Great Pretender

Top toys, books, boardgames, and technology for your fantasy-loving kid.

By GreatSchools Staff

Who needs ho-hum

reality when you have make-believe with your friends? Your child loves nothing more than to embark on flights of collaborative fancy, creating worlds beyond a mere mortal's imaginings. In your child's masterful hands, stuffed animals become a complex extended family, a play date with a friend an occasion for an afternoon of improvisation. Pretend play allows fantasy-loving kids to complete the illusion of being a hungry bear or teeny golden-haired intruder. As they grow older, book series about supernatural worlds offer hours of unparalleled pleasure and the right technological toys can transport your original thinker to unthinkable interactive universes. Here is a list of our favorite things for your greatest of pretenders.

Now I'm reading! Plays: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Ages: 4-7

Now I'm Reading Plays: Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a great way to introduce kids to early reading skills like vocabulary, comprehension, and storytelling

Whether or not your young child is an aspiring 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 an average kids' 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, of course). Early readers can 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.


Ages: 3 to 100

Citiblocs teaches: structural engineering basics, pattern recognition, cause and effect, collaboration, problem solving, creative thinking, small-motor skills

Those of us in the business of learning about learning know that blocks are a toy that pack an evidence-based punch. (Block play is associated with later math competence among other academic gains.) But Citiblocs’ multi-colored wood blocks surprised even us with their universal popularity.

All 100 of the precision-cut blocks are identically shaped — narrow rectangles (4.5 x.75 x.25) that scream “build, create, collaborate!” For the browsing adult, some of the other block brands with multifarious shapes may seem more “fun,” but the simplicity of Citiblocs are really their secret to success. They are similar to two other precision-cut brands, Kapla and Keva Planks, but more affordable. Finally, the cool and hot color schemes — one with natural wood mixed with blues and greens, the other with reds and yellows — are so stylin’ that you’ll be less likely to be annoyed when your child allows them to take over the living room.

Bottom line: Blockbuster STEM learning in an old-fashioned classic form.

LeapPad 2 learning tablet

Ages: 4-9

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.

The Flint Heart

By Katherine Paterson and John Paterson; illustrated by John Rocco

Ages: 7 and up

Originally published in 1910, this fairy tale now appears in a new abridged version that has been updated for a modern audience. The story centers on the Flint Heart, a Stone Age talisman that hardens the hearts of its wearers, making them cruel and power-hungry. Lost for 5,000 years, the charm "starts bubbling away with wickedness" when it is unearthed by a kindly farmer. The moment he pockets it, the farmer turns mean — he snarls and shouts and hits his oldest son, Charlie. To rid their father of the evil charm, Charlie and his sister turn for help to a cast of magical creatures, including pixies and, bizarrely, a hot water bottle. The illustrations have a modern animated look (yes, a film is in the works), but the writing retains that wonderfully arch tone of Victorian classics like Winnie-the-Pooh.

Bottom line: The Flint Heart is a wonderfully wacky yarn made for reading aloud, one chapter at a time.

Peter and the Starcatchers

Ages: 7-10

By Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Our favorites: Peter and the Starcatchers, Peter and the Shadow ThievesPeter and the Secret of Rundoon

Perfect for: Pirate-lovin' kids looking for swashbuckling on the high seas.

The hook: The first three books in the series chronicle the spellbinding prequel of how a boy named Peter became the Peter Pan of J.M. Barrie's classic tale. Each page — particularly in the first book — is riveting. All along the way, Peter and his friends encounter an incredible cast of characters, including flying crocodiles, vicious mermaids, and even Zeus and Michelangelo.


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.

Kindle Fire

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.

The Chronicles of Narnia

By C.S. Lewis

Our favorites: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician's Nephew, Prince Caspian

Perfect for: Readers, eight and up, drawn to illusive symbols and magic.

The hook: Sure, they may have seen the movie already, but even so, this seven-book series — which deftly combines the supernatural and reality — is a classic that has influenced children's literature for a half century. The protagonists, children from the real world, are magically transported to Narnia, where under the wise guidance of the lion Aslan, they play essential roles in shaping events in this alternate world's fate (a powerful fantasy for any child). In each of Lewis's page-turning books, all crafted in masterful prose, Narnia's very fate hangs in the balance: Will good win out over evil? 

The Harry Potter audiobook series

By J. K. Rowling , narrated by Jim Dale
Ages: 9-12

Veteran Broadway actor Jim Dale created more than 200 voices to portray all the characters in the seven, unabridged audio versions of J. K. Rowlings's Harry Potter series. That adds up to a whooping 117 hours and four minutes of reading time! Dale won a Grammy for his priceless portrayal of Hermoine Granger, Hagrid, Rita Skeeter, Voldemort, and so many other wizards and muggles. Dale even made the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the most voices for an audiobook. Listen and be dazzled.

Bottom line: Don't miss these 100-plus hours of a fantasy phenomenon.

PLAYFULL Waterproof Video Camera

Ages: Middle school and up

When Spielberg was a kid, he started out making movies on an inexpensive but cumbersome Super 8 camera. Your budding filmmaker has it much easier. She can slide the credit-card sized PLAYFULL Waterproof Video Camera into a back pocket and whip it out as the cinéma vérité unfolds around her. And if a film subject takes offense at your young paparazzo and a scuffle ensues, no worries — at least not about the camera. It will survive a five-foot drop (and it's waterproof to boot!). Uploading her creation is as simple as flipping out the USB plug, sticking it into a computer, and clicking the camera's "share" button. With a pocket full of SDHC cards to store her raw footage, she could create an epic — all of it filmed in HD.

Bottom line: A sweet, affordable HD video camera that will fit in a pocket and survive being dropped into spilled cereal milk.

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant; read by Sarah Coomes, Nico Ever-Swindell, Shannon McManus, Arthur Morey, Julie Whelan

Ages: 14+

Librarian Wendy Woodfill recommended this short fiction anthology of YA’s hottest sub-genre — steampunk, which blends elements of sci-fi, fantasy, history, adventure, and even romance into speculative fiction that thrills. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories features 14 stories by well-known authors including Cassandra Clare and Cory Doctorow. "There’s a lifetime of creativity, mystery, and ingenious adventure packed into this book," Woodfill says. "And because it's a collection of short pieces, it’s a great choice for kids who don’t have long attention spans."

Bottom line: Inventive and fantastical stories that appeal equally to easily distracted and adventure-seeking boys and girls.