Magnificent Maker

Is your kid the creative type? Here are 14 gifts to help your child's imagination go wild.

By GreatSchools Staff

Your child can't

help himself: he must make something and is never more content than when building, crafting, and constructing. These creative kids adore anything that keeps their hands busy and helps them bring new materials to life. They love the core activity of creating — not via abstract ideas but through movement, shaping, and manual skill. Whether it’s model kits that construct prehistoric beasts, building blocks that morph into skyscrapers, or craft projects that demand new skills, you child learns best when thinking in conjunction with his hands. Here are gifts sure to please your great creator, no matter the age.

Duplo Play with Numbers

Ages: 3-5

This set of oversize Legos (perfect for younger hands) comes with a unique figurine — a friendly dalmatian puppy — and, more important for little learners, a colorful collection of illustrated counting blocks. Each block in Duplo Play with Numbers features a visual representation of that number, whether it's three ice cream cones, four birds, or 10 bees. Truly the building blocks of early math skills.

Bottom line: These extra-large Legos are perfect for kids working on their 1-2-3's.

Kaleido Gears

Appeals to ages: 3-6

Kaleido Gears teaches: small-motor skills, fluid intelligence, engineering fundamentals, about interconnected parts

Little hands need activities that satisfy the need to move and think simultaneously. Gears is a toy that helps kids do both, while still seeming like a real toy — not a piece of curriculum. Its bright gears fit together in any number of ways to allow kids to explore how interconnected parts can create different effects. For children who are obsessed with mechanical and transportation toys, this one allows for a close-up look at how gears and wheels work in an open ended, playful way. For the visual child, the multi-colored parts can inspire mini-design projects about how colors fit and mesh together.

Some parents were concerned that the small pieces holding gears in place  might be choking hazards for children under age 3, so Gears requires some parental supervision. Still, the toy engaged our little testers and inspired a lot of curious, quiet play, something many parents will welcome!

Bottom line: A hands-on STEM toy that helps with fine-motor skills and interactive mechanical exploration.

Citiblocs

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.

My First Lego Set

Ages: 3-7

My First Lego Set teaches: building, constructing, following instructions, small-motor skills

Legos are timeless and you'd be hard-pressed to find a kid who’s not interested in playing with them. This set is a perfect gateway toy for younger children who might be overwhelmed by a larger, more complex set (still, there are more than the 200+ parts in this one).

Our youngest tester needed pretty constant adult guidance as he strove to build a village, but luckily this toy comes with instructions for quick-gratification constructions like two-piece flowers and a five-piece cat. When they feel ready, pint-sized builders can progress to more complex construction projects, such as the house and windmill. Finally, when they really get the hang of it, free-form building ensues — and this wondrous motor-skill-and-imagination combo can captivate even wee ones for up to 30 minutes.

Bottom line: The Danish toy company’s name says it all: “Lego” is based on the Danish phrase meaning “play well.”

Art Activity Easel

Ages 6 and up

What child can resist an easel and blank sheet of paper? This solid hardwood Art Activity Easel from Art Alternatives has it all: a chalkboard, white board, and hidden paper roll that feeds over either side for drawing and painting. It also features three washable plastic baskets for storing paint, chalk, markers, and other supplies. The easel is adjustable, so it will grow along with your child. (The Children's Easel Accessory Set provides your artist-to-be with 30 essential easel supplies including a paper roll, paint, no-spill paint pots, brushes, chalk, markers, and erasers.)

Bottom line: The perfect easel that will long be an artistic household staple.

4D T-Rex

Ages 8 and up

Though not actually "4-D," this model dinosaur includes 39 pieces for kids to play with and assemble. Unlike many toy dinosaurs, however, this one was created in consultation with an international expert on vertebrate paleontology, making it especially realistic.

Bottom line: An elaborate, educationally minded model dinosaur.

