By Laurie Schacht - Toy Insider Mom
Forget Christmas. For many parents, this is the most wonderful time of the year! Soon kids will board their morning buses and head back to school and parents can get back to their regular routines. (Well, it's the most wonderful time of the year until the never-ending list of "necessary" school supplies arrives).
Summer does usually mean summer reading, and maybe a little homework to keep our kids' brains in working order. But I know from my own kids that when school is out they just want to have fun! My youngest would get home from sleep away camp and I would ask if she read her summer reading book. Her answer would be that she read the back cover!
But there are ways that our kids can still have fun and learn at the same time (I like to call that stealth learning). Many great toys and games on the market keep our kids sharp and thinking, but they are so much fun that kids don't even realize they are learning while they play.
One of my favorite categories of play is construction. Building blocks are chock-full of hidden learning skills. From fine motor skill development to problem solving, math, logic, socialization, and role-play, construction toys are great for even the youngest kids. With Mega Bloks First Builders Billy Beats Dancing Piano, kids as young as 1 can learn how much fun building and music can be together and they get to dance and play along. Kids press the light up block keys and watch Billy dance and play one of 88 different songs, which kids can learn to play themselves. The building blocks are compatible with all First Builders blocks and store under Billy's big red hat.
Though construction toys can be great for smaller kids, the learning continues as kids grow. Lego's new Mindstorms EV3 lets kids build robots that walk, talk, think, and more. Kids ages 10 and up follow 3-D building instructions and work their way to "expert mode" to develop their own combinations. Not only are they building, but they are learning to program computers — a valuable skill in today's digital world.
Games are always a great way to get a group of friends and/or families together. There are so many great new games on the market that teach reading, math, science, and history as well as skills like socialization. Twisterz Story Starter, by Smart Toys, is a great example of a learning game. Kids as young as 3-years-old can twist the rings and line up the story components to get the story off and running. This game is designed to be used with our little kids and parents (or caregivers) and encourages children to be creative as they build their stories. It strengthens language skills and builds better readers and writers.
Older kids will love the challenge from Mindware's Q-Bitz Extreme. Each player gets his or her own board with 16 cubes and races to be the first to replicate the curving patterns on the challenge card. The player with the most cards wins the game. There are multiple variations of game play, including studying the pattern card for 10-seconds before turning it over to recreate the pattern from memory.
Science, history, reading, writing and arithmetic are classic school subjects, but these days "tech" is an extremely important aspect of learning. With the addition of the latest in technology, stealth learning is not only fun—it's really cool!
Our kids seem to come into the world with tech mixed into their DNA, so it's all easy and natural (and even expected) by them. And like all great toys, even the tech stuff starts with our youngest learners.
LeapFrog is a leader in educational toys for our young kids and I love the new Read with Me Violet and Scout. These are interactive puppies that are loaded with storybooks, music, lullabies, and interact and respond activities. They ask more than 70 questions to encourage active engagement from kids ages 2 to 5, and of course they are huggable, loveable friends.
Kids—of all ages—want tablets. As a mom, I know that I'm not going to purchase an iPad for my kids (or share mine) for so many reasons. However, tons of learning does take place on screen. And kids want to be just like the grown-ups they see every day using their own tablets. Parents will not be disappointed by the array of choices they will see this year up and down the aisles but they may have a hard time choosing.
If you have a family with kids as young as age 5 and as old as teenagers, a favorite family tablet is the Kurio 7s, by Techno Source. This is a real Android family tablet that everyone can use and it allows eight different individual profiles on the unit. Each profile offers a full separation of files, apps, game progress and scores, parental control settings, and more. It's like having eight different tablets in one. This 7-inch tablet is Wi-Fi-enabled and comes with more than 60 family-friendly apps, including an exclusive pre-school through sixth grade learning system developed by award-winning American educator Mr. Nussbaum based on the U.S. Common Core State Standards.
As there are so many tablets that will appear this year, I will be back with a break down on the differences of many kid-oriented tablets so that you can choose what's best for your child or your whole family.
What's most important is that kids who have fun learning will always love learning. Toys and games offer a great way to help kids learn in a way that is stress-free, fun, and engaging. Now you just need a great backpack, notebooks, pencils, pens, a new box of crayons (64 count), and you'll almost be ready for the first day back to school — and don't forget the healthy snacks!