Genius Gems: a STEM-Based Play Space

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A few weeks ago, my nine-year-old daughter, Becca, and I were invited to check out a new indoor STEM-based play space in Millburn for families called Genius Gems. After looking at the description, I was very intrigued: "The world’s largest collection of magnetic tiles at your finger tips. A unique STEM experience for kids and adults."  Cool! 

As a former math and science teacher, and founder of our elementary school’s STEM Fair, I am up for anything STEM-related! I also have a special place in my heart for magnetic tiles—the plastic magnetic pieces that kept my kids happily occupied for hours when they were younger, and will still play with if I pull out the box. They build towers (often hiding my daughter’s small plastic dolls in each level of the tower), design floor patterns that look like disco stages, and piece the triangular tiles together to form the tops of castles. They also love throwing balls at their towers to see which parts withstand the hit and which sections crumble. I know from experience--magnetic tiles can be the foundation of hours of fun!

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The main feature of Genius Gems is their collection of 24,000 magnetic tiles. When you walk in, you are instantly drawn to the metal frame of a kid-sized playhouse that’s about 4 feet tall. Sections have been filled in with the colorful tiles, and, inevitably, sections that some kids are working on are seconds away from crashing down. No tears, though, because this just gives them a chance to learn what designs will work, and they also learn that their towers can quickly be built right back up again. While we were there, the friendly staff coordinated one of their daily engineering challenges by getting kids working on a bridge challenge--see if they can build a bridge made from tiles from one end of the room to the other (spoiler alert--they did!), then ride a wooden train across it (again--they did!).

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After we learned about all the rooms and projects in the play space, my daughter immediately headed for the Mystery Box Challenge room. Upon entering, each kid is given a box filled with about 10 pieces of random "stuff"--sequins, buttons, finger lights, toothpicks, craft sticks, wooden shapes, pieces of cardboard, etc. Kids can then look at the list of challenge suggestions (arranged by age level) to complete using the materials in their box, such as: A way to save the dinosaurs from extinction; A huge tornado is heading for your house. Create a way to stop it; You wake up and discover that you have shrunk to the size of an any. Invent a way to climb safely out of bed and get to school/work on time. My daughter chose this last challenge, and used her bits of straw, string, finger light, and cardboard to create a rocket blaster that would safely transport her. Kids can then take their creations home.

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Next, we checked out the robotics room. We spent quite a while experimenting with the Ozobots and Cublets. The staff helped explain how they worked, plus they had very clear instruction sheets. Ozobots are tiny roundish robots on wheels. If you draw a thick line on the paper on the table, the robot follows it. The colors you use on the line determine the robot's movements. For example, blue-black-blue=fast; green-black-red=go left; blue-red=U turn (line end). Cublets are small cubes, each with its own purpose. Some were power sources, other were flashlights, speakers, drives, etc. Kids connect the cubes together to create robots with various purposes. Becca made a pretty cool rolling flashlight.

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Back in the main magnetic tile room, we took some time to play with the magnetic wall. Becca designed a "B" on the wall with tiles, and then she worked on the marble run (actually, ping pong ball run). She set up the tubes along the wall to try to get a ping pong ball to travel into a bucket at the end. After a few failed runs, and a few more adjustments, she did it! Then we moved on to the timed pyramid challenge table. First, Becca cleared the work pad, and lined up her tiles on the side so they are ready to go. Then she put her hands on the start position, lifted them, and the timer started. She built her pyramid, and slapped the "end" button, then added her time to the dry-erase board. Of course, she had to try it several times to try to improve her time, and made me do it, too . (That really didn't take much convincing!)

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Around the edges of the main room, there were also small nooks with train tracks, foam blocks, and tables to build more designs with the magnetic tiles. (There was a really cool 2-foot tall heart and a robot some kids made.) Before we left, of course we had to check out the snack bar and gift shop. The snack bar was stocked with healthy and organic grab-and-go snacks. The gift shop offers sets of magnetic tiles and other STEM-related toys and games. (FYI--Genius Gems is credit-only. No cash is accepted.) Though many parents choose to play alongside their kids, if you need a break, there are plenty of comfy "poof" seats and chairs, and there is a café with a clear sight line of the play space. (Parents must remain present in the room and are responsible for their children, except during camps, classes, and some special events.)

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Becca and I really enjoyed playing and being creative together at Genius Gems! It was just the right combination of educational fun for kids. We loved the choices and variety of play options, and we especially enjoyed being able to explore them together! 

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Genius Gems is located at 215 Millburn Ave, Millburn, NJ www.geniusgems.com (973) 376-2623 Admission is $15 + tax per person (children under 2 are free with a sibling). Check the Web site for specials. Monthly memberships also available. Genius Gems offers classes (engineering, inventions, chemistry, robotics, etc.) for ages 2-12, summer camps, field trips, birthday parties, and special events like Teen Nights, Nanny/Care-Giver meetups, Sensory-Friendly events, and Home-School events. (If you have an idea for an event, they encourage you to talk with them so they can make it happen!) Check out the calendar at the bottom of here for events.