Children in early elementary grades are learning all kinds of new skills—they are starting to take off in reading, learning new math skills, discovering their world in new ways, and refining their skills in art. Plenty of products are available that are fun enough to give as gifts, yet still manage to encourage budding academic skills. When it comes to toys and software, any parent will agree that there are wiser choices than others—toys that entertain and educate at the same time are ideal. Often, though, some of the best gifts are toys that inspire imagination and pretend play. So, while electronic teaching aids can be fantastic, a set of markers or paints are priceless. We've included topnotch software, activity sets, books, toys, and audio products that kids will love receiving, and adults will feel good about giving.
Here are our Top Ten picks for gifts, as well as other super gift choices and hot trends.
This new and exciting learning game system is not only fun, but educational as well. The Leapster Explorer is jam-packed with preset games, but also has many downloadable features and apps to add more to the experience. This new version of the Leapster Explorer even includes a camera that is able to both take pictures and record videos. The games can help your child learn everything from reading to geography, but are also engaging so children have fun as they learn. Be aware though, the add on games can be pricy at times. Altogether though, the Leapster Explorer is satisfying and keeps children entertained.
This educational toy acts as a microscope with images that appear in their full magnified glory on the television screen. Kids will be actively searching for things to magnify -- coins, fabric, their own skin. The toy is battery-powered, and set-up is easy -- it plugs into the A/V jack on your TV. It's tricky for little ones (they'll need help focusing), but great fun nevertheless!
How fun is a multi-level rocket ship play house? This one will set children's imaginations to the moon! It comes with a working elevator and a number of important figurines, such as astronauts, space vehicles, aliens, and more. Kid testers loved it. Very cute!
These robot pets are both aesthetically pleasing and tons of fun! Children are sure to get excited from just the look of them, but they come with a bunch of fun features that keep things interesting past their appearance. These "robot" pets can sense when your child is playing with them and reacts to their actions. Both the Zuppies and Dinos have distinct moods that change depending on how you treat them (such as growling or roaring when angry), and can even move around on their own. The Zuppies can even play music and come with stickers so your child can customize them to their liking. Both the Zuppies and Dinos can be trained to do tricks, but be aware that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to figure out how to have them successfully perform these tricks. Overall, these toys are very exciting, interactive, and entertaining for kids of many ages. Their realistic reactions and interactive capabilities make them a definite standout!
LeapReader Reading and Writing System by Leap Frog
Designed for children just heading out on the road to reading (beginning readers), the LeapFrog Reader (which looks like a pen or stylus) is a touch-sensitive reading device that "reads" specially designed storybooks to children. Activities that encourage word recognition, other reading skills, and general learning experiences are also incorpororated. Currently, there are over 20 books and games designed for the LeapReader Reading system, some of which are classics like The Little Engine That Could, and others based on popular characters like SpongeBob SquarePants. The leanring activities are leveled and automatically adjust to a child's responses. Downloadable content is available online and accessed using a USB key.
The LeapReader Reading System includes a rather generic reading book, and the other storybooks are available separately. As such, you will need to factor the additional expense of books into the overall price of the product. (Kids will definitely need and want more storybooks).
We like the leveling, interactivity, and concept of this product. Downfalls are overall price, if you factor in the purchase of additional storybooks, and only one user can be tracked at a time (kids can share the unit, but the leveling and reporting becomes mixed up that way).
This kit hooks up to an iPad, not a computer or laptop. For kids with iPads (or access to one), this is a fabulous "edutaining" gaming system that's relatively new, but has a promising future with additional games in development. As well, the currently available games are engaging.
There are many free and inexpensive kids' apps for the iPad, so we wanted to know if Osmo was worth the cost. If it's within a comfortable price range for a family, we think it is. If not, it's a situation where you won't miss it if you don't have it, but if you do, you'll be happy you did. If it's out of your price range, it would probably benefit you to wait for the company to possibly upgrade and improve the product, as it would benefit from sturdier game pieces and improved touch sensitivity.
