Toys that teach: Creative and educational toys top gift lists


Forget the Xboxes and the Wiis. Building toys — from Lego sets to tiny robots that light up — have always been the most popular holiday gifts for children, according to local toy store owners.

"Around the holidays, you get people looking for something that their child can create or build," said Eric Hager, manager of the downtown store Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World.

A growing trend in holiday gifts now is games and toys that aim at getting girls interested in building and engineering, Hager said.

Gifts in that category include Roominate, a wired-with-lights dollhouse-building kit, and GoldieBlox, a game of building Rube Goldberg-type contraptions, designed by a Stanford University civil engineer.

At Ambassador Toys, the Town and Country Village store, Magna-Tiles and Lego sets for girls have trumped last year's favorites: kitchen sets and dolls, according to sales associate Alacia Hafner.

"Some parents are looking for just toys; some look for something that's both entertaining and educational," she said.

Recent years have also seen a resurgence in popularity of "classic" toys and toys that have "long-term play value," said Dexter Chow, owner of Cheeky Monkey Toys in Menlo Park.

Some toy manufacturers have experimented with tech-driven toys and games that connect with apps and smartphones, but those haven't quite caught on, Chow said.

"There isn't a lot of play value. Initially, people are, like, 'Ooh, that's neat,' and 10 minutes later, the novelty wears off," he said.

"The more the toy does, the less the child does. Ideally, you'd want to both engage and educate the child, you want to stimulate their imagination."

Which is why science toys and games such as microscopes and make-your-own-bubblegum machines are increasingly popular around the holidays, he added. They not only have an educational component but also keep the kids engaged when it is too cold to be outside.

"Board games are also popular this season, to get the kids away from the computers and have more 'family' time," said Leslie Chiavenini, owner of Los Altos store Adventure Toys.

Other holiday best-sellers include the Rainbow Loom, which is a multi-color bracelet-making kit, and classics such as Spot It and the board game Goblet.

Gifts that used to be in demand such as Silly Bandz or Beanie Babies are "just gone now," Chiavenini said.

"When we had Beanie Babies, we'd have lines waiting outside the door for new stock. There hasn't been a trend like that ever. That was very unique."

Chiavenini's downtown store has a wide selection of gifts ranging from dollar-and-a-half stocking stuffers to a 250-pound, $600 life-sized stuffed pony for the more indulgent parent or grandparent.

Most parents spend $20-$30 per gift on average, she said, but many also go for gifts $300 and up.

"Even in the peak of the recession, I'd find that the parents would still buy for the children and cut back elsewhere," Chiavenini said.

With the economy steadily improving now, store owners are optimistic about toy sales this year.

"When the recession hit, people were a lot more cautious. This past year, however, we've seen an increase in high-priced items being sold," Chow said.

Hanukkah's early arrival has also helped boost sales, even with a late Thanksgiving pushing back the shopping season, he added.

"We have a lot of inter-faith families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, so it does help us a little when they are a bit farther apart like this year."

Hager predicts a better year this year as well.

"Before the recession, we had the largest month of sales in the 83-year history of the store," he said. "It's been a slow climb back ... but it seems like this year is going to be one where people spend more."

Tom Beischer, a shopper at the Toy World, said he was happy to find more toys and games in stock than last year, even late into the shopping season. He wanted to find "something hands-on and creative, something fun to build," for his 5- and 10-year-old children, he said.

Lisa Wheatley, a parent and Adventure Toys shopper, said she tries to give gifts that highlight something that her children accomplished that year.

This year, she got one of her daughters who starred in a Little Mermaid play an Ursula ornament with "2013" on it.

"So when she grows older she'll remember that's what she did in 2013," Wheatley said.

Two of her five children are adults now, but even after children grow up, parents always look for gifts that make their children's holidays memorable, she said.

"You always want it to be magical."


Like this comment
Posted by Jan
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I love the TickleMe Plant Greenhouse ..In it you can grow a real house plant that moves and closes its leaves when you Tickle the fun activity ideas it comes with.

Like this comment
Posted by Simple Gifts
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 24, 2013 at 1:30 pm

"We have a lot of inter-faith families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas"

I wonder why we've all become so balled up about Christmas in recent years. Christmas is both a secular and a religious holiday. Although in some parts of the world, the gift-giving retains its religious connection (gifts come from the Christkind in Switzerland, for example), the spiritual celebration of Christmas is in essence non-material, and as such, much of the materialism is even seen as in conflict with the religious. Santa Claus is no more a religious figure because it comes from St. Nikolaus than Valentine's Day is because of St. Valentine.

I saw evidence of this weird divide recently when I attended a school book fair. There were books about Hanukkah, with religious theme, but every last book about Christmas had to do with Santa Claus, winter themes -- anything but the actual message of religious Christmas celebrations. I just find it really strange, then, that people lump secular Christmas celebrations in with that and treat it like it's some kind of religious third rail.

The Christmas trees, the lights, decorations, wreaths, and most of the yule traditions predate Christianity and come from pagan winter solstice celebrations that create community in the heart of winter. When I buy gifts for strangers through programs at school and church, I don't make any religious connections to that, it's just buying gifts for someone at Christmas, not based on a religious connection or whether they celebrate the religious holiday. Certainly people also have religious decorations and imagery at Christmas, since for them, Christmas is also a religious celebration. But - as a Christian myself - I don't connect shopping for gifts or decorating, making the cookies for Santa, singing Jingle Bells, etc, to the religious celebration of Christmas. We go to church, read from the story in Luke with candles on Christmas Eve, try to remember what is important, etc., and that is our religious observance of Christmas. It's not really connected in any religious way to opening the gifts on Christmas morning and eating junk food while watching football the rest of the day (though we try to connect the "remembering what's important" to that).

Christmas traditions are fun. I know people of many faiths who put up trees and celebrate them, and I don't know why in recent years, we've all been made to feel weird about that, since the community/secular holiday is really not really religious. But because we've been made to feel weird about it, Halloween has been growing as a community holiday -- celebrating horror? ugh. I have as much fun at Halloween as anyone else, but I just think a holiday about giving, sharing, lights, community, warmth -- we shouldn't deprive ourselves of that because some people also have a religious holiday that joined the communal one 2,000 years ago.

P.S. We LOVE the game Apples to Apples. We're giving Jenga this year, too.

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Posted by opus
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Dec 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Christmas is a Christian holiday.

Almost all of Christianity has roots that predate it: heaven and hell, god/virgin coupling, impact of current life on everlasting afterlife, rising from the dead, miracles, original sin, etc. That doesn't make these things any less Christian.

Different people focus on different aspects of the holiday and it's celebration; ritual is as legitimate as philosophy in the context of celebrating Christmas. And, yes, the focus chosen by an individual is telling.

I think the rub is the impact, direct and indirect and now pernicious, of money and politics through media on this focus.

This impact of money and politics can bring certain aspects of the holiday to the fore as being ends in themselves, when they otherwise would represent deeper experience.

And I agree this should be fought against.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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