As in past years, we picked the brains of local, independent toy stores (or, at least, their owners’ brains) to come up with ideas for holiday gifts that will encourage kids to learn colors, shapes, languages, math, science, logical thinking, strategy, pattern recognition and other vital academic skills. All while having fun, of course.

And did the store owners ever come through!

We’re proud to present our 2009 educational-gift guide — it’s full to bursting with toys classic and new, toys for tots and teens, and a game or two you’ve probably never heard of (but should).


Sophie the Giraffe (Callison, $19.99, newborns and older). This classic cause-and-effect toy is made in France from 100 percent natural rubber and bright vegetable dyes. Babies quickly learn that squeezing Sophie will reward them with a cheerful squeak. [TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS]

Twilight turtleTwilight Turtle (Cloud B, $34.99, all ages). It’s a soothing bedtime toy that projects an image of the night sky on the ceiling; use it with younger ones to banish closet monsters or to establish a bedtime routine, or sit with an older child and help her identify the constellations. [TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS]

Schoolhouse Naturals Bench Shape Sorter (Maple Landmark, $19.95, ages 18 months and older). Kids focus on matching shapes only, not colors, in this attractively plain shape-sorting toy. Twelve maplewood blocks come in four shapes, and the name of each is engraved on the bench. [PLANET HAPPY TOYS]

Scarry's "Busy, Busy World"Richard Scarry books (Golden Books, $15.99, ages 2 and older). Don’t overlook these kid-book classics, which are populated by sweet animals and filled with drawings of the everyday world. Kids can identify objects and read simple words — with you or alone. “My son loved them to disintegration,” says Toys that Teach owner, Scott Loveless. [TOYS THAT TEACH]

Uncle Goose Foreign Language Alphabet Blocks (Lindenwood, $42.50, ages 2 and older). These vintage-looking wooden blocks — which are made in the U.S.A. and come packed in their own wooden box — show Chinese characters with English translations. Kids can follow the “How to Draw” instructions, or put all the blocks together to create an eye-catching map of China. Also comes in French, Spanish, ASL and Braille. [TOP TEN TOYS, TOYS THAT TEACH, PLANET HAPPY TOYS]

Read to Me Tot Tower (eeBoo, $19.95, ages 2 and older). These sturdy, colorful nesting blocks encourage language development with words and pictures. New this year! [TOP TEN TOYS]

Water droplet plush toyEco Kits (Idbids, $28.95, ages 3 and older). Start a conversation about environmental issues with these cute new plushies — a cloud, water droplet or flower — that come tucked into a small backpack with a book about recycling. In keeping with the theme, all materials are organic, and the packaging is 100 percent recyclable. [TOP TEN TOYS, PLANET HAPPY TOYS]

Feelings Communication Toy Sets (Kimochi, $24.95, ages 3 and older). These unique plush toys — a cloud, octopus, cat and bug — help kids name their feelings, even if they can’t put them into words. Each one comes with attributes that kids can identify with, such as their favorite colors or numbers. [TOP TEN TOYS]

Number Hunt (Beyond Learning, $19.95, ages 4 and older). A fun jungle-themed math skills game for smaller kids — instead of simply counting, children learn to connect symbols with real quantities and amounts. It’s eco-friendly, too (recycled paper, soy-based ink, phthalate-free lamination, water-based varnish). [PLANET HAPPY TOYS]

Magnetic Mosaic My First Picture Maker (The Orb Factory, $19.99, ages 4 and older). Preschoolers practice color recognition with small-hand-friendly magnetic foam pieces and learn to create their own designs. [TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS]

Word Chase! (Beyond Learning, $19.95, ages 4 and older). If you have a kindergartener, you’re probably familiar with “sight words” — commonly used words that kids need to know cold. This game introduces kids to sight words, but in a unique way: Although most early learning games focus on upper-case letters, this one uses only lower-case letters (after all, we use lower-case a whole lot). Made from eco-friendly materials. [PLANET HAPPY TOYS]