Also available: the Osmo Starter Kit. The Genius Kit includes all that's in the Starter Kit plus an extra game, Numbers. Numbers IS innovative and, in our opinion, worth getting, as it presents a wonderful environment for getting comfortable with numbers/math.
The Osmo Genius Kit requires a propped up (stand is included) iPad and some table or desk space for the various game pieces and cards. It does NOT require a WiFi connection, which is a real advantage. A reflector is placed over the iPad's camera, and then it's ready to go.
Downsides: the recommended age is 6 and up, which is fair enough, but keep in mind that it may be better for kids about 8-10, as younger kids may become frustrated if they can't read the buttons. It certainly requires some help from caregivers to get started. Also, we wish the numbers were plasic or wooden.
Just Dance Kids for Wii, Xbox 360, or Playstation 3
This incredibly fun, interactive game puts the video game console motion sensor functions to great use. The Just Dance Kids series of video games provide hours of entertainment, while simultaneously getting kids on their feet and moving. With a very impressive list of much loved (and child appropriate) songs and more than 40 different choreographed dances, kids imitate the dance moves of real children on the screen who go through the choreography with them. It is a definite hit for parties as well, with many different multi-player activities such as group dance routines and dance-offs. The dances range in difficulty and have helpful ratings to differentiate between beginner dances and more challenging dances, which allows children to challenge themselves and gradually move forward as they improve, offering motivation to keep playing. However, some children may find the game frustrating if they try the more difficult levels without enough practice. Just Dance Kids is a huge hit among our kid testers, and is ultimately a great way to get kids moving and exercising on a day in. Our favorite of the game series is Just Dance Kids 2, which very narrowly beats Just Dance Kids and Just Dance Kids 2014. This series is highly recommended.
Balloon Lagoon, by the makers of Cranium, is a carnival "board game" (without the traditional board) that is truly exciting and educational at once. Best for kids ages 4-7, this game involves spelling simple words, unscrambling pictures, and more, all to the sounds of the merry-go-round musical timer. The object of the game is to collect the most plastic balloons the quickest. The game is battery-operated. Very fun!
Hullabaloo is a high-energy game with so many variations of gameplay that it always stays fresh. Kids learn about shapes, words, and colors, as well as develop listening, cooperation, and strategic skills. The Hullabaloo itself is quite sturdy and attractive, requiring AA batteries. It's easy to understand the rules quickly, especially so for kids with its additional oral instructions.
Kids strategize, using their Lego blocks to block their opponents in this intriguing family game that gets kids thinking! It's clever and changeable (rules can be modified to suit your kids' interests, talents, and attention spans), which keeps gameplay very fresh over time. There are total setbacks in the game that makes it better for kids over 7, which happens to be the manufacturers' suggested age.
Young children are wild about magnets and about free-play building. This set combines these two kid-friendly activities. Geomag with Panels sets contain rods (one color per set), nickel-plated magnetic spheres (that never tarnish!), and colorful panels of different shapes for unlimited play ideas. Kids can make unique and imaginative structures of all kinds, including such things as spinning tops and simple shapes. It's an educational and fun activity for kids over 3 (small parts), and the possibilities are only limited by a child's imagination, and the number of pieces in the set! It comes in sets with different numbers of pieces. Although the sets with less pieces are fun, most kids will want more pieces. We recommend the 125-piece set.
This very creative kit is great for a relaxing "quiet time" activity. The set comes with a variety of templates that kids populate with half-inch magnetic cubes (they're foam) to create interesting designs. The mosaics are built on a tabletop easel. The only down side here is that there are not enough pieces to make more than one masterpiece at once, so it's not great for kids who like to display their artwork but would also like to start anew.
Sets in the Lego City line are a perfect fit for this age group. Amongst others, we like Police Station, as it really is intricate with a whole slew of realistic details, as well as very rewarding to complete. Kids can put criminals in jail (the set includes two prison cells and even tiny handcuffs!), for example. There are three police vehicles included and little figurines. Need more Lego figurines? If your child owns more than one Lego City sets, he/she might benefit from having extra figurines. Try LEGO Community Workers Set, which is a set of community figures from a range of occupations with appropriate accessories.
