By GreatSchools Staff
... your child is a joy to behold! There’s no need for nudging when it comes to reading, reading, and more reading! Your child is imaginative, smart, and enjoys being alone in the limitless landscape of books. Word play may also ignite your youngster's imagination and inspire your wordsmith to write an original oeuvre. Our gift list makes the most of these brainiacal beings — bringing their intellectual strengths to bear in new realms.
Give your child a leg-up on writing with this interactive writing and drawing kit, which includes a colorful activity book, worksheets, and interactive stickers. The activity book follows the adventures of Dot and Dash, as they search for a band to play at the Doodleburg Fun Fair. The workbooks and stickers provide additional activities and exercises. (Note: To use this kit, you need LeapFrog's Tag Reader, an interactive stylus that's not included.)
Two caveats: The Tag Reader requires grown-up support, at least in the beginning, to download software and help the child get started. And the kit includes a disappointing number of stories.
Bottom line: An engaging introduction to writing and drawing for little ones.
Tempted to buy your young child a Nintendo DS 3D to help you survive long car rides? LeapFrog has a smart alternative: the LeapPad2 learning tablet offers engaging games and apps that entertain while teaching reading, math, and art. Kids can snap pictures with the camera, watch educational movies, draw on the touch screen, take care of virtual pets, and even create music. This tablet will even read a story and teach the listener to sound out words. As your child’s reading skills improve, the LeapPad automatically advances the challenge. The kids will be happily learning in the back seat, so you can focus on the road. (Last year's version, the LeapPad Explorer, won our 2011 Golden Apple Wild Card Award.)
Bottom line: A touch screen tablet that makes gaming a learning experience — without hogging your entire holiday gift fund.
Appeals to ages 4-5
What it teaches: early reading skills like letter and word recognition
Flash cards often get a bad rap, conjuring up images of overly zealous type-A parents relentlessly inflicting the things on the young and innocent — forever hopeful their wee ones will be reading War and Peace by age four.
But these cheerful and child-friendly interactive cards are worlds away from their stern flash forefathers. Expressly designed for pre-readers (not their over-reaching parents), they're immensely child-friendly. All of the 50 cards are nicely oversized and illustrated with engaging icons that represent each of the four-letter words.
Children get to slide the card out from its holder box to reveal the word, letter by letter, giving them an intuitive way to sound out each letter (F-R-O-G), a device that makes phonics easy and fun. One young tester said, "It's more fun to slide the card than read a book." Parent testers said their young children (ages 4 and 5) were reading short words more fluidly after the kids played with them several times. Their one complaint? There weren't even more cards!
Bottom line: A smart and amusing breed of flash cards that actually help kids learn to read with pleasure.
Where to get it: Now I'm Reading! Flashcards: Consonant Blend Words
Appeals to ages 4-7
What it teaches: early reading skills such as vocabulary, comprehension, and storytelling
Whether or not your young child is a burgeoning thespian, this storybook-cum-playbook has masterfully woven together some of the best elements of early reading, making it — in all senses of the word — the best of child's play.
Given that it is the same price as a kids' average hardcover book, you get a lot for your story bucks: five 16-page play scripts, a 24-page storybook, and four masks (three bears and Goldilocks, 'natch). Tester parents loved that this fun-filled reading toy can be adapted to a child's age: A pre-reader can still play the part of any of the roles, with mom and dad feeding her the lines. Says one tester mom: "Even though my daughter can't read, she could engage with it. She's even learned the words 'script' and 'narrator,' which gave her a deeper understanding of acting out a play." Early readers can even take the scripts and put on their own show for the grown-ups: The perfect rainy-day (and shhh, learning) activity.
Bottom line: An active and clever way to teach reading through, ahem, play.
Where to get it: Now I'm Reading! Plays: Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Ages: 8 and up
What it teaches: American history, politics, geography, hands-on learning
History isn't the least bit dull or dusty in this colorful, dynamic book about the American Civil War. From the fall of Fort Sumter and the Southern secession through Gettysburg, Appomattox, and Reconstruction, this dynamic book brings this historic conflict to life.
Older kids will easily learn about historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Civil War generals as well as soldiers in the field, and other key players on both sides of the war. The historical letters, flaps, pull-tabs, illustrations, maps, photographs, and a spinning decoder wheel create an interactive, 3-D effect that draws kids in and keeps them engaged for hours.
