8 Educational Gifts for Your Kids This Holiday Season

If you’re at all like me, each December brings the unique challenge of trying to offer the children in your life presents that do more than flash lights in their faces and then gather dust within minutes of being opened. I am always on the hunt for fun, truly educational toys that will stand the test of time, and luckily, in my five-plus years of parenting, I’ve come across a few that really fit the bill. So I decided to compile a list of some “must-give” educational toys for those who, like me, are always happy to have a few helpful hints in this arena.

And then I realized, I’m not the expert here. The person who should really be compiling this list is the person I bought all of this stuff for: my 5-year-old daughter, Avery. So Avery and I sat together during a car ride to Grammy’s house, and hashed through a few ideas about what the best, most educational toys she’s ever received might be. In cases where we didn’t necessarily agree, her opinion won out (“I know what I like to play with, Mommy!”). We tried to stay away from apps and other tech-related toys (with one notable exception) and focus on tactile toys and games that engage both the mind and hands and spark creativity. We also polled some friends and family to make sure that our feelings about these toys weren’t total outliers. As it turned out, every single toy we picked was also mentioned by other parents and kids as an all-time favorite in their house, some of them multiple times.

So herewith, our totally unscientific, but truly kid-tested list of outstanding educational toys for ages 1 through 10 (and maybe even higher).

1. Magna-Tiles (ages 3 and up). Ask any group of parents and kids to name the toy that has brought the most continuous, long-lasting fun to their house and inevitably you will hear about Magna-Tiles. For the uninitiated, these translucent, magnetic tiles stick together on every side, allowing children to spend hours building and rebuilding structures that will often blow your mind. And while they’re at it, they’re not-so-subtly learning important lessons about geometry, symmetry and engineering, and being creative to boot. As Avery put it, “I could play with Magna-Tiles forever.” Trust us: this one’s a winner, whether you’re 3 or 63. $49.95 and up.

2. Rat-a-Tat Cat (ages 6 and up). Let’s be honest: Most board and card games designed for kids simply aren’t fun for the adults playing with them (I cannot play one more round of Candy Land. I. Can. Not). One awesome and remarkable exception to this rule is Rat-a-Tat Cat, a game that is honestly as much fun for adults as it is for kids. The goal is to swap the high cards in your hand (the rats) for lower cards in the deck (the cats), but there is also a ton of suspense involved because of the unknowns that lie before you (cards that force you to swap, allow you to peek at the hidden cards in your hand, etc). Kids practice their math skills and get to work on developing a sense of timing, since any player can end the game with a rap on the table any time she thinks she may have created the lowest hand. “You’ve never beaten me at this one ONCE!” Avery says. She’s right, and that’s why we keep playing. $10.99.

3. Lego (18 months and up). No matter how much you might want to be “original” and buy the kids something “out of the box” let me tell you the God’s honest truth: nothing beats Lego, in whatever iteration you choose to gift them. (My 21-month-old twins are, as we write this, up to their elbows in Legos, chirping happily.) There’s Duplo for the littlest builders, buckets of bricks in every color and size, and pre-designed, incredibly detailed kits for kids a little older. They’re not necessarily flashy (though they can be), but kids just love them, and they help them develop their logical and spatial skills, not to mention hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. A great gift for toddlers and tweens alike. $16.99 and up.

4. Magnetic Mighty Mind (ages 3 to 8). I’d forgotten about this toy, but Avery suggested it immediately when we began to compile this list. Magnetic Mighty Mind is another visual/spatial skill-building puzzler; the set comes with 32 geometric shapes kids can manipulate to create a variety of objects, whether of their own design or by following the sequenced patterns provided on the 30 puzzleboard cards included. It’s the same concept as Tangoes, or Tangrams, which you might remember from your own childhood, but something about the feel and variety of colors in this set calls out to kids in a new way. $23.95.

5. Kanoodle (ages 7 and up). Kanoodle is a three-dimensional puzzle/solitaire game that has been known to inspire long stretches of play in this house, even in its littlest users. The game comes with 12 differently shaped, beaded puzzle pieces, and a 48-page handbook with different levels of puzzles for the player to complete. Though the manufacturer says this is a game for ages 7 and up, Avery played this for the first time when she was 4, with her cousin Max, who was 6, and neither had any trouble grasping the concept of the game or completing puzzles. This is another game adults will love to play, as well; the higher level puzzles and some of the pyramid games are serious mind-benders. “I want to give this as a birthday gift to everyone I know,” Avery says. And we probably will. $12.99.

6. Puzzles, Puzzles, Puzzles (ages 12 months and up). It may have become apparent by now that we are great fans of puzzles and puzzle games of all description, including classic 2-D puzzles. This is a no-brainer for most parents, but it is also nice to be reminded of how much our kids learn when working puzzles; not least of all, patience. From the simplest wooden puzzles with knobs for babies, to jigsaws of all levels, to the giant floor puzzles that have covered most of our living room floor, there’s never been a puzzle that entered this house that’s gone untouched—some get brought out again and again. We may even attempt a 3-D puzzle one day soon (eek!). $6.99 and up.

7. Flashmaster (ages 6 and up). OK, this is the one that will reveal us to be a house of nerds, but no matter. The Flashmaster is really more of a direct learning tool than a “toy,” but it’s brought such enjoyment to a range of people we know that we decided to include it here. (It is also the only toy on this list that is slightly “techy,” but it is so low-tech—think 2 AA batteries and a tiny grey screen—that in our book, it barely counts.) In essence, the Flashmaster is a handheld device that helps children learn their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables. It is used in schools to help develop mathematic “automaticity,” i.e., the ability to recall certain equations automatically, without repeated computation. Sound boring? Not with this little gadget, which offers six learning activities, three of which are timed, which has the effect of turning the learning process into a game. Avery’s only in kindergarten and she begs to play with this whenever she can; older kids might balk a bit more at its overtly school-like aspects, but I suspect that if left to their own devices, they’ll enjoy competing with themselves and each other, to see just how quickly they can deliver the correct answers. $54.95.

8. A Cardboard Box (once they’re mobile). Before becoming a parent, I would have thought this was some kind of joke. But as I now have three kids and enough lighted, beeping, plastic nonsense in our house to rival a landfill, I have a new appreciation for precisely how much delight a plain old cardboard box can bring. After we moved, our kids spent hours upon hours coloring and painting the outside of our old boxes; piling their toys into them and then taking them out; creating forts and entire worlds within them; poking holes in them for telescopes (a paper towel roll works well for this); and learning, the whole time, how to take turns and engage in cooperative, creative play. “We need to do that again,” Avery reminded me when we added this to our list. We sure do. Free—or for those who’d like to give a nicer version of a gift, these run about $30 and up.

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