Thursday, November 19, 2020

Mr. Losik's 2020 Holiday Gift Guide: 13 Great Ways to Engage the Brain this Christmas Season

Normally, I am solidly in the camp of not rushing the Christmas lights, music, or tree trimming until after the dishes are done on Thanksgiving Day, but if rushing the holiday season this year helps increase our joy and gets 2020 off to dumpster of history faster, then pour the eggnog and put Nat King Cole on the record player. It's never too early to be thinking about great holiday gifts that elicit hours of fun and engage the brain along the way. 

2020 has stopped a lot of things but it's not going to stop my tradition of sharing great learning-related gift ideas. This year's list showcases a dozen ideas from a really old school to the adventurous. Also, don't forget about checking out my past lists as well. 

You will want to make your purchases early this year as retailers and shipping companies like FedEx and UPS expect a surge in online ordering due to the dangers of and restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic. Some of these items are on a lot of Christmas lists so supply could be an issue as well if you wait too long. Links provided are to Amazon listings but by all means, shop around for the best deals.

Classic Spirograph and Spirograph Jr. - $9.99-$21.99

Here's a classic that has made a recent comeback and continues to allow kids to create fun artwork while unknowingly learning all kinds of geometric concepts. First designed and sold by a British engineer in 1965, Spirograph is a great quiet activity for families who just might be spending more time indoors together in the coming months. Just like everything else these days, there are a ton of YouTube videos for cool ways to take art with Spirograph way beyond the instructions.

Strawbees Inventor Kit - $34.99

Maker Kit - $20.99

Strawbees have been growing in popularity with STEM teachers over the past few years and more and more kids are wanting to experience the fun they have with them in the classroom at home. A series of connectors make it easy to build elaborate structures out of straws. A couple of different options are listed here. Like the other great building toys, kids can start with the instruction manual and then create whatever they can dream up.

Back to the Roots Self-Watering Planter - $25

With a Michigan winter ahead of us, watching something green growing in your kitchen brings hope for warmer days long as that green thing isn't growing in a corner of your fridge. Back to the Roots offers all kinds indoor grow kits to explore on their website. Families that buy kits for home this holiday season can also give one to the elementary school of their choice because Back to the Roots will be donating one-for-one to an elementary school of the buyer's choice. Just post a picture of you and your kit to social media and tag it with #GrowOneGiveOne.

Young Modeler Kits - $28 - $32

The wooden desktop modeling kits from Young Modeler are great for the aspiring contractor, architect, or crafter. Young Modeler is a Korean company founded by Yeongjong Park who was an office worker for 20 years but loved building wooden models of boats. He and a friend started the company and now they offer a number of different structures from various homes to cafes to Old West saloons. Models can be left plain or given special paint and customization. One of the best aspects of these models comes with their numerous details like landscaping and other unique building features.

Lego Architecture Kits - $45.99

Speaking of classics and building, check out the architecture kits from Lego. These come in a variety of individual landmarks or full cityscapes. The series originated in 2008 with the Sears Tower and other single buildings like John Hancock in Chicago and the Seattle Space Needle. Over the course of the last twelve years offerings have spanned the globe. Venice, Berlin, and New York City became the first city sets to be offered in 2016. New for 2020 are Tokyo and Dubai. Not only are these great buildings and places to construct, but undoubtedly kids will also want to get on Google Earth and go learn more about what they just built.

BeeBeeRun Construction Kits - $24.98

This one is geared for the 3 to 6-year-old crowd and especially those who love to take things apart and put them back together. The BeeBeeRun kits use the same parts and included tools to build five different vehicles. Well, five vehicles according to the instructions can be built, but the real creativity starts when kids start "Frankesteining" the parts to come up with their own hybrids of different types of cars/plane/copters.

Tello Drone - $99

The big bummer about a lot of drones is how hard they are to fly and also how weather-dependent they are. While the Tello doesn't do well in strong winds, it's super easy to control and is safe enough to fly indoors. In fact, it even has a mode where it will land on your hand. It uses on-board cameras to avoid collisions and will record video and take still photos. For the price, you get a seriously engineered drone at a relatively affordable entry-point. The Tello is my drone of choice for learning in STEM.