These smooth wood and plastic toy cars are all the rage! Automobolox Mini's are perfectly-sized customizable cars that come in a range of colors, shapes, and sizes. They have detachable wheels and windows so kids can create and recreate their own original vehicles; and they can also connect them together. The cars even come with their own VIN number. The quality of the wood and plastic vehicles is exceptional and the tires are real rubber. This particular set (pictured here) comes with one blue S9, one red C9, and one green T9.
These building blocks may not look as snazzy as other building sets, but that's one of the reasons why we love them! Kids are only limited by their imaginations with this set of wonderfully designed and manufactured blocks. Included in the set pictured here are 200 pieces--enough to truly inspire children of all ages. Other sets are available, whether you want to start smaller or add to your existing collection.
Not only are they more affordable, but they're also the blocks kids turn to time and time again. Why? They're simple, well-balanced, and kids aren't limited by colors and awkward shapes when they are building their architectural "masterpieces". (If your kids do like colored blocks, they are also available). Sometimes less is more.
This fun and easy art activity is appropriate for the whole family. The premise of Window Art is simple, but the results are nothing short of fabulous: slip an included fill with more squirtable color. Each design--whether it's a family of colorful bugs, an ice cream sundae, or a collection of underwater creatures--takes about 24 hours to dry. Once set, the design becomes "clingable"--ready to display on any window of the house. The results are positively vibrant. Your windows (and view) will never look better.
The Crayola Glow Dome offers a great way for kids to let their imaginations run wild and experience their drawings come to life. This rotating, glow-in-the-dark dome lets kids see their artwork painted on the walls in neon, glowing colors. (Kids are actually drawing on the globe or dome itself.) As soon as the lights go out, they experience a new creative world, that allows kids to put a spin on their usual artwork, inspiring more excitement in their creations. While the thrill of it might not last forever, it's certainly a fun experience while it does last.
The Nintendo 3DS is the latest handheld system from Nintendo (the Nintendo DS Lite mentioned below is still a good system, but the 3DS is the latest). It's backwards compatible with the DS, meaning it can play every DS game in addition to the newer 3DS games.
The Nintendo 3DS boasts improved graphics, a robust e-shop with digital downloads of full games, and some extra features. And, of course as the name implies, it has 3D capabilities. Games specially designed for the 3DS can be played in 3D without the need for special glasses. The intensity of the 3D can be adjusted to taste with a slider, and it can be turned off completely, as some of our testers have opted to do. Note that the 3D element is NOT recommended for children ages 7 and under, and some kids older than 7 find it disorienting and choose not to use the feature. The Nintendo 3DS XL includes larger screens. Although this can make it slightly less portable than the original version of the 3DS, it is far from unreasonable and can be more appealing to younger children due to easier visibility.
The Nintendo DS Lite is a super improvement on the DS. This lighter, brighter, and more compact edition of a fabulous portable gaming system drew ooh's and ah's from our kid testers. It comes in Coral Pink, Polar White, and Onyx Black. Of course, many girls love the pink version. Like the DS, the DS Lite features dual screens, wireless features, a touch screen, stylus, and microphone. It's more interactive than the GameBoys (for example, with one game, kids can blow into the unit to create bubbles onscreen; in another (Nintendogs), they can speak commands to their virtual puppies).
Should you buy a DSi? If the kids don't play GameBoy games, then no. Stick with the DS Lite. If not, and you like the idea of having a camera in the DS, then go for the DSi. Our kid testers still play GameBoy games, and don't want to "upgrade" as a result!
NOTE: The better bet is to get the Nintendo 3DS (immediately above) as it is backwards compatible. The 3DS can play all DS games (not GameBoy Advance games) and boasts more features.
