Learning toys and books don’t have to be boring. The best educational toys painlessly shape topics such as math, geography and language into bright, fascinating games and books that kids can’t put down. We asked local independent toy and book stores about their favorite educational toys for the coming holiday season, and here’s what they came up with. And, we've rounded up a phoneful of apps that can keep kids busy — and learning — on the go.
Toys for Little Ones
Topozoo Dragon (Geared for Imagination, $15.95, ages 3 and older). Five puzzle pieces (made in the U.S. of recycled, non-toxic materials) fit together to create a black dragon – or kids can mix them with other Topozoo puzzle pieces to create something completely original. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Alphabet Abacus (Educo, $23.95, ages 18 months and older). Little ones can learn their letters using a colorful, easy-on-small-fingers abacus that features letters instead of numbers (call it an ABC-acus). [TOP TEN TOYS]
Elemental Periodic Table Blocks (Uncle Goose Toys, $33.95, ages 2 and older). Twenty U.S.-made wooden blocks are printed with all elements of the periodic table. Younger kids can use them for color recognition (each side is a different color), while older ones can learn the elements’ names, symbols and atomic weight. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Trucky 3 (Smart Games, $25.99, ages 3 and older). Three good-looking, anthropomorphic trucks with clear containers must be loaded (efficiently) with colorful geometric shapes. Kids practice spatial relations, logic and shape recognition while playing with the trucks. [TOYS THAT TEACH]
Tegu Magnetic Building Blocks (Tegu, $55, ages 3 and older). These smooth, beautiful magnetic blocks are irresistible to all ages. Kids can arrange them in lots of different configurations, which is great for developing small-motor skills — and imaginations. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Toys for Bigger Kids
K’NEXosaurus Rex (K’NEX, $25.99, ages 7 and older). Kids can build — and operate — a colorful remote-control dinosaur (while practicing their direction-following and small-motor skills). [TOP TEN TOYS]
Keva Contraptions (Mindware, $49.95, ages 7 and older). Using 200 wooden planks, kids can practice their design and building skills — no glue or connectors required! Bonus: Once kids build a structure, they can send balls rocketing down to its bottom. [TOP TEN TOYS]
LaQ Free Style Colors (LaQ, $34.25, ages 5 and older). This new building toy is made up of seven types of click-together blocks in 10 cool colors that kids can use to create flat two-dimensional, three-dimensional and spherical shapes. Endless ways to build while practicing their small-motor and logical thinking skills. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Mechanical Science Kits (Engino, $25–$40, ages 6–14). Kids explore mechanical principles — from levers to pulleys and gears — by putting together LEGO-like machines. Each kit comes with an activity book that outlines the different principles and experiment suggestions. [TOYS THAT TEACH]
First Time Clock (Fascinations, $15.99, ages 6 and older). Assemble a cool transparent clock — based on the first mechanical clock, which was created in 1350 — while learning how gears and clocks operate. Easy-to-follow instructions come with color-coded details and parts. [TOYS THAT TEACH]
GeoDice (GeoToys, $22.95, ages 6 and older). Name the places that begin with letters on the dice in this new dice game that helps kids get their geography down cold. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Switchbotz (Imagability, $36.95, ages 7–12). Courtesy of the makers of the ubiquitously intriguing Wedgits, geometry becomes obsessive with this line of robotic-styled construction toys. Using block shapes, kids can build an octahedron, graduated rhombus (!) and more. [TOP TEN TOYS]
Mysterious Bones, the Story of the Kennewick Man by Katherine Kirkpatrick, illustrated by Emma Stevenson (Holiday House, $17.95, ages 9 to 13). Kids learn about this incredible archaeological discovery in a what McDanold says is a “thoughtful and evenhanded treatment” that covers the controversies surrounding it. [THE SECRET GARDEN BOOKSHOP]
Count to 10 by Kees Moerbeek (Abrams Books, $15.95, ages 2 to 7). Secret Garden Bookshop owner Christy McDanold calls this a “fabulous” popup counting book that introduces kids to the first ten numbers in a most playful, colorful way. [THE SECRET GARDEN BOOKSHOP]
My First Soccer Game: A Book with Foldout Pages by Alyssa Satin Capucelli, with photos by Leyah Jensen (Little Simon, $9.99, ages 18 months to 3 years). Even little ones are playing organized sports these days – and this book is a small-child-friendly intro to the glory that is soccer. [THE SECRET GARDEN BOOKSHOP]
The Art Collector by Jan Wahl (Charlesbridge, $15.95, ages 3 to 8). Oscar loves art but doesn’t have the talent to create what he sees in his mind’s eye. Enter the museum! “A wonderful and encouraging ‘career’ book,” raves McDanold. [THE SECRET GARDEN BOOKSHOP]
The LEGO Ideas Book by Daniel Lipkowitz (DK CHILDREN, $24.99, all ages). This book is worth the price — your LEGO monsters will get idea after idea (almost 200 pages of them) for things they can build with their favorite toy. [THE SECRET GARDEN BOOKSHOP]
Guinness World Records 2012 (Guinness World Records, $28.95, ages 7 and older). Plenty here for the kid who also likes to read dictionaries and encyclopedias. The mountain of facts help kids learn the critical thinking skills of “sifting through information and evaluating it for relevance,” according to McDanold. [THE SECRET GARDEN BOOKSHOP]
By Jen Betterley
Jirbo Match: Child Development Edition ($3.99, ages 1 to 10, iPhone). Refine those motor skills with this adorable matching game. This app offers pairs of cute cartoonish animals, such as pandas, chicks and puppies, in the most classic of all learning games.
Math Magic (99 cents, ages 3 to 8, iPhone). Get a start on your math skills with this interactive app that includes adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing problems. Math Magic features adjustable levels of difficulty and rewards for right answers.
Math Flash Cards (99 cents, ages 3 and older, Android). This mathtastic app features big buttons for small hands and various levels of difficulty for children in preschool and up. Practice simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division with traditional cards or test your skills in quiz mode with multiple-choice answers.
Animal Sounds (99 cents, ages 3 and older, Android). Hear animal sounds and learn how to properly say animal names as they are pronounced by an actual child’s voice. Featuring easy-to-use large buttons, the Animal Sounds app offers a child lock mode to prevent small hands from opening other apps or making phone calls while the app is engaged.
Kids’ Flashcards: Fruit & Vegi ($1.99, ages 3 and older, Android). Your kids will get a kick out of seeing and naming all of their favorite fruits and vegetables in this early-learning app. They’ll view pictures of fruit and veggies and learn how to pronounce and spell their names while following the audio and animation.
Shape Builder Preschool Puzzler (99 cents, ages 5 and older, Android). Kids get to assemble colorful jigsaw pieces to discover what the mystery shape is! This app includes 144 different puzzles, narration from a professional speech therapist, fun sound effects and cute images.
Word Search Kids (99 cents, ages 6 and older, iPhone). Challenge yourself in this interactive word search for kids that features three levels of difficulty. Adorable graphics, fun sounds and a variety of puzzles deliver hours of entertainment.
FingerPiano ($1.99, all ages, iPhone). You don’t have to be an experienced musician to play this piano well. Simply follow the scrolling guides to play more than 88 well-known songs — with either one or two hands.
Our gift gurus
The Secret Garden Bookshop
2214 N.W. Market St. Seattle
Top Ten Toys
104 N. 85th St.
Toys That Teach
23716 Eighth Ave. S.E.