With little kids, it’s easy to combine education and fun. But once they hit the advanced age of five or so, a lot of kids see the educational component a mile away and rebel. Fortunately, game designers have figured out many clever ways to slip in some (and in many cases, a lot of) serious business learning, without sacrificing the all-important fun factor. Here are some recent games that caught our attention.
Thrill Rides Clock Work (K’NEX)
In addition to being fun to ride on, roller coasters are gigantic examples of physics and engineering in action. There’s gravity, centrifugal force, various types of energy, friction, drag, acceleration, and more. This 300+ piece kit lets you teach (and learn) all those lessons right in your own home. It comes with a battery-powered motor (but batteries aren’t included) and an easy-to follow instruction manual that will lead you through building a coaster of your very own that’s more than two feet tall. Thrill Rides kits are also compatible with each other, so you can build even bigger models. K’NEX pieces are made in the USA in a landfill-free, zero-waste manufacturing facility. For ages 7+. $$34.95. https://www.knex.com
Building, whether it’s with blocks, bricks, paper, metal, pipecleaners, or anything else, is one of the very best ways for parents and children to spend time together. Here are some new products that will help you keep busy and close during those long, winter evenings.
Tonka Mighty Builders 80-piece Set (Amloid)
Young engineers can take their building on the road with this cute set, that includes more than 60 blocks in a variety of shapes and colors, a block-fit figure, an easy-to-assemble-and-take-back-apart truck, and a bunch of accessories (like construction signs). And when playtime is over you’ll be able to put all those blocks back into the durable (and adorable) truck-shapedcarrying bag. Available at your favorite brick-and-mortar or online retailer. For ages 1+. Prices vary. https://amloid.com
Construction Building Blocks 115-piece Tube (Crayola)
Another engaging building set for the youngest builders. This giant crayon-shaped tube is probably taller than your child and is filledwith large, easy-to-manipulate, colorful (we’d expect nothing less from Crayola) blocks. It’s a great way to learn about shapes, colors, and perseverance. The set we reviewed had 115 pieces, but smaller sets are available as well. Available at your favorite toy seller. For ages 1+. About $20. https://www.crayola.com
Bendy and the Ink Machine Buildable Scene Set (Basic Fun!)
Never hear of Bendy? It’s not too late to find out. This 265-piece set is based on the popular video game, Bendy and the Ink Machine. Inaddition to all the pieces you need to build out the ink machine room, it includes complete instructions and three mini-figures: Boris the Wolf, Ink Bendy, and Bendy himself. Other figures (including Alice Angel, Sammy, and Searcher) are sold separately. The bricks themselves are compatible with most major brands, so you can build even bigger and more elaborate scenes. Ages 8+. About $25. http://www.basicfun.com
Georello Tech Set #6137 (Quercetti)
This is the first kit we’ve reviewed from this Italian toy company and we’re very impressed. To start with, it’s colorful and extremely durable (the company says it’s indestructible, but we know a lot of kids who’d take that as a challenge). But the best part is putting all the pieces together,which will, in the most delightful way, teach kids about gears, motion, chains,and movement. Once it’s assembled, and spinning, it’s absolutely mesmerizing. Includes 165 pieces and complete instructions. For ages 5+. Under $40. https://www.quercettistore.com
The Great Treehouse Engineering Adventure (Thames & Kosmos)
Pepper Mint is a skilled engineer who wants to take you andyour child on a science expedition to the Bermuda Triangle, where things don’t always behave as you think they should, and the ship’s systems fail. As a result, you and Pepper have to create your own. To survive, you’ll need to create hydraulic machines and a variety of other cool projects that teach basic concepts of physics, engineering, and electricity. The full-color instruction manual uses storytelling to make the STEM education even more fun. Also comes with a Pepper Mint mini-figure. For ages 8+. About $40. https://thamesandkosmos.com
K’nex Bionic Blast Roller Coaster Set (K’nex)
Besides being incredibly fun, roller coasters are wonderful examples of science in action, making abstract concepts like force, motion, inertia, and gravity come to life. This kit comes with everything you could possibly need to build a variety of roller coasters (including instructions, of course). Butbetter still, once you’ve built a few coasters, you’ll be inspired to put the instructions away and build your own. For ages 8+. Under $100. https://www.knex.com
Magformers Sky Track Adventure Set (Magformers)
For kids who are too little, too young, or possibly tooafraid to learn about roller coasters by riding on one, this great magnetic set will give them a lovely introduction to the concepts that make coasters safe and fun. Together, you’ll build a twisty, turny track and create your very own adventures. For ages 3+. About $100. https://www.magformers.com
This week we bring you the first of three holiday gift guides. No sense waiting ‘til the last minute, right?
Advent Calendar (Playmobil)
What better way to count down the days ‘til Christmas than with this sweet Advent calendar. It comes with parent and child figures, pets, food, and enough surprises for every day from now ‘til the big day—plus a light-up tree (batteries not included). The toughest part will be resisting the temptation to put it all together in one day instead of spreading out the joy. Ages 4-10. Around $25 at retailers or http://www.playmobil.us/.