Playing store is a classic childhood activity that keeps children busy for hours at a time. Pretending they are grown-ups, kids imitate both the customer and the cashier, and playing with a realistic cash register adds an exciting and educational element to the fantasy. Of the many toy cash registers on the market to choose from, the Pretend & Play Cash Register is a particularly sensible choice with its real solar-powered calculator as its keypad. The large, attractive buttons allow even preschoolers to start feeling comfortable with the basic workings of a calculator. As children grow, this cash register provides an excellent introduction to the world of math and helps kids learn practical calculator skills. Along with these skills, they also develop social and vocabulary skills as they model real-world grown-up behavior. A scanner and scale are also featured in this innovative toy. The coin reader identifies both play and real coins, helping kids get comfortable with the names of coins. Children can use the cash register for real-world calculations. Kids can even use the register to handle real money for a garage or lemonade sale! This toy offers hours of pretend play and practical math lessons at the same time.
The classic game of Bingo has been made a little zippier and more child-friendly. Zingo! features a dispenser filled with tiles, called a Zinger. When kids slide the dispenser, out pops two tiles with images on them. The first child to shout out the object (as long as it matches with a picture on their card) gets the tile. The zingo cards are two-sided—the yellow side makes for a less competitive game than the red side! This is a great feature that allows families to decide whether they want to have a more relaxing or a competitive game.
This Mensa-approved brain game not only exercises kids' thinking skills, it's a whole lot of fun. The rules are simple, but the gameplay is nevertheless very clever. Children need to strategize in order to succeed at this game--a skill that helps them across the curriculum.
The plush, interactive Furby made toy history when it initially launched during the 1998 holiday season, sparking phenomenal demand and a legendary buying frenzy. An all-new evolved Furby is more technologically advanced, allowing for enhanced interaction through voice recognition. In addition, the toy is larger than before, and has a fully flexible beak, expressive eyes, and movable ears and eyebrows that allow the toy to communicate through expressions. And, as a nod to Mom requests, the new Furby now has an off switch so the chatterbox toy won't break into song or story-telling mode during the middle of the night!
The all-new Furby is driven by Hasbro's new Emoto-Tronics, a combination of advanced robotic technology, puppetry and realistic lifelike reactions and movements. Advanced voice recognition allows Furby to react based on how a child interacts with it, adding a new level of technological sophistication. Now, the FURBY creature can "listen" and respond based on his "mood." With the toy, kids learn how to speak 'Furbish', Furby's native language. Furby is currently hitting store shelves in the U.S. with four different fur combinations, including grey and pink, all-white, black and white, and cream and brown, with additional fur combinations due out later this year. Furby will also come with a variety of eye colors, including various shades of brown, blue and green. For more information, user reviews, or to buy Furby: Furby Toys
Barbie Pink 3-Story Dream Townhouse
While it's not an especially original set-up, the Barbie 3-Story Dream Townhouse will certainly please pink-loving, Barbie-loving kids! This one has a working elevator, some sounds and lights (such as a working doorbell and flushing toilet), and tons of accessories including furniture and kitchen doo-dads. And, since it's designed for Barbie, it is of course scaled to Barbie dolls' size. Keep in mind that it has to be put together by an adult with a screwdriver, and requires some batteries, so make sure you have these things (and the time) to avoid disappointment once the gift is opened.
There's nothing quite like a toy that gets kids moving while they learn. Hyper Dash by Wild Planet looks simple but actually includes multiple game modes and levels to appeal to a wide variety of children's ages and skill levels. Kids hold on to the electronic "tagger" and listen for instructions--as simple as finding a certain color or number or as challenging as solving a subtraction exercise. Then it's a mad dash to find the correct target. The game can be played outdoors or indoors in a spacious room. Fun and educational!
We love Shrinky Dinks! But we weren't impressed with the Shrinky Dinks oven that we tested. A more economical way to make shrinky dinks--a delightfully fun art activity for kids--is to get the book, The Shrinky Dinks Book. You may want to purchase a refill kit at the same time (it contains 8 plastic sheets). You will have to bake the artwork in the "big" oven, but baking is brief and accurate this way. Excellent activity! Children trace objects onto the included special plastic sheets (this book is brimming with great things to trace), and then fill them in with color. Once baked, they magically shrink and harden.
