around $15 you get to build a solar-powered fan, a solar robot, and a solar spinner. This is a great introduction to solar photo-voltaic technology and mechanics for your budding engineer. And as an added plus, and talking point for you with your youngster, the kit is made using re-purposed materials - very apt!
Elenco make the Solar Deluxe Educational Kit - This is great value for less than $20 and an awesome introduction to solar energy and the electricity it can generate. The kids will get their heads around an electrical circuit, then add solar power components and use the device they've built to run a cassette player, a radio, a light, a calculator, and even a battery charger. They'll learn about amps of current vs. volts of charge. They're sure to look at your houshold lights and switches in a whole new way after playing with this kit. Great fun!
The hugely entertaining 14-in-1 Solar Robot kit from Elenco steps up the game a bit. For the transformer-robot fan in your life this is a great package, offering 14 robot variations all powered by solar energy. The kit has two skill levels, beginner and experienced, so it's sure to keep even the most inquisitive minds busy. Costs around $30.
Higher up the price and complexity scale is Elenco's Snap Circuits Alternative Energy kit. For around $50 you're young scientist can learn a bunch about green energies. There are over 125 projects to choose from out of the big full color manual, covering green technologies such as 'hand-crank', solar power, rechargeable batteries, windmill, hydro-electric power, and more. This is a really well put together educational kit.
For the more mechanically minded child, a higher-end offering is the Physics Solar Workshop from Thames & Kosmos. For under $50 you get to build 12 different solar vehicles and machines - from car & truck concepts to a drawbridge, fan, airplane and even a construction crane, using gears, levers and pulleys. All are motorized and powered with solar energy generated by photo-voltaic cells.
Eitech's Deluxe Solar Powered Construction Set comes in at around $100. For the money, you get a great kit, designed to teach kids about solar power, motorization, mechanics and more. Smaller more intricate parts may result in a demand for some adult help, but the 5 different models have detailed instructions for the more than 100 construction pieces. Expect a project to take up most of an afternoon, with the precise German engineering creating a demanding challenge for young minds.