WeAreTeachers Blog Hop STOP #2: The Four Best Educational Toys of All Time

Welcome to the WeAreTeachers Blog Hop Stop #2. If you’re just joining us, head back to the BLOG HOP LAUNCH POST so you can collect all of the necessary clues for a chance to win an iPad, a $50 gift card, and much more!

As a participant in this blog hop, I’ve been asked to write a review of my favorite educational gift. I’ve decided to blog about the four best educational toys of all time, including dress-up clothes, wooden blocks, a cardboard box, and magnetic letters.

Age range:   Pre-K – 3rd grade (and beyond)

Subject areas: Social Skills, Reading, English, Math, Fine Motor, Gross Motor, and specific language development skills including Syntax, Morphology, Phonology, and Phonemic Awareness (not to mention imagination!)

Hot Deal: KidKraft Wooden Block Set – Item #63242 ONLY $15.00 ($5 S&H) from Woot.com

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You’re all on the hunt for the perfect educational toy, right? I’m guessing you’ve found tons of high-tech gadgets, snazzy apps, and gizmos. Call me old school, but I believe it’s a “gift to be simple.” So today, I’ve chosen four of the Best Educational Toys of All Time, and I’m betting your holiday budget will be glad I did.

1. There’s no better educational toy than a good old-fashioned dress-up box. Children learn best through hands-on play, and the benefits of imaginary role-play are endless. They won’t know it, but while pretending to be dragons, teachers, or superheroes, they’ll actually be learning sequencing, storytelling, language, and creativity, not to mention the social and communicative skills involved when acting out scenes with peers. But there’s no need to spend a fortune to gather a spectacular imagination kit.

  • Visit local thrift stores or garage sales for treasures.
  • Include old costumes, scarves, hats, vests, and shirts.
  • Consider clip-on earrings, necklaces, watches, and bracelets.
  • Don’t forget used cell phones, appointment books, or calculators for the briefcase or purse.
  • Antique suitcases can store the clothes and double as props.
  • A cape is a must. For a great selection of budget-friendly capes, visit: http://powercapes.com/ready-made-capes

2. If you splurge on one manufactured toy this holiday, consider a set of wooden blocks. These target much more than motor skills, and your children will still be playing with blocks long after the batteries have died in all their other toys.

  • Create castles, farms, skyscrapers, and camps and then add action figures to put these original playsets in motion.
  • Build balance beams and obstacle courses and then practice moving through the maze.
  • Construct roads and bridges, and pretend those roads lead all sorts of places, both real and imaginary.
  • Target basic skills such as counting, shapes, and cognitive concepts including  more, less, big/bigger/biggest, tall, short, and prepositions (in front, behind, next to, on top, above, under, etc.). Ex: “Challenge: What can you build with five blocks?” “Now, can you make something bigger/smaller/taller/shorter, etc.”  “Add two more on top.”
  • Decoupage family photos (or classmates) to the blocks, helping young children recognize faces, or attach flashcards to teach letters and numbers.

                       

3. If you really want to encourage free spirits and a wild imagination, give your kids a sturdy cardboard box. It can become a runaway train, a secret hideout, a roaring racecar, or a spectacular spaceship. Upside down it becomes a stove, a table, a mountain, or a desk. Stuffed animals make fun play companions and with a little encouragement, children can spend their best years converting that simple box into an infinite world of wonder.

4. Finally, for teaching letter recognition, phonics, reading, and spelling, you can invest in tons of expensive programs, OR you can purchase a cheap set of magnetic letters. I encourage you to purchase lowercase letters because most of the words we read are written in lowercase. Use these on your refrigerator or with a metal cookie sheet for lap work.

If Lakeshore doesn’t have what you’re looking for, here’s another site with tons of letter kits at bargain prices http://www.abcstuff.com/magnetic-letters.php They offer great sets with multiple letters (so you can spell words), uppercase and lowercase, various sizes, and they even have foam letters that can be used for bathtub fun. (Also be sure to look for their Daily Special and Web Specials for super deals.)

