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Give the Gift of Learning: Toys That Teach

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With the holiday season upon us, it's time to start shopping for gifts. For many of us, this means rushing to fulfill children's wish lists with the hottest new gadgets and the latest trends in toys. But what if we could also wrap powerful learning experiences into our gift-giving traditions?

In a recent post, I discussed the importance of reaching students early in their education to help spur interest in math and science -- valuable educational building blocks that can help set children up for successful futures in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers and, more broadly, provide them with critical analytical skills.

The holidays are a perfect time to continue encouraging youth to grow and learn through toys and gadgets that are fun and trendy, but also happen to be full of learning potential. For example, construction-oriented toys, puzzles, interactive maps and even video games like the classic Tetris all enable spatial learning. Spatial reasoning is not only a key predictor of STEM proficiency, but contributes to developing problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Even in our digital age, skill-building toys are plentiful; in fact, they have become increasingly accessible as their appeal expands to girls with the rise of toys such as Lego's Friends and Mattel's line of Mega Bloks Barbie Build 'n' Style. Toys such as these are crucial to equipping girls -- who are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields -- with a broad range of skills that could help them succeed in high tech careers and far beyond.

Given the hustle and bustle of this busy season, you may not have time to shop for everyone on your list, much less research multipurpose toys that are both fun and educational. So, to get you started, below are some of my own budget-friendly gift ideas for both boys and girls, categorized by age, that can give kids -- and their parents or caregivers -- something to smile about.

For Ages 3 - 7

The VTech Cogsley Learning Robot ($39.99, VTech) is a playful way to explore technology; the learning robot comes with 30 "computer chip" learning tokens and boasts dancing abilities, counting skills and numerous other interactive features. For aspiring do-gooders, a great option is the Doc McStuffins Time For Your Check Up Doll ($34.99, Toys-R-Us), which is based on a television show featuring six-year-old Dottie McStuffins, an African American girl who dreams of becoming a doctor. This great role model plays "doctor" by healing associated toys and stuffed animals. SmartMax Magnetic Building Set ($49.99-$79.99, Fat Brain Toys) offers young kids a creative way to build and use their imagination.

For Ages 8 - 12

The Digi Fruit ($9.99, Gamenamics) is a fun way to start the day; the alarm clock, which runs on fruit instead of batteries, requires user assembly. For a deeper introduction to electricity, the award-winning Snap Circuits SC-300 ($34.99, Elenco Electronics) set provides over 300 do-it-yourself projects using color-coded, real circuit components. Young bookworms may be more interested in New York Times bestselling author, actress and mathematician Danica McKellar's series about girls and math, which includes Math Doesn't Suck, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-algebra Who's Boss, Hot X: Algebra Expose, and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape ($9.30- $16.79 each, available at bookstores).

For Ages 13 and Up

Many young students may not know about the thousands upon thousands of applications chemistry and biology have outside of the laboratory. Help them start to figure it out through the Creative Cosmetics ($39.95, Thames & Kosmos) kit, which includes a 32-page book detailing the history and science behind cosmetics, along with tools to make a range of real cosmetic oils, liquids and gels. For a whimsical touch, the MaKey MaKey Kit (49.95, SparkFun) provides easy-to-use equipment to transform anything (including bananas) into a computer-recognized keyboard.

Gift-givers may also take advantage of the tremendous technology currently available by choosing skill-building applications that are far from mindless time-passers. As smartphones and tablets become increasingly used across all ages, apps are a great way to also engage kids in STEM and strengthen spatial reasoning.

For example, the Robots for iPad ($1.99) app is a one-stop-shop for information about all things robot. Fans of the Mythbusters television show will especially love the MythBusters HD ($4.99) iPad app: the videos, games and other interactive tools found here have broad appeal and can satisfy the most curious of minds. Cosmographia ($2.99), a space exploration app is filled with stunning visuals in addition to its engaging and informative content. The challenging Geared ($2.99) game sets users up with increasingly difficult mechanical puzzles, and the Paper Bridge ($0.99) app is an undisguised engineering test: players must create a bridge that carries vehicles from point A to point B without virtually collapsing.

All of these toys, gadgets and apps offer creative teaching opportunities that last well beyond the holiday season. And that is something we can all celebrate together.