Written by

Chris Gonzales


Lars Plougmann

Every Christmas (and all year round, really) kids are bombarded with ads for toys and other crap that serves almost no purpose except to take up space and empty their parents’ wallets. With this guide, we hope to provide a few ideas for toys and gifts that are actually worthwhile — ones that impart lessons of creativity, imagination, education, and family fun.

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Magna-Tiles magnetic building tiles. ($52 for a set of 32)

Magna-Tiles magnetic building tiles. ($52 for a set of 32)

Magna-Tiles »

Magna-Tiles are some of the coolest toys we’ve come across in a while. They’re pretty much what you’d get if you took a bunch of Tangram puzzle pieces and embedded magnets in all of them. Using only a combination of two sizes of squares and three kinds of triangles, kids can build just about anything they can imagine, in 2D or 3D.

While the original 32-piece set is a great way to get started, we recommend expanding your collection with the 48-piece set and/or the 100-piece set. Then, grab a copy of the Magnetic Stick n’ Stack idea book, which has tons of awesome ideas for things you can build with Magna-Tiles that you might not realize are possible.

ASTC Travel Passport Program »

For those of us who often travel with our families all around the US, this national museum membership is one of the best gifts to receive.

Science centers and museums all over the country happen to participate in this program, the primary benefit often being free general admission for your family or group, depending on the museum (which must be over 90 miles away from your “primary” museum or residence). Some museums also offer discounts to members for gift shop purchases and/or admission to special exhibits/planetarium shows.

Unfortunately, there’s no one place to get a membership. You’ll have to contact your local participating venue (use the search field at the bottom of this page) and inquire about the program.

Once you’re in though, be sure to check the list of participants (larger-font version here) and call ahead to any place you soon intend to visit, just to make sure you know what benefits you may or may not be entitled to and what you need to bring with you.

Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Kit »

Speaking of science, we’re suckers for geeky kid stuff. If you’re like us and grew up watching shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman’s World, the Snap Circuits Alternative Energy Kit will be right up your alley.

This thing is chock full of circuits and other cool parts — such as a hand crank, a solar cell, an FM radio, a windmill, and a lot more — that can be assembled in 125+ ways (don’t worry, there are step-by-step instructions) to help teach kids about electricity and alternative forms of energy. Educational!

If the “green energy” thing isn’t your bag, check out the basic Snap Circuits set.

Strider Balance Bike for kids. ($120)

Strider Balance Bike for kids. ($120)

Strider Balance Bike »

At first glance, you might think a pedal-less bike is a weird purchase to make. But believe us when we say this is one of the best (and funnest) ways to improve a toddler’s sense of balance, motor skills, and self-confidence.

Without the distraction of figuring out how to pedal, kids can use a propulsion system they’re familiar with — walking — and instead focus on learning how to balance and turn. By the time they’ve outgrown the Strider, they should be able to bypass training wheels entirely and graduate to a regular bicycle.

SumBlox math building blocks. ($120)

SumBlox math building blocks. ($120)

SumBlox »

You could buy any old set of building blocks to entertain a kid for hours, but SumBlox adds another subtle level of coolness by teaching kids simple math concepts.

Each block is a stylish-looking number with a height that corresponds to its numeric value. What that means is when you stack the 7 and the 3, it matches the height of two stacked 5’s. Or stack a 4 and 3 together, and they match the height of a single 7 block. You get the idea.

Though SumBlox got its start as a successful Kickstarter campaign, you can now buy the set outright. It’s not the cheapest of gifts by any means, but we consider it an investment in a kid’s development.

Pley.com toy subscription. ($20–$25/month, depending on the installment plan you choose)

Pley.com toy subscription. ($20–$25/month, depending on the installment plan you choose)

Pley.com Toy Subscription »

Let’s just get it out of the way:Pley.com is essentially Netflix for toys.

It’s a monthly subscription that lets kids create a “Pleylist” of various toy sets — they’ve got tons of LEGO sets and even the BB-8 droid by Sphero — which arrive by mail. When they finish playing with a set, they send the set back to Pley, who counts the set pieces and sanitizes them in an eco-friendly solution, then sends out the next set on the kid’s Pleylist.

They don’t charge if LEGO bricks go missing before being returned, but they do ask that parents have a hand in keeping track of pieces. Part of the point of the service is eliminating clutter and all the wasted plastic that comes from kids owning tons of their own toys.

The Fort Magic fort construction kit. ($114)

The Fort Magic fort construction kit. ($114)

Fort Magic »

If you’ve got a bunch of extra blankets and sheets sitting in a cabinet somewhere that rarely see the light of day, Fort Magic is one way to put them to good use. It’s a fort-building kit that comes with a bunch of various-sized sticks and connector pieces, which can be assembled into all kinds of large objects — not just simple boxes but castles, ships, rockets, planes, and more.

The set also includes a bunch of fabric clips so you can attach your own sheets, pillowcases, blankets, tablecloths…whatever fabric you might have lying around. If you know a kid who likes putting two table chairs together and hanging a blanket over them to make a “clubhouse”, they will love the Fort Magic kit.