How to use Magnetic Letters to teach kids at various levels:

  • I Spy the Letter A . . . : For the early letter-learners, reduce the set to five letters at a time and challenge children to find the letters you spy from that set. For example, show the letters: A, T, B, S, W. Then say, “I spy the letter S.” If they can’t find it, point to it, repeat the letter name, and then prompt with a new challenge. Reduce the set to two or three letters for beginners, and make the set larger as their skills increase.
  • Who Goes There?: Put the letters in alphabetical order but then remove a few random letters. Place the ‘lost’ letters under the alphabet and ask kids to help the lost letters find their way home.
  • Word Families: Help little ones learn to read by changing the first or last sound to make new words. For example:  Place the letters “_at” together and slide various consonants in front to make real and nonsense words (cat, bat, rat, zat, wat). Laugh hysterically when they read a “silly word.”
  • Morph: It’s fun to teach difficult morphological concepts with magnetic letters. Simple add ‘s’ to the end of a word and VOILA! You suddenly have more than one. Start with dog, cat, etc. and show your kiddo how to make one into many. Try learning other prefixes and suffixes such as: er, est, ly, y, re, un, pre, mis, less, ful, etc.
  • Message Me: Place all of the letters in one cluttered group on the fridge and encourage kids to stop by to create a word or two. Surprise one another with creative word creations throughout the week. Start with simple CVC words (dog, cat, pat). Write family members’ names, pets’ names, etc. This is also a great way for you to leave sweet messages for your readers (many letter kits on the site linked above include multiple letters to build words).
  • For a Grade: Challenge older children to put the letters in alphabetical order or to create their spelling words each week on the fridge!

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Day 23: Ha! Ha! Ha-lidays!

Image from pinterest.com

While little ones learn to master Ho! Ho! Ho!, challenge your older kids with these fun Christmas tongue twisters.

  • Chocolate cocoa cravings cure colds
  • Santa sings shining star songs
  • Sally skis super slow
  • Big bright bells banish boredom
  • Grumpy Grinch goes grizzly gus
  • Pretty packages perfectly packed
  • Tip-top tiny tot toys
  • Sally’s striped stocking’s stuffed slightly
  • Santa’s super souped sleigh swiftly slides sideways
  • Cheery cute caroling Christmas critters
  • Candy cane cookies keep kids coming

And tell silly jokes, like these:

Q: What does Santa eat for breakfast? A: Frosted Flakes!

Q: Why does Santa have three gardens? A: So he can Hoe Hoe Hoe!

Q: What do elves learn in school? A: The Elf-abet!

Day 18: Family Traditions

Image from pinterest.com

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make the holiday season extra special for those you love. Red and green sprinkles in the pancakes on Christmas morning, milk and cookies left for Santa, reindeer food sprinkled on the lawn. All of these are little ways to help your children remember the magic, but if you’re looking for a few new ideas this year, try these.

Instead of buying an artificial tree, take a family outing and cut a live tree from a farm or from you own property if you live on acreage. Donate it to be used as hatcheries by your local wildlife office. Or, better yet, make it a tradition to plant a new tree each year and decorate outdoors.

Give each child one new ornament a year to recognize his/her biggest accomplishments or special interests each year. Consider favorite cartoon characters, ballet slippers, a special pet. Anything that will make you look back next year and say…Oh, Remember how you were SO into (Sponge Bob)….

Slumber Party! Pull out the sleeping bags, light the fireplace, and make room for everyone…it’s time to campout under the Christmas tree! Tell stories of your childhood Christmas memories, sing Christmas songs, read the nativity story, and plan your New Year’s resolutions. Just don’t be the first to fall asleep, or you might wake up to a case of the red and green polka dots! (round stickers all over your pj’s!)

