By Laura Simon

It’s that time of year again, and the requests for Christmas present ideas are pouring in from grandparents everywhere. The older my kids get, the less I want a heap of new junk in my house. Every year, I try to push the grandparents toward experience gifts, but I also understand that it’s more fun to gift something tangible…something the kids can tear into and play with right away. With that in mind, I’m trying to be more intentional about the things our kids get for Christmas this year. Yes, I’ll go all-in one on or two fads (Shopkins, anyone?), but I really want toys that double as teaching tools. After all, play is an important part of learning, so why not find brain boosting toys?

A toy doesn’t have to be labeled ‘educational’ to build kids’ thinking and creative skills. Board games, building toys, and crafts all develop brain cells and fine motor skills. Many of the toys marketed to little kids focus on these skill sets, but there are fantastic options for kids over five as well. Here are a few of my favorites:

Think Fun Gravity Maze Marble Run Logic Game. My kids are suckers for a marble run, and I don’t blame them. This toy takes things up a notch by making it into a game of challenges, developing critical thinking skills and keeping kids engaged for a long time. The company also offers other challenge games, such as another favorite, the Rush Hour Traffic Jam Game. All their games are designed to stretch thinking skills while remaining fun.

Barefoot Books Build-a-Story Cards. Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were popular in the 80’s? This activity takes that concept and kicks it up a notch. I used to be an English teacher, so you can probably understand why I’m drawn to these cards. They build thinking skills that will come in handy in English class, and they also encourage imaginative play.

Snap Circuits. I have to admit: when I first heard about this toy, I couldn’t believe it. Electrical circuits???  For KIDS????  But here you go; they can build real working items, like a burglar’s alarm. Maybe my kids will build one and I can set an alarm on my candy stash. A girl can hope?

Kiwi Crates. When these first came out, I decided to wait and see if they were really all they were cracked up to be. And the verdict is they are legitimately fun and challenging. If Grandma balks at the subscription idea because she wants something for the kids to open, consider intercepting the first box and wrapping it up to put under the tree. Bonus: the kids will have something to do while they wait for dinner to be served hours later than you planned. Or is that just our family?

Kanoodle. The great thing about this one is that it’s cheap. Not only that, but it’s portable, can be played by only one person, and makes a great alternative to playing on a tablet during long car rides, like the one you’re about to take over the river and through the woods.

Crankity. This game combines problem-solving and critical thinking with building skills. If you do it right, the gears will spin. If not, you get to try again. There are multiple levels, so this one can grow with your child.

There you go. Goodness knows there are tons of other ideas out there, but I hope I gave you some inspiration for toys that will do more than just hide under your couch for years to come. If you have other great suggestions for our readers, please drop them in the comments!

Happy shopping!

~ For more brain boosting gift ideas, visit our recent blog “Gift Ideas: Toddler Toys that Teach.”

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