Shopping local for educational holiday toys

Every year, parents bemoan the excess of Christmas and, in particular, the wrapped toys that children eagerly rip open and often abandon just as quickly. What makes a good toy? Frequently the best toys are the ones that challenge and engage a child beyond a trend or shiny plastic parts.

Below are a handful of gift ideas that have been recognized as some of the best educational toys for children ages 2 to 18, with the majority priced at or under $25.

A few 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 at The Toy Store and Cornerstone Kids. All prices and ages are approximate.


Building & Construction

I am always a fan of building kits. Squigz Suction Construction ($25) enables kids ages 6 to 8 to build flexible creations that tower, bounce and stick to almost any surface – even windows. For the 5 and under set, there is pipSquigz.

Kids ages 8 and up can replicate 100 electronic experiments with Snap Circuits ($30+). All of the easy-snap pieces are color-coded and named to represent real electronic parts. Experiments include radios, doorbells, flashlights and alarms.

The Littlebits kits for ages 7 to 12 are the real deal … electronic modules – switches, dimmers, bulbs, buzzers and the like – that can be arranged to build specific projects, but can be also tinkered with to create whatever kids can dream up. Instead of springs and strand wire, LittleBits’ modules all connect magnetically, which make experimentation with soldering and wire-stripping free and safe. ($100 to $200)

While this is a book, “Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff” ($19) has some creative ideas that can keep dad and child busy for many weekends to come. Readers’ Books has a good collection of similar books.

Along the same lines, “The Book of Impossible Objects” sets out 25 different activities (and lessons on the science behind the illusions) that encourage critical thinking, creativity, following directions, understanding of perception ($18). Like what you ask? A set of hinged mirrors, acetate animations viewer, optical spinners, 3D stare-a-saurus, phenakistoscope wheel and more.


Puzzles and Games

Perplexus Epic for ages 8 and up is a challenging 3D marble maze game housed in a sphere ($25). Players have 125 barriers to overcome, developing speed and balance skills. Also available at the rookie level.

Tenzi ($17) is billed as the world’s fastest dice game. Players ages 7 to 17 roll dice over and over until they all land on the same number. The companion book, “77 Ways to Play Tenzi,” is $10.

Similar to Yahtzee, the self-contained, virtually unbreakable dice game Double Shutter for ages 8 and up combines luck, logic and strategy ($22).

Great for long car rides is Find It ($22). Kids ages 8 and up shake, twist and study a sphere filled with what looks like ice cream sprinkles to find a variety of objects hidden inside.

Flexicubes ($14) range in difficulty from simple to genius and they challenges kids ages 6 and up to duplicate a set construction goal or to see how many different designs they can come up with.

Q-Ba-Maze 2.0 is the next generation of marble maze. This construction toy is great for ages 5 and up ($25).

Cool Circuits is a 3D puzzle circuitry game for ages 8 and up. When you get it right, the puzzle lights up and plays music ($20).

The 4D Cityscape History Time Puzzles for ages 8 and up are a great way to learn geography and history ($40). The first two layers of the puzzle form a geographical city map with streets, roads and parks. The third layer adds the dimension of time, by laying down the buildings as they were built over the past century.

In the popular and virtually identical Headbanz ($15) and Head’s Up Party games ($20) for ages 8 and up, teams act out popular categories without talking.

I love the word game WordARound ($13). This fast-paced game for ages 10 and up challenges players to discover words that are disguised by being written in a circular shape.

Kids who love the game Apples to Apples should enjoy Separation Anxiety ($22). In this game of visual detanglement and logic connections. players (ages 9 and up) unscramble overlapping colorful words and determine their relationship.



Switching gears, my son’s favorite field trip ever revolved around owl barf. Owl Pellets ($10) enable kids to dissect and examine the regurgitation of different own species in search of animal bones. The kits come with a guide to explain to the kids what they are looking at.

Smart Labs’ Inside Out model teaches kids ages 8 and up the inner workings of the human body with removable organs and a graphically compelling companion book ($30).

The Genetics & DNA Experiment Kit for ages 10 and up contains 20 experiments about biological inheritance ($38).


Arts & Writing

For the musically inclined, consider Symphony in B for ages 3 to 13. This toy has great sound quality and it lets a child conduct an orchestra by switching out 13 different instruments in an orchestra pit to create millions of musical combinations ($65).

In an unusual twist, the Dude Diary 3.0 encourages boys ages 5 to 15 to draw, doodle and write in a very cool diary ($11).

Tell Me A Story cards help children ages 3 and older to imagine their own stories. The themed card sets are perfect for long car rides ($11).


Toddler Toys

What about our tiniest tots? Battat Elemenosqueeze ($28) features a different animal hand-sculpted for every letter. Babies can chew on them, toss them in the tub, build a masterpiece, all while learning the alphabet.

Nothing beats plain old wood blocks, except maybe wooden blocks that help with foreign language acquisition! Uncle Goose Wooden Blocks come in French, Spanish, Chinese, Italian and Japanese, designed to teach small children letters and basic words in a gorgeous and tactile way ($46).

Roll & Play for ages 18+ months is the first-ever board game designed for toddlers ($20). Little ones exercise both their minds and motor skills by acting out cards that say “Make a happy face” and “Tickle your knees.”



Finally, there are some great options that can’t be bought in a toy store. How about a garden planter box from Friedman’s so your children can plan and plant their own gardens; cooking lessons from Ramekins (could you give a young man a better gift than being able to cook for himself?); or a simple pedometer or fancy Nike Fuel Band so your child (ages 10+) can track their activity each day (perfect for a competitive athlete or a student who needs motivation to get up and get moving).