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The best kept secrets of the STEM coordinator… Where do you get this stuff?


“I’m gonna pop some tags.”- Macklemore 

The hands down, best kept secret of the STEM coordinator is the…

Innovation labs, maker spaces, tinker materials, gaming, etc. all require large scale amounts of commonly found materials. And, for cheap. The thrift shop (or, if you have more time- yard sales) can be a fantastic source of these types of materials that can be collected over long periods of time, adding to collections to make first single group sets, then classrooms sets then full school sets perfect for open ended building and discovery.

I go to the thrift shop regularly on the weekends.

I can often find the following with regularity, for a fraction of the cost and get almost continual use at school.

Bagged and random Lego, that when collected over time create huge containers of Lego for open ended construction or even paired with Lego robotics. They are literally a fraction of the price new with zero difference in what you actually use.

There are often K’nex. If you are creating a “library” of materials for an innovation lab or a maker space, it doesn’t matter if the kits you find in the thrift shop in the taped and tattered box are complete or not, so spend that $15 on a huge ball machine set and don’t worry- you’re going to use it for parts! Our Middle School buys them for absolute rock bottom prices at the thrift shop and sorts them in these fantastic organizational drawers and kids can build *anything*. I tend to keep mine in a big mish-mosh bin. Either way, they are dirt cheap at the thrift shop and magical in kids’ hands. 

Marble runs are another frequent find, often around $3 per set. I buy them whenever I see them. Over the years I’ve found beautiful wooden ones and amassed hundreds of pieces of marble runs to satisfy whole classes or even school events. Elementary students never tire of marble runs, but the fascination and playful STEM thinking of predicting motion with marble runs is not limited to elementary students either. Our upper school has begun putting a set of marble runs in the library, and as students are working or talking, they take breaks to build elaborate marble runs. 

For early childhood, we know that wooden trains are fantastic. They are hands down one of the best tools to teach “push and pull”, which are part of kindergarten NGSS . They are also active, relaxing, engaging, and indestructible. But, they are something that kids will “grow out of”, so they make it to the thrift shop floor often. For under $50 total I’ve got huge bins of them in perfect condition. Enough for classroom activities, the library, and any other uses. Extra bonus is that you can often find train tables that families are selling on craigslist because their children have outgrown them. I just searched my local (urban) listing and found at least 15+ beautiful tables for under $75, many for under $40.

Wooden blocks and Keva planks are ALWAYS in style. There is a huge body of research supporting block play as valuable and important. In STEM we go further and students elementary through middle or even high school use them in building, when they need to create height in an invention or project, weight something down, make a pathway for a robot, etc.  School sets of sturdy, indestructible blocks can go from $200 to $2,000 dollars. They last forever. And since parents buy them and kids out grow them, they are common thrift shop scores.


Gears. These NEVER, EVER go out of style. Around here, the gears seem to come occasionally in floods at the thrift shop. But when kids get a hold of hundreds and hundreds of them… Wow. The kids can do amazing things and the learning is FANTASTIC. They are almost brain candy. And, thrift shop is *dirt cheap*.

Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. I swear, I am always searching the school for my Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys- the teachers are always borrowing them. There is a reason these bridge generations- its because they excite imaginations and feel good in your hand! I’m preferential to the wooden Tinker Toys, but I won’t pass up plastic (the plastic are great to put in water challenges as can build structures that are not affected by the water!). Both are great when kids need to create enclosures, stands, or vehicles.


If you walk by the puzzles and games, you are passing up a gold mine. You need to refine what you are looking for- for example, pass up the Candyland (what are they learning?) and dig deep in those bins if you see Bill Ding. You’ll find a treasure trove of Battleship, Chess, Mastermind, and puzzles (still in plastic is key here) as well as other games you haven’t even heard about. Keep your teacher hat on- do they ask students to use math, logic, or cooperative skills? Do they take strategy, recognizing patterns or use deductive reasoning? Are kids building, balancing, predicting? If they do, count the pieces and pop ’em in your cart for $3! These are my latest finds for my new kindergarten STEM recess cart. Complete, solid, amazing STEM… For $2.99 each. I anticipate with lots of lead time for visits, I can pull together a fantastic kindergarten STEM cart for less than $50.

Finally, weird stuff. I found things I never knew I wanted, building toys I didn’t know existed. I often also stock up on towels for sopping up big water and drop-cloth sheets (I launder them at home on my “sanitize” setting).

9 Thrift Shop Tips

1.) Every time is not a score. I have people tell me “but I went to the store you said and there was nothing there”. Yup. Some days its like that. Others I have left with 2 carts full. You have to go frequently.

2.) Some thrift stores stink. Yeah. Sorry,. Some are better than others. A little tiny one in a rural, small town is not going to be the same as a large one in the suburbs. I’m sorry. I can’t fix this. Look around, travel if you can, ask people.

3.) For games, count pieces. Nothing worse than getting home and opening the box to find out that there are missing pieces.

4.) You can clean a lot of this stuff. Anything plastic with a million pieces can go in a net bag and into the dishwasher or the clothes washer. Other things, clean as needed. But think about it- The stuff you buy new is soon going through the hands of 300 or more kids. Year to year. Hundreds and hundreds of kids touch it. Do you clean YOUR blocks? Just a little perspective. And, if it looks like it can’t be cleaned, just don’t get it.

5.) Promising thrift stores are in or near wealthy neighborhoods, are large, and have rapid turn-over of stuff. I have never been successful with little tiny thrift stores. Giant ones near expensive homes, however, are like diamond mines. Go on Mondays.

6.) Second hand kids stores and ebay count. They are going to be a bit more expensive, but its a bit easier to see the things and they are presented in a more organized way. The second hand kids stores tend to be more “shopper friendly” as well. So if you’re not ready to be Macklemore digging in a bin, start there.

7.) Develop an eye. 99% of what you are going to “see” is junk- and it is. And even the stuff that is *not* junk can *look* like junk when it is in a random plastic bag with McDonald’s happy meal toys and random puzzle pieces shoved in there. You’ll look at a wall of board games, some really battered, some games that are just stupid, and you’ll want to discount it. Train yourself to see the quality items (start with the ones above). Think about condition. Mentally separate the items so you don’t miss a beautiful block set that is next to an old plastic, broken baby toy.

8.) Go in with an open mind. If you go in saying “I need some gears!” Well, the thrift shop doesn’t work that way. Be prepared to go in for gears and walk out with a snap circuits set. Open the door knowing what types of things you are looking for then see what is there.

9.) Work with your administration regarding budget. School like it when you say “I’m ordering gears. We will use them in 3rd grade for learning on motion. Order from this company for $75.” Its much harder for schools to understand a receipt for “house wear” from Goodwill for $5.67. You may have literally saved $70 (multiplied by all the things you get there, which can add up to thousands if you get good) but it is still hard for them. You can’t plan what you need and go get it. You must only accept what the thrift store spirits give. And they come with receipts that no one in the business office likes.







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