Who says educational gifts have to be all brainy business or — every parent’s least favorite complaint — boring? The following games, toys, and books teach a wide range of skills, from scientific investigation to abstract reasoning, while introducing kids to topics ranging from chemistry for beginners to the history of the Constitution.
Forget about what’s hot (or hyped), and try giving your child the gift of learning instead.
For kindergartners through third-graders
Tub Tunes Water Flutes
Steve Spangler Science,$12.90
Children combine music and science with this colorful toy, all within the cozy confines of the bathtub. Kids adjust the pitch of the flutes by filling them with bathwater, then use the waterproof music sheets to play a song. Mark Giberson, director of Museum Stores at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, is a personal fan of the Water Flutes. “They’re great for this age group. It’s very educational and lots of fun. Plus the inventor of the toy grew up in San Francisco and said he got the inspiration for the toy from the Exploratorium.”
SET: The Family Game of Visual Perception
SET Enterprises, $12
Kids love to play SET! A card game that uses strategy and abstract reasoning, SET is also touted as a great way to prepare for the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) tests. The game involves applying rules of logic to identify a set of three cards from a spread. “I’ve played SET with the kids and I like the kind of thinking they had to go through,” says Marcie Wollesen, a third-grade teacher in San Francisco, California. “It makes kids look at attributes, and what goes together and what doesn’t.” Mensa, the high IQ society, lists SET as one of its most popular games.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, $24
The art of making mosaics, or pictures made by arranging colored stones or tiles, is an ancient art form that dates back to ancient Greece, nearly 2,400 years ago, and reached its height during the Roman Empire. Now your child can spend hours creating beautiful masterpieces of her own. The kit comes with nontoxic foam magnets, a square playing surface, bags for organizing the pieces, and a large color sheet that illustrates the history of mosaics.
For fourth- through seventh-graders
Pixel Blocks, $8 to $40
The Exploratorium’s Mark Giberson recommends Pixel Blocks for kids 9 to 12 years old. “Pixel Blocks are like a construction toy, but they’re tiny square pieces of color that can fit together either flat or three dimensionally. You can make all kinds of things out of them. But one of the neat things this company does is that you can email them a photograph and they’ll send you back what it would take to make a version of that photograph with Pixel Blocks.”
Winning Moves Games, $12.95
Parents can help their kids develop deductive reasoning with this game of code breaking. Coda may seem simple at first glance, but everyone’s brain will get a good workout. “I’ve had a lot of fun playing it with the younger members of our board game club,” says Danielle Brown, manager of Game*Alot Hobby Games in Santa Cruz, California. “It’s great for teaching logic and the process of elimination.” Coda was winner of the National Parenting Center Seal of Approval for 2004.
Longman Dictionary of American English
Amazon.com, $29.95 (hardcover)
This dictionary was originally designed for the English learner, but is now being embraced for all young students because of its easy to understand definitions. With a defining vocabulary of only 2,000 words, your child will never have to look up the words in a definition again. Peggy Mannion, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in San Francisco, California, endorses the Longman Dictionary. “This is the best dictionary I’ve ever seen. It’s so simple, it gives examples, and it uses the words in a sentence. I heartily recommend it. It would make a great gift!
A safe, nontoxic chemistry set for the bathtub, Spa Science gets young scientists engaged in devising new formulas for relaxation and health. With recipes for balms, facial masks, shampoos, bath gels and fizzers, kids will be occupied for long stretches of time creating their own product lines for friends and families. They are also encouraged to experiment and document how the aromas impact moods and memories.
For eighth-graders and teens
Educational Insights, $29.95
Mark Giberson of the Exploratorium recommends Blokus for the teen crowd. “It’s a very easy game to learn, so any age group can play it, but I think the high school age group loves it the most. If you’ve got a competitive group or a competitive family it’s a lot of fun. It’s all about perception and visualizing. The games are quick-it takes about 15 minutes-but you just want to start all over again right away because it’s so fun and challenging.” Blokus builds logic and strategy skills as players try to block each other from laying down all their pieces on the playing board. Voted Europe’s Game of the Year in 2002.
Fun With Your Dog
This humorous kit encourages kids to explore their natural curiosity about what dogs think and sense. With a communication chart, a mix for making yummy dog treats, and tests to explore a dog’s senses and personality, this gift will help your child become the family’s resident dog expert.
Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787
by Catherine Drinker Bowen, Boston, Little, Brown (1966)
Amazon.com, $3.93 (paperback) and $11.97 (hardcover)
Social studies teacher Mannion loves the book Miracle at Philadelphia. “If you’re talking about kids eighth grade going into high school, this is the definitive book about the Constitution. It’s so interesting. It’s academic, but it’s a great story. We’re going to start studying the Constitution and we’ll study it word for word, line by line. Most middle schools have that. You read this book and it tells the whole story; and it’s very simple to understand and interesting. I always give books. I never gave my own children any gift that required a battery. I don’t believe in that. Books are your friends! They’re all an adventure!”