 

Day 17: Fun with Photos

image from sewcakemake.blogspot.com

What kid doesn’t love to see pictures of himself? Just wait until you see the smiles when you trap your little ones in the soap container! Pinned on pinterest, this idea is simple and basically cost-free. Snap a photo, glue to white paper, trim around image. Then, photocopy onto laminating paper (less than $1.00 at your local office store) and trim again. Then, roll to fit into a soap container with clear liquid soap, and you’ve got a personalized bathroom gadget that will help them remember to wash their hands!
 
 
 
image from lemontreecreations.blogspot.com
 
If your child likes to build tall, tall towers and dinosaur caves, make the most of those building blocks by attaching family photos with modgepodge. This will help your child remember their extended family members, even if they’re miles away. Find detailed instructions at lemontreecreations or just wing it. It’s a can’t fail project.
 

image from pinterest.com

And how cute is this? Perfect for pre-readers who struggle with traditional gift tags, photos attached to presents will bring nothing but joy when it’s present time at your house!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Day 15: Homemade Ornaments

Image from homemadegrits.blogspot.com

Whether your kids are still young enough to make handprint ornaments or old enough to craft characters from the dough, you’ll enjoy this old stand-by recipe for making fabulous ornaments for your tree.

You’ll need:

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. Mix flour and salt well. Gradually add water, stirring with a large spoon. Finish mixing with hands. Knead until soft and pliable.
  3. Roll out on floured surface about 1/8 inch thick. Cut shapes with cookie cutters. Place on cookie sheets. With a toothpick or straw make a hole in the top of the ornament for threading string. Bake at 300 degrees F until hard (about 1 1/2 hours). (If opting for thicker dough, bake at 200 degrees for longer).

It’s fun to add cinnamon to the dough to make it smell yummy. You can also add cake food coloring before baking, or paint the ornaments once dry and cool. Before baking, try stamping your toddler’s handprint, your infant’s footprint, or your teen’s fingerprint into the dough and then cutting a circle around it. Or let kids create fun characters from their imagination. Use a garlic press to create hair, and paint as desired. If desired, add a coat of varnish to preserve the ornaments.

Image from realsimple.com

Need something simpler? Can’t get much easier than this great idea from Real Simple. The fun part is hunting for twigs. What kid doesn’t love to do that? Find some of similar width, trim to size, and secure with jute or twine into the shape of a star.

Image from realsimple.com

 
 
Here’s another fun idea from Real Simple: instead of tossing those old mittens and socks, save the tiniest ones and attach them to your tree or mantle. Better yet, attach them to ribbon with clothespins and create a sentimental advent calendar (Thanks, Martha Stewart!). Adorable!
image from marthastewart.com

 
 
Or…cut a few slits in a circle of cardboard (painted if desired), tape some colored string to the back and let your kids wind the string from slit to slit to create unique string art ornaments for your tree.

Day 12: Random Acts of Kindness

Nothing we get in this world can be taken with us when we leave. However, we do take with us everything we give. It might have been Henry David Thoreau who first shared such a thought, but the meaning is eternal. This Christmas, remind your children to always give more than they receive.

Start by practicing random acts of kindness. Here are some simple ideas you can do to help kids of all ages remember the reason for the season.

Drop some change into the red kettle, or better yet ring the Salvation Army bell as a family.

Start a new habit of putting extra canned goods in your grocery cart each time you shop. Drop them into the donation bin at the door and help end hunger in your community.

Deliver Meals on Wheels, visit residents at a senior living facility, or rake a neighbor’s yard. Teach your kids to look after the oldest members of your community and to always offer help and companionship when possible.

Secretly pay overdue library fees for strangers or treat a special someone to a hot cup of Joe and a muffin one morning…just because.

Bring in a neighbor’s trash cans, recycle bins, newspaper, or mail. Shovel someone’s snowy drive, place fresh poinsettia in your school, church, or community building. Treat postal workers and librarians to little happies (sweet treats). The options are endless, and it’s fun to see little brains switch from thinking about what they WANT for Christmas to figuring out ways to GIVE to others.

