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