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Educational gifts for learning and fun

Sometimes the right gift to give a child during the holidays is educational: a toy that's fun to play with but that also piques an interest in science, music, language, math, art -- the possibilities are almost endless. "Educational" doesn't meaning boring. We asked several local independent stores to name their favorite educational gifts for this season, and their picks are anything but dull.

Or consider giving a special child in your life a museum membership (see Give the gift of membership). Museum memberships are an educational gift that can be enjoyed year-round, long after the holidays are over, with the added charm of being completely waste-free.

All of the toys and books mentioned can be found at the stores that suggested them, but we've also included manufacturer's information so you can inquire about them at other stores.

1014 116th Ave. N.E., Bellevue
425-454-1610, www.merrygoroundkids.com

Wonder Dice. [Haba, $30, ages 6 months and up] Education for babies means intense engagement with the world around them. Eleven fabric cubes with textured sides encourage sensory exploration among younger babies and -- once they gain hand-eye coordination -- building, which develops an understanding of spatial relationships and cause and effect.

Dream Meadow. [Haba, $169, ages 6 months and up] This play gym for babies includes a play rug to explore, sides that can be brought up to convert the play rug into a bed or diaper changing area, and a playing gym with sensory components to stimulate a baby's interest.

White Horse Toys
Gilman Village, 317 N.W. Gilman Blvd., Ste. 13, Issaquah
425-391-1498, www.whitehorsetoys.com

Quadrilla Marble Tracks.
[HaPe International LTD, $51 and up, ages 4 and up] These wooden marble run sets are colorful and beautifully designed, and inspire young engineers or architects (and any adults in the room, too, we suspect) to observe cause and effect, problem-solve and think creatively as they build a workable run. Several different versions of the toy, including Basic, Twist and Rail, are available, plus expansion sets if you need more pieces.

Wordigo. [RiverEdge Game Company LLC, $15, ages 8 and up] A fast-paced game of strategy and vocabulary that can be played solo or with partners. It allows different levels of play depending on the ages of the players -- and kids are encouraged to use the dictionary during play. The game's scoring method also builds math skills.

Teri's Toybox
420 Main St., Edmonds

Blokus. [Educational Insight, $32, ages 5 and up] This easy-to-learn game has won several awards, including Mensa Select, Dr. Toy and Parents Choice Gold Award. Kids develop logical and strategic thinking skills and an understanding of spatial relationships as they place their square pieces on the board, corner-to-corner.

Smart Lab Science Kits.
[Smart Lab, $14-$20, ages vary] Choices include an electronics lab, weather station, bacteria farm, and paleontology and astronomy kits. The packaging on these science kits is fun and kid-friendly, and each kit includes an easy-to-understand booklet -- full of pictures -- that's written by science educators.

Top Ten Toys
104 N. 85th St., Seattle
206-782-0098, www.toptentoys.com

The Way Things Work. [International Playthings, $24.95, ages 10 and up] Based on the popular book by the same name, this game encourages kids to think about everyday problems in physics, engineering and other topics. Players use math skills, memory and strategy to conduct experiments and test their knowledge against questions such as "What is a fulcrum and what is it for?"

[Homestar Games, $14.95, ages 8 and up] This locally produced card game, similar to Solitaire or Rummy, teaches kids about objects in the solar system and can be simplified for play with younger children.

Izilla Toys
2840 E. Madison St., Seattle

Mirror-aculous Art Activity Kit.
[Ooz and Oz, $20, ages 7 and up] A Seattle-based company produces one of the most interesting art kits available right now, although it's based on a centuries-old visual illusion art form known as "anamorphosis." The anamorphoscope, invented by the Chinese and embraced by Europeans from the 1500s through the 1800s, helped Renaissance artists study perspective drawing. Warped images on paper are decoded using a mirrored cup, which promotes hand-eye coordination -- and introduces kids to a little-known facet of art history.

Island Books
3014 78th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island
206-232-6920, www.mercerislandbooks.com

Almost Everything.
[Roaring Brook Press, $19.95, ages 4-8] A poster-sized book packed with information -- both familiar and unusual -- about the world, arranged in simple categories such as plants, animals, transportation and so on. Illustrations are bold and eye-catching.

If You Decide to Go to the Moon.
[Scholastic Press, $16.99, ages pre-K to grade 3] Authors Faith McNulty and Steven Kellogg write simple, poetic text that gives kids step-by-step instructions on the basics of traveling to the moon, from pre-liftoff packing to the landing at the Sea of Tranquility.

Our picks

Popular Mechanics for Kids DVDs. [Koch Vision, $14.98, www.kochvision.com] The award-wining TV show explains science concepts to kids in fast-paced episodes, which are compiled on the DVD series under headings such "Gators & Dragons and Other Wild Beasts" (2005). Each DVD contains four episodes.

Happy Feet, Healthy Food: Your Child's First Journal of Exercise and Healthy Eating. [Breakaway Books, $14.95, ages 6-12, www.breakawaybooks.com] Author and illustrator Carol Goodrow, who is also a runner and founding editor of www.kidsrunning.com, has written an easy-to-read daily logbook for kids who want to stay fit. Each day's page contains encouraging tips on sports, exercise, outdoor activities and healthful foods, and a place to log physical activity.

Salad People and More Real Recipes. [Tricycle Press, $17.95, ages 4-7, www.tenspeed.com] Mollie Katzen, best known for the vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook, is back with her third cookbook for kids. Twenty recipes, including Mango-Honey Lassi and Counting Soup, encourage an interest in healthful foods that kids can prepare themselves with little help. The attractive book, bound in hot pink and full of bright colors and whimsical illustrations, contains recipes for preschoolers written in a unique style that's easy for young children to follow: Instructions are laid out with each step placed in a box and illustrated with a line drawing. Each recipe also contains tips for grownup helpers, a list of necessary cooking tools for kids, cooking and safety hints, and silly raves by children who tested the recipes.

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