See how one blogger teaches her children to be kinder, more compassionate members of society by practicing random acts of kindness. There, you’ll find many more ideas for reaching out with a generous heart.

Happy giving,

j

Day 11: Make Your Own Elf on the Shelf

How does Santa really keep an eye on kids? He has elves that do it, of course! That’s the idea behind the Elf on the Shelf. But if forty bucks seems like a bit much to spend on an Elf, you can save money and create memories by helping the kids make their own. Sprinkle magic dust on it, write its name on red or green “Pole Paper” that sends the message directly to Santa, and by the next morning … Voila! Your elf is alive and alert, keeping track of whether children have been “bad or good” and reminding your little ones to be “good for goodness sake!”

Image by Aimee Herring at Parents.com
With not much more than chenille stems, felt, and craft beads, you can create these adorable elf friends. Visit Parents.com for instructions.
 

Image from etsy.com

 
Some might enjoy the challenge of a crochet pattern. Check this one out on etsy.com where the pattern is available for less than five dollars and it includes a second pattern for a female elf!
 
If your kids are too old to believe the elf is really sneaking around in the night, causing mischief and reporting back to Santa, they might have fun helping you plan the set-up for your younger children. Find 101 Elf on the Shelf Ideas on Blossom Bunkhouse. You might wake to find your elf stuck upside down in the chocolate chip bag, or fishing for goldfish crackers, or driving the Barbie car. And believe me, even in the classroom, it works! Kids can’t wait to find where their elf is hiding each morning, and all you have to do is offer a gentle reminder that “Elvis” is watching, and attitudes adjust immediately.
 
Happy Elfing!
j

Day 6: Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!

I grew up in Louisiana. We spent most Christmas seasons wearing shorts and running with barefeet across green grass. Maybe that’s why I love anything that has to do with snow…especially the loveable snowmen that seemed as unreal to me as, well, Santa! Santa was visible, you know the department store men with fake beards and genuine bellies, but a real snowman was a rare miracle that came only when the most significant wish came true…a little girl’s hope for snow to fall in south Louisiana! (It happened not once, but twice!)

Later, when I was a young mother living in the North Pole (aka Peoria, Illinois – the coldest place on earth!), we built an 8-foot-tall snowman in our front yard. He stayed there from Thanksgiving until Easter, and we changed his clothes throughout the seasons. His name was Friendly, and he was quite a special member of our family.

Today, after many snow-filled years in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Colorado, I’m back in the south, living in Oxford, Mississippi. We do get a few decent snowfalls each year, but with these fun ideas, we’ll be enjoying snowmen even on our green grass days. Enjoy!

For starters, and for you ambitions crafters who want some lifelong keepsake ornaments in your collection, take a look at Amy Powers’ lovely snowmen. These have such a vintage feel, they remind me of my grandmother’s homemade ornaments. This would be a fabulous activity for those of you with older kids, especially tweens and teens, who have outgrown some of the simpler Christmas crafts. You can find step-by-step instructions along with photos to guide you by visiting the incredible blogsite: holidaywithmatthewmead.com

Okay, now let’s try this little snowman seat cover for the younger kids. I made one of these for my preschool classroom one year and chose a different child each day to sit in the “Snowman’s Lap.” But I also love the idea of using a pillowcase and keeping this as a holiday sham on a toddler’s bed. You can find templates and detailed directions for this particular pattern at Family Fun’s website.

I absolutely LOVE these adorable snowladies I found hanging out at curlybirds.blogspot.com Created by three-year-old crafters, these are such a fun project for the creative kids in your family. Find photos and specific instructions by visiting the curly birds site.

