By GreatSchools Staff
Ages: 8 and up
Part croquet (ok, that's a stretch, but you do push your opponents ball out of your way), part 3-D tic-tac-toe, Cubulus is a multisensory experience that can be played with two or three players. Each player gets nine balls of a particular color, and the goal is to form a square with four of your balls on one side of the satisfyingly squishy cube. But you have to pay attention, because when you push your ball into the cube, you may be pushing your opponent's ball into a winning square. This game is a great work out for spatial processing and critical thinking. It's also fun and deceptively challenging.
Bottom line: Smart strategy game that is almost as fun to hold as it is to play.
By Maryrose Wood, read by Katherine Kellgren
Katherine Kellgren gives another stellar performance narrating The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery, the second book of this popular series about a plucky British governess and her three wolf-child charges. Kellgren's accents are spot-on, with deft vocalizations of everything from aristocratic to Cockney. With London as the backdrop and offering sage advice like "No Panicking. No Complaining. No Quitting," this is a Mary Poppins-esque tale elegantly and wittily crafted for the millennial generation.
Bottom line: Satirically spot-on adventure yarn that one reviewer called "charming as heck."
Ages: Bananagrams, 8 and up; Appletters and PAIRSinPEARS, 6 and up
Bananagrams is a variation on Scrabble that's a little simpler, a lot more portable, and just as addictive. Like Scrabble, Banagrams requires rapid-fire word-smithing, which helps players build both vocabulary and verbal skills. Unlike Scrabble, Bananagrams requires no board; players work independently, competing against each other to build words and to be the first to divest themselves of all their letter tiles. The game is elegantly simple: It includes just wooden tiles in a banana-shaped storage bag, so it's easy to tuck into your suitcase whn you go on vacation. A couple of variations on the original — Appletters and PAIRSinPEARS — help younger kids develop reading skills, too.
Bottomline: Go bananas and build vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and verbal skills.
By Brian Selznick
Ages: 9 and up
Selznick alternates text and exquisite pencil drawings to tell two distinct stories that eventually entwine to become one. The book opens in 1977 with Ben, a 12-year-old Minnesota boy grieving his mother's death — he doesn’t know his father — when a freak lightening strike renders him deaf. Stumbling onto clues that suggest his father lives in New York City, Ben sets out to find him. Just as you’re getting hooked on Ben's tale, you're plunged back in time 50 years into the illustrated story of Rose, a lonely deaf girl who runs away to New York in search of her favorite Broadway star. Through the twin tales and their climactic intersection, Selznick explores an array of themes: family, friendship, memory, and the magic of museums.
Bottom line: The prose and pictures in Wonderstruck keep the story accessible, but the coming-of-age theme makes this best for older tweens.
Ages: 8 and up
This word game stands apart because you can spell any word you want (you're not limited by any particular group of letters), as long as it fits within the category on the card you pick. So if the category is "Something that runs," players could say cheetah, dishwasher, or athlete (you have 30 seconds to come up with a word). The goal of the game is to be the first to get eight letter tiles on your side of the road (a letter moves toward you each time you use it).
At its most simple level, Word on the Street Junior helps kids practice spelling and categorization, but it also requires strategic planning in picking the right word for the right situation. When played in teams, the game has additional benefits. It teaches collaboration since each team must decide on its word before the time runs out. It's also inclusive since even the kids who aren't ace spellers can participate.
Bottom line: Great game for kids with a mix of skills and strengths to play together.
Ages: 10 and up
Name three people you might find in a hospital. Piece of cake, right? Well, try to do it in five seconds — that’s the premise of 5 Second Rule. If you can do it, you win a point. If you only manage to blurt out "doctor" and "nurse," the play moves to the next person to try to come up with the three people. But the catch is they can't use either of the two that the first player said. So the play goes around the room until someone is able to name three people you'd find in a hospital (and by now it's pretty much a sure thing that everyone in the room will be laughing so hard they won’t be able to speak even if they have the answer). Time is kept by a big yellow timer that makes a great noise as the balls fall.
Bottom line: A face-paced word game that will definitely get the party started.
Ages: Kindergarten and up
Young kids should really be supervised when using an Internet-connected computer, so a laptop they can squirrel away to a bedroom is not the best call. But who says an oversized home PC has to ugly up your family room? Enter the Mac mini, so tiny and cute you can tuck it just about anywhere — be it a corner of the kitchen so kids can surf while you cook, or the family room where it can serve as an entertainment system. Measuring a mere 7” x 7” x 1.4” and looking more like a trivet than a computer, don't let its small size and sweet looks fool you. This is a powerful machine with an Intel i5 processor, 2 GB of memory, and a 500 GB hard drive — tech perks to make the whole family happy.
Bottom line: A family computer dressy enough for your living room without wreaking havoc on the college fund.