Best learning gifts for middle schoolers

Smarts and fun all in one with 6 perfect presents for tweens.

By GreatSchools Staff


Ages: 12 and up

A combination of a word search and puzzle game, Pathwords gets increasingly challenging as you move along. The goal? To fit the colored pieces over the words in each puzzle so that all of the letters are covered. Sound easy? Not so fast — sometimes the words are backwards, which can be tricky: "equip" didn't look like a word when spelled "piuqe." This is a single-player game and it can be quite addictive. Of course kids who want to play together can swap games or help each other out with each puzzle. There are a total of 40 games, from beginner to expert.

Bottom line: An addictive word game that also requires visual spatial skills.


The Cruisers: Checkmate

By Walter Dean Myers, read by Kevin R. Free

Ages: 10 and up

Winner of AudioFile magazine’s Earphones Award, The Cruisers: Checkmate, is the second book in Myers’ Cruisers series about a group of gifted middle school misfits in Harlem who bond over competitive chess. Myers has a subtle touch and is able to explore issues of peer pressure, drug use, and the power of the (school) press with grace. Narrator Kevin Free does a superb job of capturing the diversity of voices and personalities of the Cruisers kids, as well as the stern assistant principal, Mr. Culpepper.

Bottom line: An engrossing story that teaches significant life lessons without ever sermonizing.

Apples to Apples

Ages: 11 and up

Apples to Apples, known as "the game of crazy comparisons," is riotous, goofy fun. It's perfect for family game night, birthday parties, and family vacations because you can play with from four to 10 players — the more players, the bigger the fun. Built around a boxed set of cards, Apples to Apples requires players to find matches between simple adjectives —  like "scary" or "luxurious," for example — and people, places, objects, or ideas — from Lady Gaga to cotton candy to the Grand Canyon. Players take turns being the judge and choosing the words that make the best match — and the results can be hilarious. It turns out that teachers love Apples to Apples as much as kids do because it's a great way to build vocabulary and comparative reasoning skills. The game has even earned the brainiac seal of approval, winning a Mensa Select award in 1999. There are numerous variations, including Apples to Apples Junior for younger kids.

Bottom line: An easy way to sneak a little vocabulary, grammar, and reasoning into family game night.

The Summer I Learned to Fly

By Dana Reinhardt

Ages: 11 and up

In the passage from childhood to adulthood, there’s a point when discovery about oneself and the world begins to take root. For Drew Solo, the heroine of this book, that point takes place in the summer before eighth grade. It's 1986 and she's 13, living in a small California town with her mother, who runs a gourmet cheese shop. Drew loves the adults in her life and her pet rat, but she yearns for a friend her own age. That friend arrives in the unexpected person of a slightly older boy, Emmett Crane. At first Emmett tells her little about himself, but eventually he reveals his secret dream: to find a legendary spring said to have healing waters. Joining Emmett on his quest brings new understanding about belief, family, what it means to have a friend, and to be one.

Bottom line: The Summer I Learned to Fly, is the perfect pick for readers who like stories centered around relationships.

Apple iPhone 4s

Ages: Middle school and up

Your child got the grades, is star of the swim team, lights up your life, and goes to bed at a reasonable hour, too. He wants an iPhone — and while the 5 may be a bit out of your price range for a child's gift, the next best thing is the still wonderful and now cheaper Apple iPhone 4S. It has every possible smartphone bell and whistle any teen could dream of, including an 8-megapixel camera that takes amazing photos. It's build with a slew of education-minded features and a wealth of school-focused apps can help him learn math, geography, science, and languages. And it has Siri, the in-phone guru, who answers questions and can cater to all your teen's whims (like calling your teen by his chosen, if ridiculous, nickname). He'll also have all his favorite music right there in his pocket. If you're ready to indulge your teen, the iPhone 4s is the ticket.

Bottom line: Now cheaper, this all-in-one, state-of-the-art phone is sure to make a kid (of any age) happy; and, given its learning-friendly features, it's bound to please most parents as well.


By Mike Mullin

Ages: 12 and up

The scariest apocalyptic visions are those that could be true — which is what makes Ashfall so gripping. A supervolcano erupts in Yellowstone Park, spewing ash for hundreds of miles and cleaving the world into a chilling before and after: "The pre-Friday world of school, cell phones and refrigerators," and the "post-Friday world of ash, darkness and hunger." Left alone for the weekend when the eruption occurs, 15-year-old Alex decides to leave his destroyed hometown in Iowa and hazard the harrowing trek to find his family in Illinois. Along the way he sees how disaster brings out both the best and worst in people, and picks up a new friend, Darla. Together, they bring their skills and wits to the harsh struggle to survive.

Bottom line: A thriller that will suck in even the most reluctant teen reader.