Like most parents, I look for fun ways to help my children grow smarter. Of course, I encourage my kids to read and to utilize online educational resources; realistically, however, I know that enjoyable experiences are much more likely to get their devoted attention than books or educational videos. Toys that teach or help children hone skills can sometimes succeed in ways that more formal training mechanisms cannot.
This summer, I had my own children test several educational toys - offerings that can also be of great value during the school year. As my kids are still playing with several items, I'll discuss some toys in this piece, and others in the future.
So, here are seven toys and games that can help make your children smarter listed by the type of skills that the toys help impart.
And, for this set of toys, I extend a thank you to my six year old daughter, Tammy, for helping with the reviews.
Mastermind by Pressman - In Mastermind one player creates an ordered four-color code and another tries to guess it, receiving feedback from the coder after every guess as to how many colors in the guess were correct and how many of those colors were in their correct locations. Mastermind code breaking is great practice performing analysis and deductive reasoning - in order to break the code a person must combine the feedback from multiple guesses to determine what colors and positions are possible, as well as which must be correct, and which must be wrong. Serving as the code maker and marking the guesses also helps children practice providing accurate feedback (and maintaining a poker face). Mastermind has been around for almost half a century - and works as well now as it did when it first came out.
My six year old daughter tried out the Builder's Survival Kit by GoldieBlox and Walking Robot by Magformers.
Both of these toys teach children some of the basic concepts of engineering, while simultaneously facilitating creativity.
The Goldiblox kit includes many pieces that can be used to construct various different items; it is sophisticated and applies real mechanical engineering concepts - for example, wheels can be attached to a vehicle via axles as they are in real life, rather than by simply attaching to the side of a lego-type car. Building with the kit was not easy - to successfully construct some of the items that she wanted, my daughter needed to be reminded to follow instructions carefully and needed a bit of help (to be fair, the product is intended for ages 7 and up) - but I think those elements are an integral part of the educational experience; engineering requires attention, but if someone focuses, she can build cool things. There are, of course, many construction-related toys - but most are designed and marketed specifically for boys. Goldiblox's mission is to help encourage girls to build; constructing interesting things at a young age helps encourage girls to pursue their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) - areas in which, due to societal pressures and other factors, girls often abandon their interest as early as age 8. Goldiblox's toys come with a character-filled narrative rather than standard instructions, thereby providing a building experience within the context of a story, something that many girls may find attractive. If you are looking to encourage your daughter (or any other girl) to explore these areas, Goldiblox is definitely worth checking out. And, of course, there is no reason that boys cannot enjoy the Goldiblox products either.
The Walking Robot is much simpler than the Goldiblox kit and comes with fewer, but larger, pieces - my six year old did not need any help assembling a robot - while this toy covers fewer engineering concepts, it adds an electric motor so that children can learn basic concepts of how motors can be used to accomplish tasks such as moving or spinning arms. Like the Goldiblox offering, children using the toy likely learn without recognizing that they are involved in a hands-on STEM activity. Magformers offers a bunch of other toys that similarly help children develop their creativity while developing an appreciation for engineering.
Math and Reading
Little Scholar Mini by School Zone
This tablet computer - intended for children in pre-K through First Grade - comes with dozens of educational apps, videos, music, and child-oriented e-books that span the educational levels expected of children in the target age range. The device works with or without a network connection - although with WiFi you can download even more (free) apps. I was happy to see that when my daughter first tried out the tablet she became somewhat addicted for several days - always a positive development for a parent to witness when it comes to an educational toy; I had not seen her show such interest when it came to general tablets even when loaded with software for children.
I was sent a prototype of Happy Atoms - a toy that works with an app to let children (or adults) build, scan, and identify molecules, thereby teaching basic concepts of chemistry. By connecting magnetic representations of various atoms and scanning them with a smartphone or tablet my children saw how various molecules are formed in nature. Rather than explaining to kids how two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom bond to form water why not let them experience it for themselves? As could be expected from a prototype, there were some quirks that still need to be worked out, but Happy Atoms should be on your radar. You can pre-order various versions of the final product online via the creators' Indiegogo campaign.
While there are many games that teach competitive strategy, the classic games of chess and checkers are ubiquitous, and do not suffer from the elements of chance that exist in many modern strategy games. There are no dice to roll or cards to draw - winning or losing is based entirely on players' strategy and skill (and, perhaps, who goes first - although that can be alternated). Both games are usually sold together as a bundle - often for under $10.