Geek & Co. Geeker Speaker Lab (Thames & Kosmos)
Open the box and within seconds, you and your kids are ready to learn about the science of sound. There are several different approaches. In the first, you turn just about any object you can think of into a speaker. Plug one end of the Speaker Geeker into your phone or music player (it fits standard headphone jacks) and put the other end, called a pod, on something else. Then turn on the sound and see how well a wood table sounds vs. a box of cereal vs. a tin can. The other experiment is to make invisible sound waves visible. To do that you attach the pod to the underside of a special tray (included) and add various materials—water, sand, yogurt, etc. Then, turn on your player and watch. If you use music, you’ll get a lot of pretty random action, but if you use a signal- or tone generator that produces a single sound at a single frequency, you’ll see some beautiful sound patterns. Ages 8+. Under $20 at many retailers or visit http://thamesandkosmos.com/
Beasts Alive Bronto Building Set (K’NEX)
For kids and adults who love building, dinos, and robots (and who doesn’t?) this is the trifecta. The pieces go together easily and stay that way even under pretty rough playing conditions. This 213-piece set includes a motor (but not batteries) and instructions for how to build three different dinos. Depending on the age of the child and the amount of adult intervention, it’ll take 30-45 minutes to put together. Then flip the switch and stand back as your dino goes on a rampage. Just be thankful he’s not a vegetarian. Ages 7+. Under $20 at Amazon or visit http://www.knex.com/
Mighty Makers Fun on the Ferris Wheel Building Set (K’NEX)
Help Emily and her bear Cocoa build a Ferris wheel, ticket both, and snack stand. Along the way you’ll learn about mechanics, speed, engineering, and other STEM concepts. This set is definitely geared more towards girls, but there are instructions on the website for how to use the same 324 pieces to build a pirate ship ride and more. Under $25 at Walmart or visit http://www.knex.com/
SkaZooms Battle ‘Boggan Action Pack (SkaZooms)
Meet SkaZooms, the latest (and coolest) collectible figures. These little skateboarders are adorable (in a so-ugly-that-they’re-cute kind of way) and safety conscious (they always wear helmets). The Action Pack includes one battle arena, two SkaZoom characters (with boards and helmets), and two ‘boggans (spinners that the SkaZooms characters sit on when they’re launched into the arena by yanking on a rip cord). The arena itself is outfitted with launch pads, jump ramps, and seating for eight SkaZooms spectators. When you’re ready to go, let ‘em rip and they’ll bounce, crash, smash, and fly. It’s wonderfully easy to set up, requires no batteries (yeah!), and is solidly made—we’ve had other ripcord-launched fighting toys that haven’t lasted a week. Ages 7+. Around $42 a many retailers, or http://www.skazooms.com/
Have you noticed lately that a lot of your favorite toys from the 80s are making a comeback? Some, of course, never completely left—they just moved to less-prominent shelves and were overshadowed by the latest and greatest. But others seem to have suddenly resurfaced, like zombies returning from the grave (except they don’t bite and we’re generally glad to see them). Either way, despite those promises you made to your parents that you’d never be like them, you may find yourself giving your own children the very same toys you played with back in the day.
Care Bears (Just Play)
Bringing toys out of retirement can be a risky business. In many cases, the new ones are similar, but they sometimes look as though they’ve been run through a funhouse mirror: legs too long, eyes too wide, head too small, etc. Not so with Care Bears. New-generation ultra-plush Bears look very much like the old ones. And their mission hasn’t changed at all: teach kids about responsibility, caring, sharing, empathy, and being a good friend. That’s a pretty big job for a little bear, so it’s a good thing they still have those magic “belly badges,” just in case they need a little help from Care-a-lot. Care Bears come in a variety of sizes and retail for $3 to $25 at places like Target and Amazon.com
Doodle Bear (Just Play)
Doodle Bears are sweet, cuddly bears that you can create your own artwork on. When you need a new look, just toss Doodle in the wash (in a pillowcase or “delicates” bag), hang him out to dry, and you’ve got a brand new canvas. The original Doodle Bear comes in three colors, or you can get the Glow Doodle Bear, where kids do their doodling with light. Each one comes with special, Doodle-Bear-Only markers (Glow comes with a magic light pen and stamps). Available for $20 and up at your favorite retailer.
K’nex have been around for ages, and are one of America’s top building sets. They have unique shapes and snapping pieces, bricks, struts, and big, flat swatches to hold the pieces together. The old sets were pretty free-form: dump the pieces out on the living room carpet and build whatever you want. Today there are all sorts of targeted sets that are based on old classics like Nitendo’s Mario and today’s sensations like Plants vs. Zombies (in this case, it’s a zombie-fied football helmet). But just as it was when you were a kid, your imagination is your only limit. Most sets work with each other, so the more you collect, the more you can connect. You may even be able to combine your old ones with your child’s new ones and take the building-bonding experience to a whole new level. Prices vary greatly, depending on the size of the kit. Available at retailers everywhere or at http://www.knex.com/
Fisher-Price Classics Movie Viewer (The Bridge Direct)
While not exactly an 80’s toy—the first Movie Viewers were introduced in 1973—the new versions look just like the ones we played with as kids. And despite being very low-tech, they’re just as much fun. Movie Viewers work exactly the way they did when you had yours: slide a cartridge into a slot, and turn a hand crank to play the “movie.” You can go forwards, backwards, fast, or slow. Comes with two cartridges (one for learning letters, the other for numbers). If you still have your old Snoopy cartridges, they should work too. No batteries required. Available for about $30 at https://www.fatbraintoys.com or http://www.fisher-price.com/