Whether it's the Christmas-themed book-activity set or the original version, children love Window Art. These books provide children with both the inspiration and the tools to create beautiful stick-on decorations for the window (or any glass surface, for that matter). Window Art is a fun and easy art activity the whole family can enjoy. The premise is simple, but the results are nothing short of fabulous: slip an included plastic sheet over one of the templates found in the book's pages, use a black squirt-bottle to trace the outline of a design, then fill with more "squirtable" colors. Each design—whether it's a family of colorful bugs, an ice cream sundae, or a collection of underwater creatures—takes about 24 hours to dry. Once set, the design becomes "clingable"—ready to display on any window of the house. The results are positively vibrant—your windows (and view) will never look better. The Christmas edition contains designs featuring Santa, stockings, icicles, whimsical animals, angels, and more. They range in difficulty from basic to intricate.
Learning to tell time can be rather complicated. A learning aid that helps make the lessons fun is always welcome. This battery-operated toy clock helps reinforce and teach time, both analog and digital. Time-telling drills are included.
This book offers a uniquely educational and practical activity for kids. Coin Count-y allows children to sort their coins, slip them directly into the slots of the pages, and accumulate over twenty dollars in the process. The book offers children an educational experience as they learn to attach value to coins. Kids sort coins into the appropriate slots, learning as they do the difference between pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The book lets kids know how much they have saved when they have filled up a page. Slots are found in the book's paths and jars, and a "store" helps children learn how to sort coins to make enough money to "buy" something fun.
Pair this book with a little bag of coins to get kids started, and you have a truly unique gift.
Frozen, the incredible, heartwarming musical by Disney/Pixar, is a major hit for people of all ages. If your child loved the film, the Frozen dolls by Mattel are a sure to be a hit as well! These dolls are great in quality, with great attention to detail ensuring that the dolls very closely resemble the characters in the film. There are also a wide variety of other Frozen products such as figurines, costumes, and plush dolls that will surely please any child that loves Frozen as much as we do!
British boy band One Direction are everywhere these days. It's hard not to fall in love with their catchy music as well as the array of fun personalities of the members. If your child is one of the many fans of this band, the official One Direction dolls are an excellent gift choice that are sure to please any fan. The dolls closely resemble the members, and the outfits of the dolls are designed to match outfits that they have worn to big events in the past, such as the music video for their hit "What Makes You Beautiful"- details that will make any fan happy to see. There are multiple dolls for each boy, so it is easy to find one of your child's favorite. If you are willing to pay a little bit more, there are even dolls that "sing" snippets of their hits with the press of a button! If your child is not interested in dolls, there are a multitude of other One Direction products that are readily available to purchase such as official books, their excellent documentary/concert movie "This Is Us", their albums, and many types of accessories. All of these products are very child-friendly and can make great gifts.
Bakugan products are hot stuff. Bakugan Battle Brawlers is a Japanese anime TV series television series featuring Bakugan, creatures that the battle brawlers have the power to wield. Plenty of products are available that allow kids to collect cards and battle with friends.
[For more information, user reviews, or to buy Bakugan]
Bella Sara Trading Cards are addictive for horse-loving girls. Bella Sara is a trading card game with an online component. The cards are marketed toward girls and have images of illustrated horses with positive, inspirational messages on them. As with all collectible card games, cards can be traded or used to play games. Each card also includes a unique activation code which can be used to play online at the cards' website. Fans of the series will enjoy the Holiday Tin pictured here, which includes the special tin as well as 5 packs of cards, 4 of which come from the four established Bella Sara sets: First series, Second series, Ancient Lights, and Northern Lights.
Webkinz are all the rage, and probably rightfully so. These collectible stuffed animals hold a code to unlock games on the Webkinz site. Kids use the plush animal's secret code to care for their virtual pet and play games (at a variety of skill/age levels). Quizzes do contain educational content. As well, as children earn "money" (KinzCash) in the Webkinz world, they learn about saving and spending it wisely (they buy furniture, food, and things for the pets' rooms). Daily news, contests, and events keep the experience fresh. KinzChat allows kids to safely chat with their friends. Be aware that kids will definitely want more than one pet, although owning more than one doesn't make game play much richer.
