Shopping local for Christmas toys that teach
So many toys are a terrible waste of money but there are dozens of great options available these days that are both fun for children and educational. Rather than cringe at the sight of yet another plastic piece of junk under the Christmas tree, parents might consider tracking down some of the toys recently recognized as the best educational toys for children, with the vast majority priced under $25.
Some of these toys are only available online but most can be found right here in Sonoma stores. I’ve seen many of them flying off the racks in the educational toy section of The Toy Shop and at Cornerstone Kids. All prices are approximate, and the good news is that they are a lot less expensive than your average video game.
For the 5-and-under set, one of the hottest toys for aspiring engineers are Citiblocs ($21). Block play is associated with later math competence and these blocks are simple, irresistible and will actually appeal to all ages. The set comes with 100 blocks that are all the same size, resulting in endless creative options. This is widely considered the best STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) toy out there. If you can’t find these, Kapla and Keva Planks are similar products.
Another popular toy along these lines is Wedgets ($20). These sets of stacking plastic pyramid block sets are great for creative play. Slightly more complex and a great introduction to the concept of gears is provided by the colorful Kaleidogears ($29) and another similar popular option is Maga-Tiles ($20). A few other great ones: Autoblox Mini Toy Cars ($23), Duplo Play with Numbers ($26) and Learning Resources Cash Register ($40).
For ages 6-to-8, the 2011 Golden Apple Award winner for best STEM toy is Geomate Jr. by Aisphere ($60). Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Kids navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location. This toy is the quickest and easiest way to start geocaching. No downloads, Internet connection, or typing in coordinates necessary.
There are also some great science oriented kits for students this age. Two popular choices include the Ant-o-Sphere which enables kids to design and build an ant ecosystem; and Kitchen Science ($13) which creates science experiments out of common kitchen items. Three other popular picks include the Little Librarian set ($20); the book “Your Life in Comics: 100 Things for Guys to Write and Draw,” ($10); and Dig a Dino T-Rex ($9).
Other interesting recommendations from educators include “MENSA’s Mighty Mind Benders: 75 Number Puzzles,” ($25); the family card game “SET” ($13): and “Rory’s Story Cubes,” which exercise imagination and writing skills ($10
Kids 9 and older should love Math Magic ($17). This toy is a collection of brainteasers, miniature card games and magic tricks, all of which discretely teach math concepts and fundamentals. For kids more interested in science than math, “Sustainable Earth Lab” is a cool hands-on way for your child to explore the fundamentals of climate science. Students this age might also get a kick out of “ReCon 6.0 Programmable Rover,” ($65). This introduction to computer programming comes in the form of a robot that can be programmed to walk, turn and deliver small items. Other favorites include “Wild Science Perfect Perfume Laboratory,” ($14); “The Letters for Freedom”($12) hands-on history book; “Future Farm,” by Wild Science ($25); “Zoomy Digital Microscope,” ($60); and “Klutz Guide to the Galaxy,” ($13).
Apart from these hot picks, here are some tips for parents eager to choose the perfect learning toy. The author of “Play + Learning,” Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, believes that the best toys can be used over and over and in multiple ways, inspire creativity and imagination, and can be enjoyed with other children. She prefers toys that let children take the lead and don’t require a lot of instruction or oversight from parents. Her overall message: “Simpler is smarter.”
None of these toys are kits, but experts at Stanford’s research lab for child development offer a list of materials that help young people learn. Those items, all available at Fine Line Art Supply in town, including staples such as paper, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, tape, easel paints, water colors, sand and play dough, and the like. The list also includes simple musical instruments like ukuleles ($40) and recorders ($15) available at the Sonoma Valley Music Store; and hats, props, and dress-up clothes, which can be found easily at the Church Mouse or similar second hand stores.
Entering the 21st century, it would be hard to recommend learning toys these days without mentioning a few that require a cord. Of these, among the top-rated are: “LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer Learning Tablet,” for ages fout to nine ($195); “LeapFrog Scribble and Write,” for ages three-to-five ($20); “Playskool Alphie Robot,” for ages 3-to-9 ($45); “LeapFrog My Own Leaptop,” for ages 2-to-4, ($25); and Fisher-Price “Laugh & Learn Smart Screen Laptop,” for ages 6 months to 3 years ($20).
And I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the hottest educational video games right now. Experts are divided on the value of these games but they are surely a big improvement over your average shoot-em up game. Elementary and middle school children will enjoy the National Geographic “Challenge,” ($20) that uses stunning images from National Geographic as the back-drop against which players race against each other for world domination, and take quizzes while racing from the desert to the Antarctic.
I also love a game called “Quarrel,” (free, available now for iPad and iPhone), which melds “Risk” and “Scrabble.”
For the middle school and high school set, “Mercury Hg” is set in a surreal, 3D version of the periodic table. Built for PS3 or Xbox 360 (free), you wind your way through mazes as you add element after element until completing the table. And finally, in an old favorite made brand new, Monopoly Collection ($39, Wii) shrinks you and your family to game-piece size so you can live in Park Place, spend a night in jail and construct your tenements from the ground up.
There are actually hundreds of options in these categories. These were the most highly recommended toys, but all of these seem superior to yet another stuffed animal or plastic doll.