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Bundles of holiday learning gifts

This holiday season why not create a group of learning gifts around a theme that will appeal to your child? Pick a theme (such as dogs, chess, space, or cars) and Parents' Choice has a bundle for you!

Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club
Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club

By Claire Green, Parents' Choice President

We asked the Parents' Choice Foundation, the nation's oldest nonprofit guide to quality children's media and toys, to recommend bundles of gifts on several themes: cars, games, space and dogs. When you pair books with DVDs, toys or software, as gifts, kids benefit from multiple opportunities to learn about subjects through a variety of media.

Bundles with books and games

When kids play games, they're doing a lot more than meets the eye. Playing games helps kids learn — to follow rules, take turns, and accept wins and losses. Playing games helps develop a child's ability to think strategically, to see patterns and to focus. These are all skills needed to succeed — on the playground, in school and eventually in the boardroom.

Here, our suggestions bundle a book about games with software, a self-contained book of games, and a few classic challenges.

Making chess fun

Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club
Ages: 4 to 8 
Author: Janet S Wong
Illustrator: Stacey Schuett
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's/Margaret K. McElderry
Hardcover price: $16.95

A charming book depicting how real kids develop into chess players, not as prodigies but as curious people who want to have fun. Adults often display ignorance at the role defeat plays in how kids engage in chess. Sadly, chess is a game too often associated with "smart people." Alex overcomes the chess stereotypes beautifully by playing when he wants to. Of course, he does get good advice from his chess coach, too. The advice? Play, play and then play some more. Along the way we learn important information about chess tournaments: They can be boring…sometimes; cheese puffs are welcome, if you bring enough for everyone. Always go to the bathroom before you play because some kids take a long time to move their pieces. Finally, most importantly, it's OK to forfeit when you're hungry. This book conveys the not unimportant message that playing competitive games need not involve a loss of self-esteem, and that sometimes, fun is more important than winning. Drego Little ©Parents' Choice

Learn to Play Chess With Fritz & Chesster
Ages: 7 and up
Publisher: Viva Media Platform: Windows
Price: $29.99

Every so often an edu-tainment program sneaks past the usual and jumps beyond the look-alikes to achieve the wonderfully unexpected. How Fritz and Chesster teach youngsters the honorable game of chess is just such an unexpected program. Charming, simply animated and cleverly designed, this cartoonish masterpiece spins a tale that initiates beginners gradually, piecemeal, into the complex steps-ahead thinking chess demands.

Unlike most chess tutorials that teach chess-board moves and strategy, this story-based instruction uses non-chess mini-arcade games and interactive tasks to prepare players. For instance, there's a fun little Sumo wrestler fight that actually shows strategic movement of the king piece, a Pac-Man-like game that teaches the moves of rooks, and a visit to Peasantville that gives insight into using pawns. The colorful character Kalaidoscope tags along and is moved ahead in explaining lessons and tactics.

At the "Intelligym," players get individualized lessons in the game itself as a Chessometer tests their readiness to go from light to medium to heavyweight brainiac bouts - and eventually take on the Black King. Practice games against friendly Chesster and helpful Kalaidoscope set the table for the big game! Don Oldenburg ©Parents' Choice

Let's play a game

The Amazing Family Board Game Book
Ages: 6 and up
Author: Eric Berlin
Illustrator: Paul Kepple
Publisher: Innovative Kids
Price: $24.99

Open the "book" to reveal spiral-bound playing surfaces for 35 classic board games, plus two storage boxes for the rules, a deck of cards and all the necessary playing pieces. Chess, checkers, backgammon and Chinese checkers are included, of course, but also some lesser-known games such as mancala, trick track, and fox and geese. There are even some variations on tic-tac-toe and bingo. For games ordinarily played with pencil and paper, and for scoring, a write-on/wipe-off marker is provided for use on the erasable pages. Every home should have this because there is no other way to fit all these games into such a compact space (9 by 11 inches and 2 inches thick). For the same reason, don't forget to take it along on vacation in case of stormy weather. Ruth B. Roufberg ©Parents' Choice

Games: Learn to Play, Play to Win
Ages: 9 to 14
Author: Daniel King
Illustrator: Mike Buckley
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company/Kingfisher Books
Hardcover price: $16.95