It's a Draw Art Box

It's a Draw Art Box

Ages 4 and up

Whether in preschool, grade school, or middle school, your artiste will find a museum's worth of inspiration in this portable art box. It's a Draw Art Box can be easily packed away and pulled out to use at home or on an outing — providing plenty of happy distractions. All the essential tools of the trade are tidily packed inside: paints, markers, colored pencils, pastels, paintbrushes, glue, and more. Foldout trays allow for easy access, and the sturdy aluminum box keeps supplies organized.

Bottom line: Pricey yet sturdy and well stocked, this all-in-one art box will provide years of use.

Blokus box cover

Blokus

Ages 5 and up

This strategy board game has become something of a sensation, winning a Teacher's Choice Award and a Mensa Select Award. The goal is to fit all your differently shaped pieces onto the board — a task that draws on spatial reasoning and logic. Invented by a mathematician, the game draws on the stuff of geometry class, without feeling like, well, homework. In fact, elementary school kids can play long before they've officially waded into proofs and postulates; we like to think it whets the appetite for what's ahead. Suitable for adults as well as kids. Think Tetris, on a board, without the mind-destroying music.

Bottom line: Challenging and fun for adults as well as kids. Like Tetris but better.

Totem Tree

Kids On Roof Totem Tree

Ages: 6 and up

Unleash your child's inner tree-hugger with this highly inventive puzzle. The durable yet biodegradable cardboard kit provides a base for kids to design their own tree, using the leaves provided or attaching their own creations — pictures, drawings, names from a family tree, etc. Essentially, Kids On Roof Totem Tree offers a blank canvas in the shape of a maple. In theory, there's a nature lesson in this half puzzle, half art project, but what impresses us most is its open-endedness. Given the level of prescription that comes with so many toys these days, an invitation to explore freely is particularly welcome — and provides an important lesson in creative problem solving.

Bottom line: A high-quality art project that's also eco-friendly.

Creationary

Ages 8-10

Creationary — a variation on Pictionary — is a fun guessing game that lets kids get competitive while playing with Legos. Players roll a six-sided die to determine one of four possible categories: buildings, nature, things, or vehicles. Potential creations are challenging enough to make the game fun for older kids, as they include everything from a fox to a skateboard to a laptop. The game comes with basic Lego blocks and some specialized pieces to allow for even more experimentation.

Bottom line: Pictionary for the Legos-loving set, this game requires real creative thinking.

Battleship and Stratego

Ages: Battleship, 5 and up; Stratego, 8 and up

Whether kids are trying to find where the flag is hidden in Stratego, or attempting to locate and sink their opponent's fleet in Battleship, they're learning deductive reasoning, a skill they'll need for every subject they tackle in school. In Stratego, the goal is to capture your opponent's flag while simultaneously protecting your own. In Battleship, players strive to sink their opponent's ships before their own get blasted out of the water. Both games require a degree of sleuthing and trickery — that's where the deductive reasoning comes in. When players are hiding their ships and flags, they're developing important strategy and planning skills. According to board game expert and author Jeffrey Hinebaugh, kids who play strategy games including Sorry! Clue, Battleship, and Stratego in childhood earn higher test scores in high school and college.

Bottom line: Kids learn logic, strategic planning, goal setting, and deductive reasoning skills — on land and at sea.
 

Kabaleo

Ages: 8 and up

If you love strategy, speed, and game pieces that make a satisfying clacking noise when you play them, check out Kabaleo. This quick, action-packed game requires players to bluff their way to domination by hiding the very identity of their color as they place cones on a board. It takes planning, skill, and just a touch of cunning to plot a path to victory.

Bottom line: Kids will have to put on their best poker face to win this game of strategy.

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.

Hearthsong Interior Design Studio

Interior Design Studio Kit

Ages 9 and up

Have a future architect or decorator in the house? Start building his brilliant career with HearthSong's award-winning Interior Design Studio Kit, which allows kids to easily design and color imaginary dream homes. The set includes everything your child needs to create his own interiors, including room samples, vellum, construction-tone pencils, brush markers, and a McMansion's worth of inventive ideas.

Bottom line: The next Frank Lloyd Wright will thank you for such a smart start.