Our tween testers gave the book top marks. They were especially taken with the removable letters that provide day-to-day details about the war and the toll it took on everyday people (not the generals and politicians).
Bottom line: A turning point in American history brought to life in an inventive, exciting way.
Where to get it: Letters for Freedom: The Civil War
Ages: Boggle, 8 and up; Boggle Jr., ages 3 and up
A classic word game with a shriek-inducing timed feature, Boggle is played by shaking out letter cubes and trying to find as many words as you can before your time is up. Boggle is easy to play and highly portable — you can play one-on-one or in teams, when the competition really gets rowdy. (A version for preschoolers, Boggle Jr., uses cards and trays to help little ones match simple words with pictures.)
Bottom line: A fast-paced and furious way to sharpen spelling, vocabulary, word recognition, pattern recognition, and reasoning skills.
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.
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.
Ages: 8 and up
Did Colonel Mustard do the deed, or was it Mrs. Peacock? Did s/he use a knife or a candlestick and was the crime committed in the Conservatory or the Billiard Room? Clue, the classic mystery-solving game, invokes an atmosphere of elegance and evil that kids love. It's also an excellent way to develop logic and deductive reasoning skills. As players set out to solve the classic crime, they start with a set of variables and must use logic to assemble a case. By making a series of educated guesses, players gather pertinent information to eliminate suspects, possible weapons, and locations until they solve the crime. An added benefit: Kids who love Clue often develop a love of mysteries, too.
Bottom line: Kids use deductive reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving to figure out whodunit.
Middle and high school
Anticipating writer's block on behalf of your tween or teen? No worries. This Swiss-made pen from New York design company Seltzer ($7.50) has an extra-large inkwell to help sustain it for the better part of a decade. Teens especially will appreciate the design choices, which run to the snarky, mod, or even Warholian: an owl with a giant question mark hovering above its blank-eyed face or a scull and crossbones that proclaims "Need coffee". This is a quality pen, but since the Seven Year Pen costs more than $7, it might be wise to invest in a Bic if your child is prone to misplacing writing utensils.
Ages: Elementary through high school
Because the world our kids are growing up in is so rich with engaging media, some of them have the idea that reading is no longer "cool." Deliver classics, favorites, bestsellers, and magazines via the cutting-edge currency of the Kindle Fire, a slick 14 ounce touch screen that gives the written word new relevance for this generation. The e-ink display makes text crisp and readable on a 7" color screen that slides easily into a backpack or even a big pocket. In addition to reading books and magazines delivered instantly, kids can watch videos and movies, listen to music, and play games. In the GreatSchools 2012 holiday toy survey, more than a few parents praised their child's Kindle as a great gift. "It promotes learning," says one parent. "She loves it and she can use it in school," says another. And perhaps the most ringing endorsement: "When it broke, Amazon sent a new one no questions asked." Biggest perk of all? You can check out books — digitally — from the library and never worry about library late fees again.
Botton line: A touch screen e-reader that makes reading undeniably cool.
Note-taking apps abound, but this one has the staying power of indelible ink. At graduation parties, seniors can share a stylus to pen heartfelt sentiments, yearbook-style. For college, the app transforms into a classroom powerhouse enabling users to take notes, record lectures, and draw pictures.
Bottom line: A little app that puts the "fun" into functionality, big time.
For seniors short on time but long on activities, Momento is a powerful way to capture memories quickly. It’s a daily diary that aggregates social media activity, so years from now kids can look back and see everything they did on a specific date.
Bottom line: Indispensable for when your child pens her memoirs.
Ages: Middle school and up
Recently, I lifted my son’s backpack to move it and nearly dislocated my shoulder. A look inside revealed a 40-pound fire hazard: Along with textbooks, my high schooler was carting every piece of paper that had crossed his path since the start of the school year, possibly since the beginning of middle school. So I plan to put the 14.2 oz. Doxie Go ($199; iPhone/iPad sync kit $39) in his stocking. Portable enough so he can carry it in his (newly lightweight) backpack, my son can scan his school work digitally by feeding homework, notes, and photos into this battery-powered scanner that stores up to 600 pages in its internal memory. And when he plugs it into the USB port on his laptop, it will automatically sync with his digital filing system. (It will also sync to an iPad, iPod, or iPhone.) Not only will his back be happier — he'll also be the most organized high schooler in town.
Bottom Line: A portable scanner to digitize your paper detritus, no matter where you are.