With clear text and magnificent illustrations, this book details the history, rules and strategies for 14 classic board and card games. The text is written simply enough for preteens, but not too childish for adults who want an easy introduction to these games. Impressive digital artwork brings the boards, pieces, cards and moves to life. In several cases, readers are challenged to select the best next move (with answers and explanations in back). The board games include nine men's morris, fox and geese, backgammon, go, chess, mancala and checkers. The card games are rummy, cribbage, whist, spaded, hearts, blackjack and poker, but surprisingly, not bridge. Glossary, index and historical background material on games makes this a valuable resource for the family bookcase or game room. Ruth B. Roufberg ©Parents' Choice

Quarto Classic Board Game
Ages: 5 and up
Manufacturer: Gigamic
Price: $29.99

Quarto's wooden pieces are about the size of little wooden salt cellars, and the board is another solid, handsome piece of wood. This is a game of similarity. The factors are tall/short, rounded/square, solid/hollow, light/dark, with each piece containing some combination of those features. Players try to create a line in which the pieces express "family resemblance" in terms of one of those variables. But change-o!, at each turn the player gets to choose the next piece for his opponent to play - with diabolical helpfulness. Its initial simplicity makes it appealing for younger kids to tackle, but the complexities are enticing for older kids. Ruth B. Roufberg ©Parents' Choice

Bundles with cars

Bundling a book about cars or trucks with a toy or a game extends the fun — and the learning. These products will fuel imaginations without feeling any pain at the pump.

Roy Makes a Car
Ages: 4 to 8
Author: Mary Lyons (with stories by Zora Neale Hurston)
Illustrator: Terry Widener
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Athenuem
Price: $16.95

This is a book for kids who love cars and good stories. Roy is one of those men who can fix anything and becomes bored with an auto mechanic's ordinary repair work. So, he decides to make a car safe enough for the dangerous hairpin turns in his county. Inspector Gadget's car has nothing on the car Roy goes on to build. Diverse characters and good use of vernacular (writin' like folks talk) make this a book many will love. Drego Little © Parents' Choice

Here Lies the Librarian
Ages: 9 to 11
Author: Richard Peck
Publisher: Dial
Price: $16.99

Fourteen-year-old Peewee, with her brother Jake, run a struggling garage out "in the weeds" in Indiana. The two are fearless in getting and keeping Jake's newly built racing car moving, while the female student librarians do everything possible to keep the library open and running. Author Richard Peck tells a fast-moving gem of a story filled with speed, color, flash and fun. Stock cars and characters are timelessly alive. Peck is a continuing master who here gives us one of the best books of the year. Diana Huss Green © Parents' Choice

Car Design Workshop
Ages: 9 and up
Publisher: Hearthsong Catalog Exclusive
Price: $19.95

Young car designers won't spin their wheels here. The blue design portfolio has a 10-page showroom of traceable car and truck bodies; a two-page "parts department" with tires, mirrors, steering wheels and roof racks; a custom paint shop with stickers of numbers, racing stripes, and other detailing; colored pencils, an eraser, heavy vellum paper and helpful instructions. © Parents' Choice

Top Speed
Ages: 8 and up
Publisher: Gamewright
Price: $5.99

This fast-paced game will have minds revving as players race to rid their hand of cards. Players must call on swift and precise visual discrimination and hand-eye coordination skills to keep from matching any car parts or colors in a row. Sound easy? Start your engines and see how quickly and proficiently you can race to the finish line. © Parents' Choice

Uncover a Race Car
Ages: 8 and up
Author: Paul Beck
Illustrator:Dave Dunford and Stephan Kuhn
Publisher: Advantage Publisher's Group/Silver Dolphin Books
Price: $18.95

Don't judge this book by its cover! With the turn of a page, readers will uncover, layer by layer, not only what goes into building a race car engine, but also how the engine works: internal combustion, the fuel system, horsepower and more are explained. Readers learn about the suspension, safety features and a fact that borders on the paradoxical: Race cars don't have speedometers.© Parents' Choice

Bundles with dogs

For dog lovers new and true, these suggestions will assure tail-wagging far beyond the holiday season.