Pick-up Words (Beyond Learning, $14.95, ages 5 and older). Another chance for kids to practice sight words (see Word Chase!, above), this time in the form of a game of pick-up sticks. Early elementary readers brush up on word recognition, hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Made from natural and non­toxic ingredients. [PLANET HAPPY TOYS]

FrigitsFrigits Deluxe (Think of It!, $33.95, ages 5 and older). Set up this marble maze on … your fridge? Yep! Keep the kiddos busy exploring physics and engineering while you cook dinner. [TOYS THAT TEACH]

Whole World Fun Eco Activity Book (Barefoot Books, $5.95, ages 3 and older). Start environmental learning early with this book of games, arts activities, quizzes, facts and puzzles. Look for tips to help preserve the environment (you can point out that the book itself is printed on 100 percent recycled paper). [PLANET HAPPY TOYS]

Magformers (Rainbow Products, prices vary with size, ages 5 and older). These free-form construction kits — made of super-strong magnets encased in colorful plastic pieces — allow kids to practice spatial, logical and creative intelligence as they build. [TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS, TOYS THAT TEACH]

MagformersQwirkle (MindWare, $29.99, ages 6 and older). Matching shapes and colors isn’t just for the littlest kids — Qwirkle includes a bigger-kid twist. Players use 108 wooden blocks, in different shapes and colors, to amass points, but they have to think ahead: Strategy is key. [TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS]

Sequence Numbers (Jax, $23.95, ages 7 and older). This delightful game helps kids practice adding and subtracting — minus the angst that sometimes accompanies math learning. [TOP TEN TOYS]

AmuseAmaze (HL Games, $29.99ages 8 and older). A multiple-award-winning game (including the 2008 Mensa Select) that sets players on a race through a maze, spelling words as they go. [TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS]

Green Science Kits (Toysmith, $14.50, ages 8 and older). This company makes several kits, but the windmill is Top Ten Toys’ fave: Kids learn about recycling and windmill energy using around-the-house materials, such as a pop bottle. [TOP TEN TOYS]


Dangerous Book for Boys: Essential Electronics (Thames & Kosmos, $35.95, ages 10 and older). The maker of high-quality science kits for kids teams up with the popular book series in this kit, which outlines 30 experiments in basic electronics and comes with a 32-page manual. [TOP TEN TOYS, TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS]

Encyclopedia of ImmaturityThe Encyclopedia of Immaturity, Volumes 1 and 2 (Klutz, $19.95, ages 10 and older). Do you really want your child to be an accomplished teller of bad jokes? Well, sure — developing a sense of humor is important, and nothing gets to the kids like the silly. Chock-full of jokes, gags and magic tricks, these books may be (according to owner Loveless) “the most important books you read this year.” [TOYS THAT TEACH]

Top This! (ThinkFun, $17, ages 10 and older). Kids are challenged to use their best pattern-recognition skills with these tangram-style puzzles, which become harder (“mind-numbingly difficult,” according to Loveless) as you move through the series. Just the thing for a kid who likes a challenge. [TOYS THAT TEACH]

Thumler's TumblerThumler’s Tumbler (Tru-Square Metal Products, $120, ages 12 and older). This professional-quality rock tumbler, made in Sumner, allows kids to polish up to 3 pounds of rocks. It comes with rocks to polish, but your budding rockhound may need to take a field trip to collect and identify more specimens. [TEACHING TOYS AND BOOKS]

Kris Collingridge, ParentMap’s Out and About editor, can be found lingering for far too long in her local indie toy store.

Our gift gurus

Teaching Toys and Books
2624 N. Proctor St., Tacoma

Toys that Teach
23716 Eighth Ave. S.E., Bothell

Top Ten Toys
104 N. 85th St., Seattle

Planet Happy Toys
2914 N.E. 55th St., Seattle


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