Selecting winter holiday gifts for children can be a challenge, especially when you strive to combine educational benefit, affordability and fun. Here is a look at five toys that may give you some food for thought, including reactions from a few local families (including mine).

The first and perhaps the simplest product we looked at is called IKOS, a toy intended to stimulate creative thinking and problem solving. Designed for kids 6 years and up, IKOS are multicolored, interlocking plastic pieces that can be pressed together into interesting shapes. This versatile toy was a hit with my 10-year-old son, who loved creating a sphere and other forms, even though getting the pieces to stay together was sometimes challenging. In contrast, his 8-year-old friend and the only girl amongst our “testers,” found it frustrating and lost interest quickly. The company reports that the toy, which can easily fit in a stocking and sells for about $20, is made out of recycled plastic—a bonus for gift-givers who like to shop “green.”

We tried out another building toy called the National Geographic Laser Peg Dinosaur—a product very similar to Legos. My son enjoyed assembling the T-Rex, which occupied him for more than an hour. He found the instructions easy to follow. Once the toy was built and the batteries added, the creature lit up. Settings enabled the lights to blink at different speeds and to be triggered by sounds, like clapping or calling out, which he also found very appealing.

The package says the Laser Peg Dinosaur is good for 5 year olds and up, but I think children that young might find the tiny pieces and construction process difficult. The set sells for $42 to $70 (depending on the vendor), which may be worth spending if your child loves building and deconstructing: one set contains the parts to make up to 24 different dinosaurs.

Dr. Eureka may be my favorite item sampled. It’s a very simple game that takes skill and concentration, intended for players 8 or older. I found it a refreshing change from games that use boards, pegs and dice. Players manipulate hard plastic balls into and out of test tubes to create a designated pattern, and the first to do it accurately wins. It’s harder than it sounds, and racing to beat your competitors really adds to the fun. Our whole family loved it, and we laughed at ourselves for getting so serious about it, because though it seems simple, it requires logical thinking, coordination and speed. At about $20, Dr. Eureka is affordable, simple and fun, making it a great choice for kids and adults alike.

We and another family checked out Cubetto, a toy designed to teach 3 to 6 year olds about coding. This cute, clever, battery-powered product consists of a wooden cube that can be given commands to move in different directions using a wooden control board and coding blocks. Its manufacturers say it’s the only screen-less programming toy out there and note that it’s also great for non-sighted and other special needs children because of its physical design and the way it combines movement, touch
and sound.

I found it pretty straightforward to set up and operate, although adult assistance and guidance is definitely required. Some other users found the instructions confusing. The children who tried out the toy enjoyed it, though even the 5 and 6 year olds may have been too old for it, because their interest waned after getting the basic idea. Three and 4 year olds might well experience more lasting engagement. Additional “activity packs” can also be purchased to give users more to do once they have mastered what comes with the set, but at $225 for the basic package, Cubetto is already a pretty significant investment.

We also looked at Little Passports, a subscription-based gift that introduces kids to geography and other topics via a monthly kit that arrives in the mail. Of the four available subscriptions, we checked out the Early Explorers, intended for children aged 3 to 5. Our “testers” were a bit older than the target age, but they still liked the cute little suitcase, the large world map and a fishing game that came with one of the monthly packages. The kit also had activity books, stickers and several other small toys that preschoolers would likely enjoy, as well as high quality materials that would make good teaching aids.

Receiving monthly packages is probably one of the main attractions to this product for kids, although parents may not enjoy the ensuing accumulation of “stuff.” Annual Little Passports subscriptions cost $12 to $18 per month, while month-to-month subscriptions are available for a bit more.

Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom who covers public affairs, public health and the well-being of children.

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