Snap Circuits Arcade - $44.97

Electrical engineering has never been more fun than with Snap Circuits. The fun gets ramped up even higher with the Arcade edition of Snap Circuits. Kids use 30 different electronic components that snap into place and are contained in super-safe housing. Just like learning to code doesn't necessarily make a kid a video game designer, I wouldn't let the kids rewire the house after playing with this gift. What you can be certain of is that there is a ton of logic and problem solving that comes from the completion of many of the 200 projects.

Magic Motion Mobile - $19.99Fat Brain Toys is a staple of this list, and this little guy from them earns his place here in multiple ways. This is another gift for the 6 and under crowd, but the technology rivals any toy for any age group. It's a remote control car that doesn't require an app or a controller, just the waving of a hand. Magic Motion Mobile vehicles are motion-controlled cars that are controlled simply by dragging your hand or a ball in front of them. In follow-mode it will track whatever is in front of it. Flip a switch for escape-mode and hovering your hand above the car moves it forward. A hand in front of the bumper sends it in reverse. This is especially great for the younger siblings who see big brothers and sisters playing with more complex RC toys. Now they can be cool like the big kids.

 Marble Run Super Set - $36.99

Here's a great unplugged activity that delivers a ton of learning about physics and problem-solving while providing hours of creative play. Marble run sets are a blast because there's no limit to how many ways they can be set up. Also, they are a nice break from all of the screen time we've all probably had too much of lately.

Bananagrams Party Edition - $14.99

This one's been around since 2006 and was founded by 76-year-old Abe Nathanson as a way to bring three generations of his family together, united by their love of word games. Countless other families, including mine have done exactly that over the years from the Nathansons' invention. Bananagrams has delivered new spins on their classic over the years. Why not check out this holiday season their "Party Edition"? Think Banagrams meets all of the fun strategy cards in Uno like Draw Four or Reverse. Drop a monkey wrench into your opponent's game plans by playing one of several tiles that can really change the game. Bananagrams is a great way to keep everyone's brains working while having a blast together around the table.

PlayMake 4 in 1 Wood Shop - $110.00 

Just like previous list member Worx ZipSnip, this power tool is a game-changer when it comes to kids being able to actually (safely) cut and craft. This one is definitely an investment but at $110, it's still almost $200 cheaper than a Nintendo Switch gaming system. The tool converts to a drill press, a band saw, a lathe, and a sander. Reviews on Amazon are favorable and one parent stated that they are on their second machine because four boys used the first one for six years and it finally gave out on them. We might have to invest in one of these for the STEM program.

Swurfer Tree Skate Swing - $79.99  This final item is going on my "grownup Christmas list" as well. As someone who's stayed stoked since riding my first wave on an air mattress at the legendary Big Surf in 1980, let me tell you that there's something incredibly special about the feeling you get from sliding down the face of a wave. Just like skateboarding and snowboarding deliver that same "stoke" so does this tree swing from Swurfer. The Charleston, SC company offers all kinds of swings now besides the tree skate featured here and why I included these products in an educational toys list has more to do with the sensory aspects that certain types of swings provide. To any swing, there are a bunch of physics concepts that kids unknowingly explore, but swinging can also be tremendously therapeutic. Children with autism benefit greatly from swinging, but we actually all do. That's why there are front porch swings and rocking chairs. You can just sit on the front porch or you can add that gentle motion to relax even further. The Tree Skate provides the simple fun of swinging while giving riders an adrenaline shot if they so desire. The tree skate can handle riders up to 200 pounds and the motion required to make it move is a great core-building exercise.

Christmas and the holidays are bound to be very different this year, but even if it's not what we're used to, there's a joy to the season a global pandemic can't take away. Hopefully, these ideas help with your shopping and deliver some of that joy to your kids this holiday season. 


  1. Great list! I have four boys and we are looking for gifts that aren’t electronics!

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