10 Kid-Tested, Smart Parent-Approved Toys & Games

‘Tis the season for giving, and my gift to the Internet this year is a list of toys that will add some Smart Parents cred to your holiday shopping list. Here are 10 toys and games that captured my kids’ imaginations (ages 8 and 4), held their interest over time and even taught them a thing or two. Enjoy!

Code Master from ThinkFun.  There are loads of resources now for learning how to code. (Don’t miss Hour Of Code coming up next month!) What makes this resource different is it’s a board game. No computer necessary. The individual game moves kids through 60 levels that require programming logic to succeed.

Kano Raspberry Pi. It’s really, really cool to build your computer – especially when you’re eight! I’ll never forget my daughter’s reaction when she got everything hooked up an “Hello” appeared on the screen. This is a great present if you’re looking for something that family members can all contribute to together or a nice incentive for saving long term. See another Kano Kid in action in this video.

Collaborative Board Games. Friday Family Game Night is always a hit. We’ve learned that it’s great to balance the standard competitive, knock-out-the others-so-you-can-race-to-the-finish board games with collaborative games that allow all the participants to work together toward a shared goal.  Some of our favorites are: Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It, eeBoo Obstacle game and Forbidden Island.

Inside Out DVD. Our team was blown away by this movie when it was on the big screen, and it continues to be a family favorite now that it’s available to watch at home. (See Smart Parent Tip: See Inside Out and 12 Ways to Use Inside Out to Teach SEL, STEM and Life’s Ups and Downs for more.)

K’Nex. One afternoon after school, our girls decided they wanted to make an amusement park. Inspired by this roller coaster set that they received as a gift last Christmas, they decided to use the tools they had to engineer their own version of the legendary teacups ride at DisneyWorld. I was shocked at what they created together. Here’s the little video interview I shot on my phone after they unveiled their work. 


GoldieBlox. When I backed the original Kickstarter campaign as a new mom eager for STEM toys that went beyond traditional gender stereotypes in 2012, I had no idea GoldieBlox would grow to become that national sensation that it has. There are now several sets available both online and at toy stores and big box retailers that engage kids (and not just girls) around inventing, engineering and story-telling. My kids’ favorites are the Zipline Set and Movie Machine.


WorryWoos. I was introduced to these furry little friends and their beautiful Social Emotional Learning books a couple of years ago. We recently had the opportunity to add the newest Worrywoo Zelly (the monster of Envy) to our collection. It’s the perfect addition to any family library – especially this time of year when kids can go overboard wanting it “all!”

Extreme Dot to Dots. Warning: May result in long time-periods of quiet children. These “Extreme Dot to Dot” books available at many bookstores and online challenge kids to connect numbers in sequence (1-1400) to create really intricate and complex pictures. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself waiting for a turn to tackle a page.


Play-Doh. Yep. Good old fashioned Play-Doh. If your kids are anything like mine, they have a strange and confusing fascination with watching other kids open “surprise eggs” on YouTube – some of these videos have hundreds of millions of views. All it took was some Play-Doh and some old plastic Easter eggs from the basement and we transformed the passive activity of watching kids on YouTube into the engaging activity of creating their own video. They spent hours creating a set, practicing their parts and creating their video for family and friends (which you can see here). Play-Doh has also been the center of lots of other activities around here – including making new clothes for dolls (that can then be squished up and made anew), creating solar system models and making food for endless stuffed animal parties.

Snap Circuits. The cool thing about Snap Circuits is there are loads of different sets so you can start small and add-on or begin with a full set. With support, even our four-year old could create cool projects. The flying disk was her favorite. Kids can even submit their own custom circuits to share with the online community.

What about your home? What are some of your favorite smart-parent approved toys? Add to our list in the comments below our using #SmartParents on social media.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information including where you can purchase the  print or ebook for parents on your holiday shopping list, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page. See also: 

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1 Comment

Lynn Hayes

All of these are so engaging for the children,and yes parents too. I loved the video of the disney tea cups. What a great idea for them at such young ages. I love snap circuits. I sell them on my website. Play dough that was always so much fun. That girl building that computer at 8 is amazing. This is an awesome site. Good job.


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