What’s a learning toy anyway?

Years ago NPR ran a series profiling children from around the world on their favorite toys. One little African boy is indelibly seared into my mind. He owned a single toy: a small Super Ball he had figured out how to bounce in incredibly complex polyrhythms.

U.S. children don’t typically have the problem of owning too few toys or making something out of nothing. They suffer from the opposite — tons of stuff, most of which never gets fully utilized.

Avoiding a holiday buying blitz

As a parent facing the holiday season, I’m often tempted to offer my kids a nice Super Ball and call it a year. There is so much to choose from (and spend money on), and even toys that promise to teach often fall short. Some electronic gizmos do little more than increase kids’ screen time. Some so-called creative building blocks don’t build much creativity because their design emphasizes coolness over complexity. Pricey chemistry sets that claim to teach the very laws of matter languish on the shelf because they require additional supplies that, as it turns out, aren’t easy to find.

But toys can be a crucial ingredient in a child’s education. Especially now with larger class sizes, limited resources, and a dire need for kids to become well versed in science and technology, a great learning toy can bridge an academic gap, inspire a passion, and motivate mastery.

Golden Apples for teaching toys

So just in time for the holidays, GreatSchools’ inaugural Golden Apple Awards offers you a list of smart, kid-tested toys that inspire real learning for every age. Out of 23 companies’ toy submissions, we chose the most promising products for testing by families with children in the target age groups. GreatSchools staff of educational and parent experts then evaluated the products for functionality, design, safety, and learning potential, incorporating the opinions of the test families.

Our list offers a mix of high-tech and traditional: From the old-school academics of FlashMaster and LeapFrog’s Tag Reading System to the creative problem-solving of Creationary and Wild Science’s Ant-o-Sphere, there’s something for every kid. (Bonus: Our Wild Card winner was nominated by one of our test families and chosen by our experts for its exceptional learning opportunities for children.)

We hope you’ll check out our recommendations and give us feedback on great learning toys you’ve found for your child.

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Updated: February 16, 2016