Afternoon Inquisition 12.8

Recently, you all listened to the second Skepchick podcast (you did, didn’t you?) where we suggested great gifts for the Skepchick in your life (and ourselves, should you feel generous). That was a great episode, wasn’t it? Ahhhh memories.

That episode got me thinking about gifts for kids.  What are the best educational toys out there that don’t make kids feel like they’re learning?


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. Books, something entertaining that slips in info as part of the story, who is the Isaac Asimov nowadays?

  2. I don’t know Robert Sawyer but I recognize the other names. Are they Asimov class writers? I don’t know their work that well.

  3. I dunno, when we got our first computer when I was 9, my dad bought some educational games and man, did we ever love them. I actually taught myself how to type when I was 10, using typing “games.” There were a bunch of reading and math “games” we all really loved, too.

  4. @marilove: There was this DOS game we used to have on the “computer” (2-8MB memory, floppy disks, pre-Windows) in 5th grade called GEO-50. It taught countries and their capitals. We played the shit out of that game…for some reason.

  5. @Elyse:
    Between the movie 1776 and Oregon Trail, I had all the history lessons I ever needed. John Adams will forever be played by Mr. Feeny in my head.

  6. Building materials. Blocks, Lego, quick connects, erector sets etc.. There’s some great new ones t hat have computer controlled motors so you can design and build robots and all kinds of fun stuff.

    I could have used a fire extinguisher as a child on a couple of occasions. While not educational the lesson learning would have been less traumatic.

  7. @Gabrielbrawley: “Are they Asimov class writers?”

    Strong, character-driven stories. Hard-scifi, for the most part. So, definitely in the same ballpark. You could put “Kiln People”, “Hominids” and “Darwin’s Radio” up against “I, Robot” and I think they’d fair well.

  8. As soon as my nephew gets old enough not to find it lack-luster, I will get him some fossils.
    But he is still young, and dinosaurs have not been all that in fashion in the last few years.

    I remember that when I was his edge I had a handful of realistic looking har plastic dinosaurs (as well as a plesiosaur) I was playing the shit out of.
    One of my earliest and fondest memory was playing evolution, with the plesiosaur mutating into a diplodocus and vice-versa…

  9. Educational toys are overrated, better to get them stuff they like that engages them.

    I’m a fan of Lego, Playmobil (any action figures, but Playmobil is generic there is no story to copy. Gotta make it up your self.), Books of any kind (get them reading first, worry about what later), and even video games. I don’t care so much how educational the game is as long as the tone is appropriate.

    Any video game that is fun will challenge your kids to learn and adapt whether it’s reader rabbit or Lego Star Wars. But the best are the ones we play together. I figure I’ve got maybe a year before my son dominates me in everything we play.

  10. Any game you play WITH your kids:

    TransAmerica: A very simple, but fun railroad laying game which teaches where in the US the major cities are. Ages 8-800.

    TransEuropa: Same as above, but for Europe.

    Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game: A game where you take on the roles of the brave, science using, sword wielding (and adorable) mice protecting the lands of the Mice Territories. Based on the beautifully illustrated comic by Dave Peterson. Teaches basic math, teamwork, social skills, and exercises the imagination. Special bonus for skeptical folks is that the world of Mouse Guard contains no magic, supernatural, or religious elements. The only fantasy in the Mouse Guard is the conceit that mice and their enemies, the weasels, are the only intelligent tool using species in a world without humans.

  11. I’m a fan of un-bowdlwerised editions of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”. It won’t teach them any moral lessons, of course, but I find that little kids like the really gory ones.

  12. When we were littler my brother and I had awesome educational placemats. They had the periodic table, fish, maps, all sorts of sweet stuff. Aaand if you feel like it it wouldn’t be impossible to custom make some of your own.

    I think they were really… effective? because they were always there and it was cool to have a little something to do right before/after dinner or whatever.

  13. My plan when Moose gets old enough is, every time he’s acting up in the car, I’m going to say:

    Don’t make me put this wagon on grueling. You used to have 4 siblings. They all died of dysentery last time I did that. Got it? Now remember what you learned in swim class while we forge this river.

  14. Magnets are good for kids at a young age.

    A decent, high-power magnifier or even a hand-held microscope will have the kid looking at damn near everything in the yard.

