Educational Kids' Toys and Games



Almost a hundred years ago, Maria Montessori said "Play is the work of children." Anyone who's had kids knows exactly what she means. Children take play seriously; they learn when they're playing, they flourish when they're playing, and unlike their older, jaded siblings, they're endlessly fascinated by any opportunity to expand their minds and use their intelligence. With junior high school kids, you have to disguise educational activities as games to keep their attention. With children it's practically the opposite: see how long any toddler plays with a plastic Happy Meal toy before losing interest, compared to a developmental toy. There've been educational toys I've had to pry out of my children's hands to get them into bed at night. It's not hard getting them to engage their intelligence and creativity; it's hard to get them to stop.

But some toys definitely stimulate the mind more than others. The classic cardboard box provides more hours of creative play than a lot of expensive educational toys on the market out there. Other toys are good in concept but are poorly executed, flimsy, or too frustrating or dull to hold kids' attention. Then there are a few insidious ones I call "empty calories"--toys that are essentially mindless, but give kids the impression that they're doing or learning something, and wind up drawing their attention away from other, more productive play. TV and videos are the biggest culprits here--I'm not opposed to children's TV in and of itself (my kids are partial to "Blue's Clues" and "Between the Lions"), but even the best shows are still a passive form of learning, and many videos seem to be just an elaborate half-hour space-filler (or worse, a commercial!) There are better ways to keep children occupied--or, better still, teach them to keep themselves occupied. On this page, I review the ones that were most effective, educational, and fun for my own kids.

Three notes about my selections: first, I'm a strong believer in kids having different intelligences worth developing, so these aren't all "traditional" educational kids toys like reading games and science experiments. A child at karate lessons, for example, is busy developing her concentration, her memory, and her physical awareness, as well as her fitness. Her younger brother chewing on a teether with the alphabet printed on it isn't actually exercising anything but his teeth. The alphabet teether may seem more educational at first blush, and may even claim this on its packaging, but it's actually the karate practice that's helping a child to learn. Second, I only have boys. This really has not affected my reviews much--these aren't "boy's toys" or even "tomboy toys," they're unisex kids' toys, and there is nothing on this page that little girls wouldn't enjoy and benefit from just as much as the boys. But there are some creative "girl's toys" out there, like dollhouses, that are good for imaginative play but that I just haven't reviewed because my sons don't happen to have them.

And finally, this is a "best of" page. We've been through plenty of toys that were flimsy, boring, and not-especially-educational, but I have not bothered to review those here. All the toys and games on this page are the ones that my kids enjoy and I've been impressed with.

Now, on with the reviews!

Educational Building Toys

Building toys are probably my children's favorite genre of educational toy, and as a parent, there's a lot to like about them--they encourage hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness and reasoning, artistic construction and design, and general imaginative play with whatever it is they've built. Building toys are most educational when they include pieces of different sizes in all dimensions (so kids can physically see how four half-blocks stack to the same height as two full ones), inspire the most creativity when they can be interconnected in many possible ways, and are the most fun when their shapes and designs are actually evocative to young minds. (We have a very nice little wooden block set that never got played with much because no matter what you did with it, it pretty much just looked like a pile of blocks.) Some of our favorites include:

Wedgits
This is the coolest toy I've seen in fifteen years. You almost have to hold it in your hands to appreciate how good it is. The rhomboid-shaped blocks fit together in ways you never would have imagined. Even toddlers can stack these pieces; older kids will explore their geometry and build things that surprise you, and you may find your adult guests fiddling with them on more than one occasion too! The $45 set for sale above is a deluxe set that comes with a carrying case and contains some pieces too small for toddlers; at the company's homepage, http://wedgits.com, you can order a "starter set" with only the larger pieces for $20. All the wedgit sets are completely compatible with each other and, as an added bonus, they fit very nicely on top of Lego towers as well.


Duplos
It's hard to go wrong with anything Lego, but Duplos are especially wonderful; bigger and chunkier than ordinary Legos, they build taller, clean up easier, aren't choking hazards to nearby babies, and don't get jammed together and need to be separated with a nail file.


Duplo Base Plate
With a base plate, it becomes much easier for children to build more complicated Duplo structures, including buildings with roofs (which nearly always fall apart when you try to build them on the carpet.)


Duplo Knights Castle
My kids got this expensive Duplo set for the holidays, and I think they may have played with it every single day since then. You can't tell from this picture, but the set includes 168 pieces that have completely standard Duplo bases and can be put together in ANY configuration. This isn't just a model, it's a fully fledged Lego set. We have a completely different castle on our living room floor every few days. There are also knights, horses, a catapult, and some medieval weaponry--and, of course, it's all fully compatible with previous Lego sets, so the knights can ride on tigers, fight with Dora the Explorer, or anything else your child can imagine.


