A friend of mine is fond of quoting a line from the musical Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, in which a father remembers how he entertained himself for hours with nothing but a stick and some string. Kids do that. Give them a cardboard box and some tape and off they’ll go — no bells and whistles needed. But the holidays are approaching, and sometimes, something more than a stick or a string is required.
We talked to folks at local toy stores - including Bothell's Toys That Teach - and asked them what educational toys they’re excited about this season; toys that teach letters and logic, sorting and science, math and music. Toys with an academic bent do not have to put kids to sleep, as these picks show.
Karen Katz Peek and Play Cubes (Small World Toys, $39.99, ages 6 months and older). A set of five brightly colored fabric cubes designed by children’s author/illustrator Karen Katz. Kids learn colors and numbers as they take each cube’s soft toys out and put them back in. (Teaching Toys and Books)
Shape-sorting Bus (ELC, $31.99, ages 6 months and older). Push the bright red double-decker bus along the floor and sort the transparent blocks, each one filled with different sensory-stimulating features. This is a toy that can grow with your child. (Tree Top Toys)
Bilibo (Kid-O Distribution, $31.99, ages 6 months and older). These gently curved plastic shells can be used as a chair, a tunnel, a scoop for water — anything a kid can imagine. They look great, and they encourage the kind of imaginative noodling that leads to creative thinking later on. (Goodie Gumdrops)
Shape & Sort It Out (Plan Toys, $19.99, ages 1 and older). Toddlers fit wooden shapes through the correctly shaped top of a wooden box, learning colors, solving problems, and understanding cause and effect along the way. (ChildTrek)
ABC Blocks in Canvas Bag (Uncle Goose Toys, $37.95, ages 18 months and older). ChildTrek owner Miebeth Bustillo calls this "by far the best educational toy you can give your toddler." Toddlers learn animals, letters, numbers and colors as they play with wooden blocks made in the United States using sustainable wood and child-safe inks. (ChildTrek)
Toddler Tote (Lauri/Smethport, $15, ages 2 and older). Lots of learning fun in a small package: The tote includes animal puzzles, a geometric shape puzzle, four small shape puzzles and vehicle boards with six stacking pegs. (Nico & Zoe Toys)
Balancing Monkeys Game (Plan Toys, $20, ages 3 and older). Kids calculate the distance required to keep the monkeys balanced (and develop their mathematical skills as they play). (Nico & Zoe Toys)
Discover Rig (Sprig Toys, $66, ages 3 and older). Explore the world with a vehicle — made of sawdust and recycled plastic — that runs on kid energy alone. The rig has three modes of play, including Adventure Mode, which takes kids on a trek through the Serengeti with adventure guide Cap Faraday. (Nico & Zoe Toys)
Activity Clock (Plan Toys, $24.95, ages 3 and older). Kids learn how to tell time with this Practice Preschool 2006 silver-award-winning toy clock by matching the time with an activity card. It’s made using organic rubberwood and water-based dyes. (ChildTrek)
Your Body Layer Puzzle (Beleduc, $19.95, ages 4 and older). This five-layer puzzle teaches kids about the layers that make up their bodies, including their clothing, skin, muscles, organs and bones. The puzzles come in girl and boy versions. (ChildTrek)
Get the Gem (Rubbing Hands, $24.99, ages 4 and older). A hide-and-seek game in which players hunt for hidden treasure, practicing creative storytelling and logical deduction along the way. (Teaching Toys and Books)
Mental Aerobics (Maple Landmark, $10.95, ages 5 and older). A wooden version of the Chinese tangram puzzle, made in the United States of sustainable hardwood with nontoxic finishes. It’s recommended by the National Association for Gifted Children for its challenging use of shapes and space. (ChildTrek)
Boomwhackers (Whacky Music, $25.99, ages 5 and older). These brightly colored, tuned percussion tubes teach kids notes and scales, and allow even young kids to create music on their own. (Goodie Gumdrops)
Trapecolo (Bamboo Collection, $27.95, ages 5 and older). A gorgeous game in which kids use 180 trapezoid-shaped tiles, made of bamboo, to form intricate patterns. It encourages creativity and geometric sense. (ChildTrek)
Make-a-Pie Game (eeBoo, $16.99, ages 6 and older). Fractions and equivalents by way of an easy-to-learn game that includes bear characters and a checkered tablecloth. (Tree Top Toys)
Double Shutter (Blue Orange Games, $19.99, ages 6 and older). A colorful wooden game that helps kids practice their math skills as they roll the dice and shut corresponding tiles on the game board. (Tree Top Toys)
Incan Gold (Fun Again Games, $22.50, ages 6 and up). Treasures are hidden in an Incan ruin, but watch out for the spider! Kids learn about probability and luck with this one. (Toys That Teach)
Mad Libs (Mad Libs, $3.99, ages 6 and up). “If there's a better and more entertaining way to learn the parts of speech, I certainly haven't found it,” says Toys that Teach owner Scott Loveless. This oldie-but-goodie won't break the bank, and every new generation of kids giggles at the wacky stories they create by filling in the blanks with verbs, adverbs and adjectives. (Toys that Teach)
Animal Flashcards (Inside Story, $16.50, ages 12 and older). Older children learn advanced vocabulary with these made-in-Seattle flashcards, which feature pictures and characteristics of animals. (Teaching Toys and Books)
Geyser Tube (Be Amazing! $4.99, ages 8 and older). Kids add soda and watch in amazement as a 25-foot geyser shoots up in the air. This American-made science kit is stealth learning at its best. (Teaching Toys and Books)
Cheese Please, Chimpanzees (by Tracy Traynor, illustrated by Lily Bronfeyn, Milet Wordwise 2008, $6.95). "The photograph of half a giraffe made me laugh!" Each page of this vibrantly illustrated book shows kids how words that sound the same can be spelled in many different ways. This is the latest in a series of titles that includes Telling Tales: Fun with Homonyms; Strawberry Bullfrog: Fun with Compound Words; Monkey Business: Fun with Idioms; and Jump, Jog, Leapfrog: Fun with Action Words. Each book's simple text and colorful (and often silly) illustrations are perfect for early-elementary readers.
Learning About Manners Picnic Basket (Noodleboro Games, $19.99, ages 4 and older). Preschoolers collect items for their picnic basket -- and practice their manners along the way. Players who forget to say "please" and "thank you" could see their baskets get overrun with ants. The game includes a storybook and audio CD.
Zinko Tek System (Zinko Tek, $350, ages 3 and older). This is for those of you who want to splurge. Kids can build pretty much whatever they want (castles, playhouses, aircraft) out of 276 interlocking EVA foam pieces. The system accommodates younger kids with text-free instructions, and adapts easily to the increasingly complicated designs dreamed up by older children. The pieces' varied colors and shapes encourage sorting play in preschoolers, while elementary-age students practice collaboration and problem-solving as they build together.
Kris Collingridge is ParentMap’s Out & About editor. She loves toy stores.
This article has been amended to include picks by Toys that Teach, which were inadvertently cut from the print edition.
Our gift gurus
Teaching Toys and Books
2624 N. Proctor St., Tacoma
Toys that Teach
23716 Eighth Ave. S.E., Bothell
Goodie Gumdrops Toys
816 S.W. 152nd St., Burien
430 E. 25th St., Suite 3, Tacoma
Nico & Zoe Toys
Tree Top Toys
15752 Redmond Way, Redmond