    A telescope, if they are a little older and like looking at the stars. Even just a pair of binoculars can work well if the kid know where to look.

    Start them on a fossil collection if they show even the slightest interest.

  15. Last week, I pointed out the Moon, Jupiter and Venus conjunction to my son. He asked how Jupiter and Venus could be next to each other when they’re “in different directions”. I drew a sketch, showing the orbits and how they could appear next to each other in the sky. That then prompted him to ask if all the planets ever lined up. And on it went.

    Best educational toy: the night sky, a pen and a piece of paper.

  16. @Steve DeGroof: Excellent choice of authors! I like them all.

    @James Fox: The LEGO robots are called Mindstorms NXT. They are wicked awesome! My 11yo daughter and I just finished a HammerBot, which was preceded by a Trebuchet. I bought a 2nd set this year so we can build dueling robots.

    But hands down, no better toy than a huge set of solid wooden blocks. My girls build some amazing structures. That is, assuming I haven’t “borrowed” them all to build a bridge or a castle.

  17. Lots of good ideas above. Even basic wooden blocks work well for the very young ones. When we lived in WI, the furniture companies bagged up their small waste wood scraps as kids blocks. There were some really unusual shapes in those bags – great for the imagination. I support any toy with does not need batteries and runs on imagination.

    Gyroscopes fascinate kids old enough to hold onto them. Other ideas: magnifying glasses, bug cages (Tip of the hat to Bug_girl), bird houses, hummingbird/birdseed feeders, aquariums, bat houses, butterfly houses (Yes, there is such a thing), cheap telescopes or binoculars, model rockets (water/air for little kids). Some of those “gross science” kits at toy stores are great for attracting kids, too. Hell, even hatching brine shrimp can fascinate kids for hours.

    I regularly cruise the educational toy catalogs and websites for ideas for my grandkids. I wish some of this stuff was available when I was a kid. I’m a little jealous.

  18. @Elyse: Clearly Moose will be needing flint, iron and a good fire extinguisher!!

    @SteveT: I totally agree about the wood blocks. My kids (nor 15 and 18) had tons and I made even more out of left over oak flooring boards which were great for larger spans. Many a tower over six feet tall fell with great glee.

    @wytworm: Books, books!!! A never ending supply!! I still remember with great fondness the days at school when our Scholastic book orders arrived.

  19. I agree with books, including trips to the library.

    For older kids: Their own tools (wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, cordless drills), so they don’t keep losing mum and dad’s

    And of course Lego (but not “Legos”, please)

  20. There’s a whole chain of toy shops in the UK called the “Early Learning Centre” that sells educational toys for children of all ages

    Or a really top draw Chemistry Set (from China where they dont care about getting sued), Books, Speak’n’Spell, and possibly the best gift in the world, I still buy stuff to add to my collection, Meccano

    Lego is for Wusses

  21. I bought a pocket microscope, and even though me and my friends are in college when I show them marijuana up close there is definitely a sense of child-like wonder. Maybe it isn’t the most appropriate thing to show children, but everything looks cool close up.

  22. James Fox @38,

    I so remember the days of the Arrow Book club (Scholastic) delivery. The bloody nuns used to stack them just in view in the morning and not hand them out until after the going home bell.

    Is it any wonder I gave up on Catholicism so early?

    Got to agree with all of the above comments. I am saving frantically to get number one son a Mindstorms kit. Well Matthew and his daddy really.

    Yes, nothing like the good old fashioned wooden blocks. Bog standard Lego is also highly rated in this house!

  23. I almost bankrupted my parents asking for books…so did my sister. What a shame she ended up turning to mystic religion after all that…and with a BS in Biology, too. I once told her that she should apply for a tuition refund, since the science obviosuly didn’t stick…

    Edmund Scientific has lots of really neat stuff, too. I remember getting bags of odd-shaped magnets, cheap lenses, gears/shafts/pulleys, etc. for dirt cheap prices. Kids can gonuts with that kind of stuff for hours. They still sell scientific toys like the “drinking bird (remember those?!?!), too.

  24. Some of the favorites in my house: Snap Circuits (kind of like combining Lego with an old Radio Shack 100 in 1) and Crazy Machines (PC game that has you build stuff out of various components).

    Also, nothing interesting leaves our house via the trash without us taking it apart first to see what cool stuff may be inside (only inanimate objects, of course). The kids really like that.

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