Detective LaRue: Letters From the Investigation
Ages: 4 to 8
Author (and illustrator): Mark Teague
Publisher: Scholastic Inc./Scholastic Press
Hardcover price: $15.95

Falsely accused in the disappearance of two cats, Ike LaRue (the dog) must take matters into his own hands to clear his name. He is a dog after all, and when the victims are cats, how can a dog expect justice? Think Raymond Chandler for second and third grade, told with rich language and humor. The story unfolds through newspaper reports and the letters Ike sends to his master. A less ingenious canine would resort to barking, but Ike LaRue knows how to foil this feline caper with style and smarts. Drego Little © Parents' Choice

Togo
Ages: 5 and up
Author (and illustrator): Robert J. Blake
Publisher: Penguin Putnam, Inc.
Price: $16.99

A beautifully told and handsomely illustrated dog story about Togo, a Siberian husky too small to be a sled dog. Sheer pluck and determination enable him to become lead dog on a team charged with bringing a serum to Nome to fight an outbreak of deadly diphtheria. Togo survives a harrowing trip across 300 miles of Arctic Iceland to accomplish the task. This tale of canine valor is made memorable, however, by the stunning oil paintings in icy blues and snowflake white that enable the reader/viewer to feel he is right there with Togo and his team. An exciting and rewarding book. Selma G. Lanes © Parents' Choice

Hachiko The True Story of a Loyal Dog
Ages: 5 and up
Author: Pamela Turner
Illustrator: Yan Nascimbene
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Children's Books
Price: $15.00

Based on true events, this is the story of a dog who went to meet the train at Shibuya Station at the end of every day for 10 years after his master died. The author has invented a young boy to tell the story in simple, child-like sentences. The content as well as the length of the text makes this suitable for early elementary though some might think it too sad for children. Because it is understated (even the book's size reflects it's modest, un-sensationalized approach), sorrow is replaced by wonder at such a long and devoted life. The illustrations are spare, gently tinted watercolors accented with vivid reds and yellows. Some are full-page, others are vignettes; all match the emotions evoked by this story of enduring love. An end note explains what is fact and what is fiction, and gives some additional background about the statue erected to honor Hachiko's vigil as well as the festival that is now celebrated on April 8th each year. This small slice of history will find a ready home in children's hearts. Kristi Jemtegaard © Parents' Choice

The Dog Who Sang at the Opera
Ages: 5 to 9
Authors: Jim West and Marshall Izen
Illustrator: Erika Oller
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc./Abrams Books for Young Readers
Hardcover price: $16.95

A glamorous dog performing an aria at New York's famed Metropolitan Opera House seems a fanciful premise for a children's story-except, it really did happen. In September 1997, soprano Renée Fleming was, much to her dismay, accompanied by the howling of a Russian wolfhound while attempting to sing a demanding section of the opera, "Manon." The dog was removed, but not before delighting audiences and attracting the attention of media nationwide. Years later, two men who worked as opera puppeteers that night turned the incident into this sweet and funny book, told from the perspective of the elegant wolfhound, Miss Pasha. Erika Oller's colorful illustrations highlight the humor in the situation, and the inclusion of both the New York Times coverage of the opera and Renée Fleming's reaction to her impromptu duet complement the story. Zarina Mullan Plath © Parents' Choice

A Poodle in Paris
Ages: 5 and up
Producer: The Secret Mountain
CD Price: $24.99

A delightful collaboration between the author, singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor, and illustrators Fil & Julie. The colorful storybook, with its mixed-media illustrations, has stand-alone charm, as do the witty songs, led by the book's text about poodle chanteuse Le Grande Fifi, star of Le Bow Wow club. Against a big, pop orchestra sound and individual instrumentals, Kaldor's smooth vocals are often reminiscent of Jessica Harper's warm honey alto. The songs paint vivid, comic pictures of ducks and dogs, rubber boots and rainy skies, sibling solidarity and a party at the zoo. Highlights include "Monkeys in the Trees in India," which has a notable English music hall flavor and "I Love That Dog," a clever tribute to canine charisma, sung in dead-on, Le Bow Wow torch-song style. © Parents' Choice

Because of Winn-Dixie
Ages: 8 and up
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Hardcover price: $15.99