[For more information, user reviews, or to buy Webkinz toys]
Littlest Pet Shop
They're adorable and most little girls love to collect them - Littlest Pet Shop figurine sets are unquestionably cute and unquestionably collectible. The smaller sets include two adorable pets and little accessories. The larger sets are playsets. Accessories include such things as a tiny hairbrush or cool sunglasses.
Each plushie VIP (Virtual Interactive Pet) includes a unique code for online activation of games, activities, and more in the virtual Littlest Pet Shop world where kids have their own home and pets (good for a year). Littlest Pet Shop VIP's are quite adorable with their over-sized heads and eyes.
A blast from the past! The original Cabbage Patch doll frenzy occurred in the early 1980's. Many parents of today's children took part in the thrill of the dolls: each doll is entirely unique and comes with adoption papers that include a name and a birthdate. Kids loved them then, and they love them today. Many parents will be happy to know that today's Cabbage Patch dolls have not been "updated" with technology or anything of the sort.
Cabbage Patch dolls were re-released last year. This season, they introduced Cabbage Patch Kids Babies, such as the one at right. These adorable dolls come with a kit of baby accessories (including a diaper), and they smell like baby powder!
Note that you can order these dolls through Toys R Us (see link directly below this description) by choosing a general description of the doll, such as "Blonde Hair Girl, Pink Sweatsuit", but because each doll is one-of-a-kind, the eyes, hair styles, and faces will be different than those shown.
The fantastic online "virtual pet" community, Neopets at neopets.com, is so popular that a merchandise line is now available. Even Hasbro and Thinkway Toys are producing Neopet toys. There's plenty to do at the site, and best of all, it's free! NeoPets are virtual pets that kids access online. Children feed their pets, offer them toys, collect Neopoints (the Neopia currency), trade with others in the community, play games, and more. The basic idea is to keep your Neopets happy and healthy, but there are many "other" things to do at the site. Kids can spend hours at the site, and now they can play with their pets offline with Neopets Plushies, interactive Neopets (the purple Shoyru is pictured here), and even a board game (pictured at right).
Activity Kits: Butterfly Bedroom, and Two Glasses For You to Paint
Butterfly Bedroom is another kit that is best for children ages 5-7 (because of its simplicity) who love butterflies! The kit comes with gorgeous tuile butterflies that are ready to decorate with the included glitter paint and rhinestones, as well as a swag. The completed creations can be hung as a mobile or individually -- kids will be proud to decorate their bedrooms with these pretty butterflies.
Also from Creativity for Kids is a simple set that allows children to enjoy the fun and rewards of reverse glass painting. Two Glass Plates For You to Paint contains two glass plates (6 and 8 inches), a set of glass paints, a fine point art brush, and illustrations and instructions to get kids started. Kids paint designs on the back of the plates, get their parents to bake the plates, let the plates "cure" for six days, and voila! Beautiful and unique decorative plates that kids can actually use for their snacks, or proudly display.
U-Command Wall-E robot is a totally fun remote-controlled robot with eyes that light up, realistic sounds, and cool responses. Kids have the option to program a set of orders or simply send commands randomly. U-Command Wall-E is less than ten inches tall. The toy didn't make it to our top toys list because of its instability--it falls a little too often for our liking. Otherwise, the robot is great fun. Have lots of batteries on hand!
The Fly Tech DragonFly is a remote-controlled flying insect that kids have a fabulous (if brief) time controlling. Ideal for indoors, its elegant design prevents it from wreaking havoc in the household. Weather permitting, the dragonfly can soar through the air outdoors as well. It's not so elegant in windy weather, however, and of course not easy to control.
There is also a FlyTech Moth, designed with red and blue colors. It's prettier, but essentially the same toy with different wrapping.
Both toys need charging frequently. Fully charged, they last about 5-8 minutes before they need to go back onto their charger base. This actually helps extend the appeal of the toys, simply because kids don't have a chance to overdose on them! They are not as fragile as they look, but still need to be handled with care, of course.