The holidays are approaching quickly, and local mass retailers are loaded with similar items: licensed products and mass-produced toys. For parents, family, and friends wishing to find higher quality educational toys for the children on their lists, it is often useful to shop smaller retailers in order to find high quality (and often American-made) learning toys for holiday gifts this season.
For a gift that keeps on giving, consider live insect kits such as ant farms, butterfly habitats, and ladybug kits. These toys provide children with the opportunity to keep and rear live animals, watching their day-to-day activities and interaction. Many also provide new chances to learn responsibility, in terms of feeding and releasing the insects.
Butterfly Kits, such as the Butterfly Pavilion and smaller Butterfly Garden from Insect Lore, usually come with a certificate for caterpillars. Once the caterpillars arrive by mail, children can watch them grow, spin their chrysalides, and emerge as butterflies which can be fed oranges or homemade nectar (sugar and water) on served on carnation flowers. Ant Farms come in many varieties and price points (there's even a NASA-developed one that uses space-age gel!) and give children the chance to view the colony at work.
Musical instruments are another great gift that allow children to develop not only musical skills, but confidence and creative expression. The youngest children will enjoy egg shakers, castanets, and kazoos. Older children appreciate increasing complexity, such as recorders and xylophones that allow them to play their own melodies. Pre-teens appreciate more traditional instruments such as a smaller-sized guitar. Look for quality construction and instruments that come with detailed playing instructions and/or songbooks.
For both solitary and family fun, consider brainteasers and challenging multi-person games. Brainteasers help to develop logical and mathematical skills, but also can develop spatial thinking too. They also provide children with an important sense of accomplishment as they learn to solve the puzzle. For family games, look for activities that keep children engaged despite shorter attention spans. Variations on charades and picture-drawing games, such as Charoodles and Oodles of Doodles from Think Fun, provide long-lasting fun.
Electronic learning toys are also popular choices. The Leap Frog line of toys is available at mass retailers and online, and is probably one of the most well-known lines of electronic toys. Also consider the GeoSafari Laptop from Educational Insights. It is available for two age groups (3-7 years and 8+ years) and includes lessons on science, language, math, history, and more.