Although she lives in the Friendly Corners Trailer Park, 10-year-old Opal has no friends. She and her preacher father have moved to Naomi, Florida, for her father's new job. Here, on an errand to the local grocery store, Opal acquires a unique friend, a large brown stray that she names for the store Winn-Dixie. The dog proves to have exquisite taste in people; Winn-Dixie charms his way into everyone's heart. Kemie Nix © Parents' Choice

Because of Winn-Dixie is also available as an audio book. Performed by Cherry Jones, it is produced by Listening Library. ($18.00)

The Canine Connection: Stories About Dogs and People
Ages: 10 tp 14
Author: Betsy Hearne
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's/Margaret K. McElderry
Hardcover price: $15.95

A car thief makes the mistake of choosing a vintage Mercedes - left running - in the parking lot of a mall. Unbeknownst to the thief, the car is occupied by Clara's two dogs and her old grandmother. In 12 short stories, the author writes with insight into dogs and their sometimes worthy and sometimes not, human companions. The parts the dogs play in the lives of their people are touching (literally), comforting and frequently amazing. Young dog lovers, and even those who are not, will enjoy these stories immensely for reasons as varied as the characters in them. Kemie Nix © Parents' Choice

Glen Terrier Puppet
Ages: 5 and up
Manufacturer: Folkmanis, Inc.
Price: $24.00

So convincingly real is this Glen terrier puppet, our young dog handlers were prompted to consult the AKC website for information. From that source, here is some of what they learned. "The Glen of Imaal terrier, named for the region in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland where it was developed long ago, is a medium-sized working terrier. Longer than tall and sporting a double coat of medium length, the Glen possesses great strength and should always convey the impression of maximum substance for size of dog...This is a working terrier, which must have the agility, freedom of movement and endurance to do the work for which it was developed.... In general, they [terriers] make engaging pets, but require owners with the determination to match their dogs' lively characters." Folkmanis' other realistic dog puppets include bichon frisé, golden retriever and a variety of Labrador retrievers. © Parents' Choice

River Crossing 2
Ages: 8 and up
Manufacturer: Think Fun
Price: $9.99

In the original River Crossing game, the challenge is to help a hiker cross a river full of alligators, snakes and piranhas. The only available resources are a few planks of various lengths, and some tree stumps standing in the river bed. Unfortunately, their number and location do not enable a direct crossing. It is necessary to move and reposition planks to bridge the gaps between stumps, thus creating a maze-like path to the opposite river bank.

If you've mastered River Crossing and you're ready for new challenges - 40 to be exact - lace up your hiking boots and get ready. River Crossing 2, the sequel, is anything but a watered-down version of the original. Ten solo-hiker crossings, 15 mid-river dog rescues, and 15 hiker and dog crossings will test thinking and problem-solving skills. Don't forget to put the vitamins in your trail mix.© Parents' Choice

Bundles about space

With NASA's recent decision to send a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, nascent space travelers have reason to celebrate. Aspiring astronauts will find a universe of fun and learning with the following suggestions.

If You Decide To Go to the Moon
Ages: 4 to 8
Author: Faith McNulty
Illustrator: Steven Kellogg
Publisher: Scholastic Inc./Scholastic Press
Hardcover price: $16.99

McNulty's text and Kellogg's illustrations coalesce dramatically to capture both the factual minutiae and the lyrical poetry of space travel as a young boy (too bad it's not a girl as well) travels to the moon and back. Readers will truly feel what it means when they turn a page and find a tiny spaceship, the only touch of color in a vast black double-page spread sprinkled with stars, and read the accompanying text: "Don't look back at earth. It would make you even lonelier." Youngsters curious to know what it's really like to sleep aboard a rocket or walk on the moon will come away feeling that they've actually been there. A lushly colored, vibrantly active double-fold-out panorama marks the young explorer's return to Earth, and if the final message seems a bit heavy-handed - "Air and water are Earth's special blessings. We must guard them well." - it is nevertheless an important one for kids to hear. This will make a great replacement for worn-out copies of David Getz's Floating Home (Holt, 1997). Kristi Jemtegaard ©Parents' Choice

DK Space Encyclopedia
Ages: 8 and up
Authors: Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc.
Hardcover price: $29.95

