Golden Apple Awards 2010 (ages 6-8)

From a talking pen to a futuristic ant farm, these toys are made for kids' learning (and fun).

By GreatSchools Staff

Tag Reading System

Ages 6-8, $39.99 (interactive U.S. map $19.99, books $9.99-$13.99 each)

Looking for a high-tech way to bring the written word to life for your little reader? With the much-lauded Tag Reading System, all it takes is the click of a pen.

In this case, the pen is a camera-enabled reader that identifies words and symbols in books and other products specially made by LeapFrog. So, for example, if your budding Lewis (or Clark) uses the device on the interactive U.S. map, he or she will hear facts and stories about state capitals, landmarks and natural wonders, wildlife — even how kids across the country live, eat, and play. Or your child might use it as a more traditional reading aid for such classics as The Little Engine That Could (there’s a library of more than 40 books and games to choose from), reading page by page or sounding out tough words. Bonus: The pen is capable of storing up to 10 audiobooks for on-the-go enjoyment.

Bottom line: Kids can master the basics of reading with this anything-but-basic pen.

Leapster Explorer

Ages 6-8, $69.99 (includes more than 40 games; additional games sold separately for $24.99 each)

Modern-day kids grasp gadgets with an ease that’s downright impressive (especially for those of us old enough to remember struggling to program the VCR). So the Leapster Explorer from LeapFrog should be a natural for any child already familiar with portable gaming devices.

This handheld combines the kid-friendly cool factor of games, apps, and videos with a parent-approved focus on learning. What kind of learning? For starters, try geography, math, reading, science, art history, and social skills — there’s also an attached stylus for kids to practice their penmanship. Families can access educational games at LeapWorld (or buy ones with such faves as the cast of Toy Story), and parents have the option to monitor their children’s progress online.

Bottom line: The power to master the three R's (and much more) is in your child’s hands — literally.

V.Reader Interactive e-Reading System

Ages 6-8, $59.99

Called the “Kindle for kids,” this reading device combines stories featuring well-known characters like Dora the Explorer with interactive games that teach specific reading skills. As a product designed to both capture kids’ attention and keep it focused on learning, VTech's V.Reader Interative e-Reading System gets high marks. It's kid-friendly and kid-proof, with a colorful interface and sturdy, functional buttons. Thanks to the cartoons, kids may feel more like they’re watching Saturday-morning TV than doing work.

The only caveat is the long-term expense — the V.Reader burns through batteries, and the AC adapter is sold separately. To download the six free e-books that come with the purchase, you need to buy a SD memory card (Toshiba, Transcend, SanDisk, Kingmax, and Imation are the compatible brands). Additional e-book cartridges are about $20. Still, once you’ve made the commitment to this toy, your ready-to-read child will have hours of productive fun on this handheld literacy learner.

Bottom line: This kiddie Kindle boosts early reading skills with the help of cartoons — but at a price.

Ant-o-Sphere

Ages: 6-8

A science toy that requires kids to design and build an ecosystem for an ant colony, then trap several dozen live ants and their pupa, isn’t for faint-of-heart, hands-off parents. But if you are willing to invest the time, this is no ordinary toy.

Designed by former entomologist Peter Smith, Ant-o-Sphere from Wild Science offers a flexible kit of multiple pods in transparent red and clear plastic, connected by tubes that mimic ant colonies in nature. This toy encourages real scientific learning. Kids can test, observe, and draw conclusions —  important skills typically absent in project-oriented science toys, where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. For instance, the kit encourages kids to create their own pod design and see how it changes ant behavior. By the same token, children can learn about the eating habits of ants by offering them different kinds of food.

Bottom line: Bring science to life with this interactive and engaging kit.