 
 
 
Now for those of you with less time or ambition for crafting. Here’s something super simple. Three circles traced on a large sheet of cardstock; glue; cotton balls. Voila! Add googly eyes and decorate with pieces of felt and you’ve got a happy new friend. I encourage you not to stick to this image. Add a hat, scarf, or other accessories and have fun! You can also staple together two or three paper plates (smallest to largest) and decorate as desired.
 
 
 

image from notimeforflashcards.com

Or, if the thought of glue and cotton balls makes you nervous…skip the glue and just let your little one cover dots with mini-marshmallows.

Either way, use these activities to help children learn to count. You can also teach basic concepts like adding (“What if we add another one here. now how many do we have?”) and subtracting (“Now if I eat one marshmallows, how many do we have left?”)
 
 
 
 
Finally…oh what fun this will be…end the day by serving snowman milkshakes made with your favorite flavors, whipped cream, and candy embellishments. If you’re worried about sugar overload, leave time to go outside and build snow sculptures (or run barefooted and climb trees…choose your passion!)
 
Oh…I just have way too many more fun snowman ideas to share…so stay tuned. More to come! (Subscribe to Julie’s Journal for automatic email updates and be sure not to miss daily ideas to keep your family laughing your way through the holidays).
 

Day 5: Top Christmas Flicks for Family Movie Night

There’s no better time than the holiday season to snuggle up for Family Movie Night. Pop some popcorn and light the fire, as you enjoy these can’t miss kid-friendly Christmas movies. 

For Kids of All Ages:

Winnie the Pooh – A Very Merry Pooh Year - I admit, I’m a sucker for Pooh. This is my favorite Christmas movie – a heartwarming tale reminds us all that friendship means more than presents.

Mickey’s Christmas Carol - Rated G and great for viewers of all ages!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - If your child hasn’t yet heard of the Island of Misfit Toys — now’s the time! A great vintage film sure to bring smiles to all.

Frosty the Snowman - There are tons of reasons to watch this fantastic film, but if for nothing else – the songs are fun to sing!
 
Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Another fun-for-everyone family favorite. 
 
A Charlie Brown Christmas - This one delivers the message that there is value in everything — even the most misunderstood and scraggliest among us.
 
For Kids Age 6 and Older:
  
The Polar Express -  A  beautifully filmed modern rendition of the classic tale, but it can be a bit intense or even scary for kids under 6.
  
Miracle on 34th Street - The story can be a bit slow for young kids, but who doesn’t love this holiday favorite – is Santa real, or is he? 
 
How the Grinch Stole Christmas - Personally, I think the 1966 animated version may be less-frightening (and more age-appropriate) than the Jim Carrey rendition; but whichever version you choose, your family won’t want to miss this fabulous Dr. Seuss Christmas message. It might just make your heart grow two sizes!
 
And while they may not be about Christmas, you just have to brew a batch of hot chocolate and snuggle up with Happy Feet (and perhaps take a family day to see the sequel currently in theaters).
  
 
For Older Kids:
 
Home Alone – Not really appropriate for kids under 8, but a hilarious adventure story about a kid left home alone for the holidays (some bad language and mild violence).
 
Of course you can’t forget A Christmas Story. Rated PG, this may not be the best choice for kids under 12. Still, for older children, Ralphie is a hilarious as he narrates this All-American holiday story set in the 1940s.
 
Ok, I wasn’t going to list it, because it’s really not a kid-friendly movie, but I have to say the movie Elf is absolutely hilarious for older children. Will Ferrell’s role as an orphan raised by Santa is just too unique (if not too corny) to miss.
 
Of course there’s a new batch of holiday films released every year, but I hope you can enjoy some serious snuggle time while watching a few of these favorite flicks.
 
j
 
 

Black Friday or Free Friday – It’s Up to You

If credit cards and wish lists have you worried, I encourage you to step away from the stores and savor the true spirit of this beautiful season. Perhaps a dear friend chose the best trigger, this classic poem by Wendell Berry, who reminds us all that life is short. Life is good. Life is now.

Count your blessings!

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
… in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
- Wendell Berry