Educational Computer Games

There are a lot of "empty calorie" offerings in the computer game department, unfortunately, but there are also some winners that engage children in interactive reading, math, memory, and other educational games, and/or give them the opportunity to explore and learn new things on their own initiative. Typing and mouse proficiency are useful skills in and of themselves these days, too. The best computer games for children are highly proactive (so that the kids have to make decisions about what to do next), point out mistakes and encourage young players to try again, and provide new information and puzzles, not just flashy animations and praise, as a reward for getting the right answer. Some of our favorites include:

Microsoft Encarta Reference Library
It may sound dull to adults, but there's no better toy for a curious child! The special kids' interface that comes with this computer encyclopedia lets children look up information by clicking on pictures or by typing a word into a large display panel. Once they get there there are pictures, text, audio, movies, and even little learning games to play on whatever topic interests them most--dinosaurs, gymnastics, astronauts walking on the moon, cheetahs running across the savannah, almost anything they can think of. My son calls his the "Big CD of Everything," after the cartoon character Stanley's talking encyclopedia, and he's not that far off! Useful for big brothers and sisters doing school reports, too.


Reader Rabbit: Bounce Down in Balloon Town
This is still one of my kids' favorites. The varied activities include reading, rhyming, math, pattern-matching, and memory skills, and thanks to the auto-leveling feature, it presents activities at each child's skill level--expecting an older child to read long words, for example, and a younger child just to recognize letters of the alphabet. This really helps to give children a sense of accomplishment as well as keep them interested in playing.


Physicus
This is an educational Myst-like adventure game intended to teach kids real-world physics through a series of science-fiction puzzles and an interactive science encyclopedia. It's a wonderful idea, and my sons definitely had their scientific interest piqued by it. The target audience is 10-15, but younger children who are gifted and talented, enthusiastic about science, and/or fans of adventure games will also enjoy this game; they'll just need a parent there to lend a helping hand with the interface.


Katamari Damacy
Okay, this one isn't really that educational. (It's also only available if you have a Playstation.) But the sheer physics of the thing had me sitting there in awe for half an hour watching a friend's three-year-old play it. Basically this game is about rolling up junk into a great, big wad, and making that wad bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Whoever did the CGI on this game did an amazing job; the ball rolls differently when an irregular-shaped object is stuck to it, or when there's more stuff collected on one side than on the other. Kids love the bright colors, vivid music, and control they have over the realistic motions of the playdoh-like ball. Heck, it left me wishing I had a PlayStation.


Computer games for you AND your child
Go see my reviews of a few good games to play together with your child. :-) The spatial, tool-using, and word puzzles in today's computer adventure games tend to be too difficult for children, but they love helping you solve them--and the sense of accomplishment when they succeed at one of these adult puzzles is palpable. My five-year-old was glowing all week after figuring out a "Myst" puzzle I'd forgotten the solution to.


Physical Education Toys

Too often, physical education is forgotten in discussions of educational toys and games. Partially that's just because the best physical education is obtained in settings outside the home--swimming lessons, soccer practice, playing with friends on the jungle gym. Some of the most alluring physical education toys are complex and expensive enough that they require extensive comparison shopping and couldn't be adequately covered on a one-mom site like mine (a bicycle, for example, or a swingset--you'll probably want to look at Consumer Reports or another professional review site for those). Others are flatly unsafe (trampolines, unfortunately enough). Here are a few exceptions that are favorites in my household:

Kids Yoga Deck
I live in Minnesota, so I'm always on the lookout for a good physical activity that my kids can do inside on days it's too cold to go out. This cheery set of yoga cards has saved my family's sanity on many a snowed-in day. Each card has a colorful sketch of a simple yoga pose on the front, with instructions and related activities printed on the back. The yoga poses have evocative English names to keep kids' attention (ranging from direct translations of the Sanskrit, like "warrior," to whimsical descriptions, like "upside-down gorilla.") They are very easy poses (even my two-year-old can approximate them) and are not dangerous for kids to do at home. Best of all, the card format turns it into an exciting game--children can pick a card and see which pose it's time to do next. A lot of toys and games that encourage physical exercise also encourage a lot of wildness, screeching, aggression and competitiveness; this little deck of cards helps kids work on their balance, flexibility, and gross motor skills without any of those undesirable indoors traits.


Educational Toys for Babies

I'm one who's highly skeptical of trying to teach babies to read by showing them flashcards are so on. I don't think they learn a darn thing from that. If you want to get your baby interested in reading, plop him in your lap and read to him a lot. He won't learn to read, but he'll learn to love reading time, and then when he gets older he'll learn faster. There are a number of good developmental toys for babies out there though: toys that help babies tackle their immediate developmental tasks of looking and seeing, hearing and responding, figuring out cause and effect and interacting with the world around them. These toys can be rightly considered educational, and they are also fun for babies and a delght to watch them play with. Babies have a pretty good time with a piece of scotch tape stuck to their toes or their mother's key ring, but here are some of our favorite commercial baby toys:

'Stim Mobile' Developmental Baby Mobile
This mobile really does not look like much to adults (its pieces are cardboard and very simple in appearance), but infants are utterly fascinated by it. Despite its lack of music, bells and whistles, this inexpensive mobile was actually the only thing other than being walked that could soothe my colicky firstborn. There's baby psychology behind this: immature eyes have trouble picking out the figurines that dangle from most more expensive mobiles, but the flat, downward-facing geometric patterns and face shapes in black, white and red are readily visible even to newborns. It may even help train their vision. It certainly takes their mind off colic. The set comes with several different interchangeable cards in different colors and patterns so you can switch them out when your baby starts to get bored of looking at the same configuration.


Check out Native American information for kids and Native American Indian art
Language of the day: Shawnee

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