A feast for the eyes with vibrant illustrations and photographs, and food for the brain with detailed text, charts, biographies and timelines, this encyclopedia and CD-ROM set provides an interactive and intergalactic journey into space. In addition to explaining the universe clearly and comprehensively, the book emphasizes career opportunities and the ethical, social and environmental issues of space exploration. Most of the content and vocabulary would be difficult for lower age groups to comprehend, but for older children, this set offers a balanced, multidisciplinary approach to space science and astronomy.© Parents' Choice

Slooh Explore Space Live Telescope Card
Ages: 8 to 14
Publisher: BlueStorm Productions; Windows/MAC
Price: $10

At 4:10 p.m. EST I logged onto the online telescope at slooh.com, clicked "current mission" on the launch-pad page and in seconds my computer screen was transformed into a live telescopic view of the moon. Not an image of the moon but the actual moon as it revealed its half-glowing, cratered, lunar self at that very moment in the skies above the Canary Islands off the northwestern coast of Africa.

That's the location of the Observatorio de Teide and the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, two observatories that combine as one of the largest assemblages of telescopes in the world. And thanks to the partnership of Discovery.com and Astronomy Magazine which launched the Slooh site, the deep-space heavens those powerful professional telescopes focus on are now available to you. So never mind that backyard telescope that never worked all that well, and forget about the city lights and ozone haze that diminish the spectacle in the sky above. Now, any time you please, you can access the distant galaxies, planets and amazing celestial events that the pros are aiming their 'scopes at-right at your home computer.

This $10 Explore Space Live member card is a great deal for anyone who likes to look up at the nighttime skies. It buys 50 minutes of live access. Slooh also offers other memberships: The Observer membership costs $4.95 for 10 live missions; the Explorer, $29.95 for 100 missions, and the Commander, $99.94 for unlimited missions. Not convinced? The trial membership may do the trick. Don Oldenburg ©Parents' Choice

The Little Prince (software)
Ages: 6 to 10
Publisher: Tivola Publishing; WIN/MAC
Price: $19.99

Tivola gets big points just for recognizing the ascetic and philosophical value of introducing Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic tale on the computer. True to Saint-Exupery's moral parable about a pilot, crashed and stranded in the Sahara Desert, and his friendship with an unusual boy from a small asteroid in space, this multimedia version is an important contribution to computerized literature.

Integrated nicely with the original story are new multimedia games: One has the child maintaining the ecosphere of the Little Prince's tiny asteroid; another has the reader patiently taming a wild dog on Earth. Also included is an interactive photo album that tells about Saint-Exupery's life.

If introducing your child to truly wonderful literature is important to you, this modern masterpiece adapted to software is a smart and gentle way to do it. Don Oldenburg ©Parents' Choice

Lunar Lockout
Ages: 8 and up
Manufacturer: Think Fun
Price: $12

There's an emergency aboard the spaceship, and the astronaut must dock with the mother ship in order to save the mission. The problem is that he can move only in a straight line, and unless his path is blocked or deflected by a "helper bot," he will go off into outer space and be lost. The only way to reach the mother ship's entry port is by strategic deployment of five "helper bots" to create a path. The instruction booklet illustrates a step-by-step solution to an intermediate level puzzle card, then offers 10 "pre-flight training" challenges (with solutions). After this introduction, players will be ready to tackle the 40 puzzle cards on their own. Ruth B. Roufberg © Parents' Choice

The Big Space Shuttle
Ages: 3 to 8
Publisher: Little Mammoth Media
VHS price: $14.95

In a superbly organized fashion, this video teaches everyone about the mysteries behind the space program - specifically, the topic of space shuttles. Viewers are treated to the multitude of tasks that are preparatory to the launch. Nothing is excluded, as we visit the astronauts in flight and witness the science experiments on board. The physics involved is reduced to understandable terms, with photos, charts and animation. We meet the personalities involved, from the astronauts and Mission Control to the skilled technicians who check and recheck every piece of tile on the rocket's exterior. While many of the segments are visually stimulating for younger children, they will most likely get bored during the explanatory scenes. Older children will be fascinated by the facts and the amount of work that it takes to reach that thrilling countdown. There is also a segment on children at Space Camp, additional inspiration for interested youth. Family viewing is encouraged as adults will find no better introduction to this part of our space program. © Parents' Choice


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

12/5/2011:
"Amazing treasure of information and finds!!! Thank you for taking the time to put it together. "
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