It's that time of year again. Time to start sorting through the best bets for bringing holiday smiles to our kids while keeping their brains engaged. There's no shortage of choices this year, but it's important to start early because even in years with no supply chain issues, the hottest toys always end up in short supply.
If there is a common theme running through this year's list, it's all about creativity and building new things. You will also notice there are very few screens involved. I've built a very rewarding teaching career in the arena of educational technology but after the last two years, the last thing our kids need is more screen time. There's technology involved with a lot of these toys, but ultimately this year we are looking at stuff to help our kids move beyond anything virtual and start making real, cool stuff.
Playmake 4-in-1 Woodshop - $120 - Amazon, The child-friendly, working wood shop was the hottest thing on last year's list but nobody could find them available in time for Christmas. So far this year, there are units to be found at Amazon and Walmart, among other online sellers.
Woodworking is not only a fun hobby, but it gets kids creating in ways that develop all of the skills we are trying to build in stem. There's engineering involved with tackling a project and there are all of the different motor skills involved with applying the tools to wood.
This item is also sold under the PlayMat brand but appears to be the same product. They're in stock in mid-November so nab them quickly.
Jixelz - Free Form Puzzle Pieces - $4.95 to 16.95 - Fat Brain Toys is a company that has been a star on this list for years and this year they check in with a number of offerings. First up is Jixelz, a whole new take on jigsaw puzzle pieces. Instead of having to find the exact pieces to complete a puzzle once, kids take colored pieces and build out their own creations. The possibilities are seriously endless.
Each set of Jixelz is themed and comes with instructions to build pre-designed objects that end up looking like old-school pixelated graphics. There are all kinds of themed sets from festive Santa and Rudolf mini sets to the 1500 piece "Under the Sea" (pictured) and "Up In the Air".
Once kids follow the instructions and build a few designs, it's time to go free-form and build creatively. Jixelz is an amazingly simple idea that gives kids endless opportunities to create their own art. It makes you wonder why it took this long for someone to come up with it.
Off-brand Legos - 1000-1500 piece sets, $22.99-$29.99. - While looking to add more Lego bricks to our STEM repertoire this fall, I discovered that not only do quality, fully Lego-compatible bricks exist, they can be had on Amazon at a major discount compared to Lego-brand bricks. I remember being in elementary school and having well-intentioned relatives buy me Lego-like bricks but they never worked well together. These bricks are essentially identical minus the Lego name stamped on the studs.
The other key fact I learned from my students when I introduced these this year is that many kids who are nuts for Legos and have hundreds of dollars worth of them often struggle to free build with them. I had kindergarteners almost in tears because they didn't have instructions on how to build something. They'd just built a Millenium Falcon but had hardly ever just built for fun. The Star Wars and Harry Potter sets are a blast, but after kids build the thing on the box, hide those instructions.
Buying bundles of Legos that aren't themed gets kids creating freely and coming up with their own ideas beyond the instructions.
Fun Forts - 83 piece set - $33 - The blanket, of all things was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2011 because the joy of building forts has been a part of childhood for centuries. Power For Fun and Fun Forts bring architecture and engineering formally into the process with these easy to assemble frame kits that can then be draped with the hall of fame blankets of your choice.
There are two great aspects that stand out with this one. 1) All of your couch cushions will remain on your couch. 2) As families and friends begin to gather again, this toy gets kids playing together. It's heartbreaking to think how few opportunities kids have had to play and build together since the 2019 holiday season. That lack of socialization is showing up in the classroom as many kids struggle to work cooperatively as we resume more group activities that require them to work together.
3D Home Kit - $27.95 - Fat Brain Toys delivers something for the creative big kids on your list. For under $30, you and or your budding architects can use the same kinds of design tools to not only plan but actually build paper models of your own home or dream home. Enough materials are included to build a model representing up to a 6,000 square foot structure. This one carries a degree of difficulty best suited for teens or super creative adults.
Artie Max - $99.00 Drawing Robot - As we move into the gadget portion of the list, the only toy on this list that connects to a tablet is the Artie Max drawing robot. It might involve some screen time, but the big benefit of Artie is that it draws what the kids code. This is a toy that bridges the gap between creating something on a device and making something in real life.
My favorite aspect of Artie Max is that it is packed with potential and room for learning growth. It has very basic built-in activities for beginners, but as kids get deeper into coding, the robot supports 5 different coding languages and is capable of seriously high-end creations.
Botley The Coding Robot - $49.37 This 2019 Innovative Tech Toy of the Year is for the young coder (5-7) in your family. Botley is a screen-free robot that uses sequencing cards and other sensors. It is wonderful for building logical reasoning and problem-solving in kids. Also, check out Botley 2.0. It's a price jump at $73.99 but offers some new futures like being able to interact with other 2.0 robots in the room. Both models come with lots of accessories, games, and "hidden" features that kids will discover as they play.
