Deceptively simple. That aptly describes most parenting tasks. Especially, we’ve discovered, when it comes to picking out a worthwhile toy. We know toys can teach. Toys can ignite a world of learning every bit as meaningful as the most complex classroom lesson. But as busy parents, it’s easy to fall prey to empty promises and our own kid’s misplaced desires.

Welcome to the second annual Golden Apple learning toy awards, where we’ve sorted through the hype to uncover the truly educational.

This year, in addition to the Golden Apple Awards for best learning toys, we added the STEM category, to highlight new toys that can help your child learn science, technology, engineering, and math. Sadly, many schools aren’t doing enough to prepare kids for our high tech future. The good news? Parents can do a lot simply by guiding kids toward higher-minded fun — with toys, summer camps, and weekend outings.

Our process

Each toy category has three winners in three age groups — 3 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 and up. We tested the toys with dozens of real kids and their parents, and we got them to give us the low-down on what really worked and why.

Kids told us the important stuff: Would they spend their allowance on it? Would they be disappointed to open it on their birthday?

Parents told us what labels never tell you: Does it require an advanced degree in electrical engineering to assemble? Does it snap in half a nanosecond after ripping off the cellophane?

Our results

What did we learn? Most learning toys fall into three categories. The first? I call it “Parents not included.” It aims to teach something meaningful — but it requires a high level of parental involvement. These toys can be a perfect way to biggy-up the brain cells for the whole family. But they can be challenging for busy parents. The risk is that you buy a worthy toy that sits on the shelf gathering dust.

The second kind — “Teachnology” — uses technology as a sort of substitute teacher. When these toys work, they are rad! They teach subject matter your child needs to learn, and they don’t require constant supervision. The problem is that sometimes these promising tech toys promote passive screen time engagement, not real learning. Also, they can end up unleashing more tears than learning. You spend hours on the product website trying to figure it out, while your poor kid gives up and goes back to something predictably fun — like torturing his sister.

The final kind of learning toy — I call “Raw material” — engages the child to make, do, and explore in an open-ended way. These toys are parental godsends, but new ones don’t come along every day. Old fashioned toys fall into this category — like chess sets, a block of clay, or a really inspiring collection of crayons. This year, the sublimely simple CitiBlocs was the hands down winner in every age category. All the kids wanted to play with these blocks — creating, collaborating, and yes, destroying.

We hope our Golden Apple Awards will be a resource for you this holiday season. We’ve got video clips so you can see most of the toys in action, along with videos about the making of the Golden Apple and the value of STEM toys as well as articles about how to judge a learning toy for yourself and a spot light on learning toys that fail — disastrously so. So check out our winners and tell us what lights up your children’s eyes and brains.

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