Deluxe Eco Robots - $33.95 - Fat Brain Toys - While we are talking robots, let's up the age level. As I asked my 3rd and 4th graders to recommend toys for the list this year, this robotics kit from Elenco Electronics was a heavy vote-getter. One kit allows kids to make 14 different robot variations. Being able to create in so many ways is one plus, but kids love that these utilize solar so they're not as dependent on batteries.
Mega Cyborg Hand - $39.95 - Speaking of award winners, Mega Cyborg Hand is the 2021 STEM Toy of the Year. This offering is from another great, brain-engaging toy company, Thames and Kosmos. Assembling an oversized and wearable hydraulic hand carries lots of STEM benefits in itself. There is physics involved, but also some anatomy as it's designed after the mechanics of the human hand. A not-so-obvious benefit is the empathy kids develop for people with disabilities that have to rely on prosthetics like artificial hands. There is a ton of potential for creative play that comes with this project too.
Thames and Kosmos Arcade Maker Lab Candy Claw Machine - $37.99 - Having your own arcade claw game would be fun in itself but what's even more fun, and what makes this a great STEM toy is that kids actually build the machine themselves. The game comes with candy that has loops attached for the claw to grab. It also contains looped pouches that kids can fill with their own prizes.
Battat Roadster and other vehicles - Ages 3-6, $17.00 - Here's one specifically for the younger engineers this holiday season. These all disassemble with a battery-powered driver, requiring kids to choose the right screw head or socket. Like with free-building Legos, the real fun and creativity starts when users start "Frankenstein-ing" vehicles back together and swap parts across toys because the screws and bolts are all compatible. These are available online, but check your local Target as well. That is where I first found them.
Snap Circuits - Various Kits - $21-$105 - Elenco continues to grow their line of Snap Circuits toys that use principles of electronics in hundreds of fun projects. Projects vary from building transistor radios to codeable games and a new kit that teaches how to wire a smart home. As the offerings from Elenco has grown, so has the popularity of these kits.
Gooey, smelly, and sticky stuff - Back in the 70s and 80s, playing with a chemistry set literally meant kids had the potential to actually blow something up which was pretty much the essence of being a kid in the 70s and 80s. Today's chemistry sets are a whole lot safer and actually a whole lot more productive. All we were doing was mixing random powders and seeing if they'd ignite. Now, chemistry sets make everything from bath bombs to gummi worms. Check out all of these fun items to concoct! Kiwico Bath Bombs - $15.95 KiwiCo has made the list before for its awesome subscription STEM crates, but now the company lets you purchase individual projects that are sent out in crates and others exclusive to their website. The bath bombs won't blow up your tub, but they will help young makers combine several ingredients and do some chemistry to create bombs to make bath time more soothing.
Ooze Labs Soap - $29.95 - While we're talking about chemistry in the bathroom, check out this Thames and Kosmos kit for its "Ooze Labs" line of toys. The company describes its product this way, "Real science and pretend play come together in this activity-filled kit that can be used alone or as an extension of the Ooze Labs Chemistry Station (a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor winner!). As you mold different glycerin soap shapes, you learn about the chemical properties of soap that help it pick up and wash away dirt. While you’re concocting bath bombs, you learn about how acids and bases combine to form fizzing reactions, and what a pH level is. Expand your cosmetics knowledge with an overview of the biology of skin care and other science related to soap and bath products. All materials and chemicals are non-toxic." It sounds like a good way to get kids cleaning up and in the bath tub.
Soaps and bath bombs are fun, but let's make some candy. The Thames and Kosmos - Gummy Candy Lab - $19.99 involves a lot of the same scientific principles as young chemists experiment with polymers, flavors, and colors. Change up the Ph with some citric acid and turn those unicorns into sour unicorns.
Molds of clouds, unicorns, and rainbows add to the joy.
Slimey Stocking Stuffers -
At only $4.99 to $7.99 each, Thames and Kosmos lets you wrap up the little gifts with their "Ooze Labs" family of slimes and magic sand. These might actually be more fun to give to a child of one of your really up tight relatives. Watch your sister-in-law with the museum quality house squirm as your giddy nephew opens up a tube of glow-in-the-dark slime that potentially get everywhere. Check out Amazon for all of the creepy options.
And finally...by the time the presents are all unwrapped and we are rapidly approaching that "all out of fun" limit, here's a cozy place for your little ones...or you to find a little respite and some "me time". The Sky Nook - Hammock Swing - $39.95 is a great retreat where kids can escape the sensory overload that the season brings with it. We know that children who struggle with sensory processing greatly benefit from a space where they can do some nesting. Truth be told, a little nesting is healthful for all of us. This one is from Fat Brain Toys and is designed for 3 to 8 year olds. Check Amazon though for other hammock chairs to fit all members of your family.