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A Teacher’s Guide to Educational Gifts Your Kids Will Actually Enjoy

Help your kids improve their ability to problem-solve, think critically, play independently, and more.

Collage of toys, games, and books.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HarperTeen, USA Toyz, Sakura, Winshare Puzzles and Games, Candlewick, Hape, Clarion Books, Kinetic Sand, and Balzer + Bray.

This piece is part of Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series, where our beloved advice columnists offer their gift-giving wisdom. Jamilah Lemieux advocates for some self-care to stay sane through the holiday season. Our Ask a Teacher columnists offer up their favorite teacher gifts. Need holiday entertaining ideas? Rebecca Onion dishes on punch, and J. Bryan Lowder sings the praises of the Champagne cocktail bar.

’Tis the season for Stuff. Most children bring a steady flow of Stuff into the household all year, of course, but during the holidays, the trickle becomes a deluge. When choosing presents for your kids, the sheer volume of options is overwhelming enough, but the added pressure to discern potential favorite new possessions from items that will quickly be relegated to the recesses of Stuff Mountain is exhausting.

As a teacher who’s worked with kids from toddlers to teens, I’ve developed a good sense for things that are meaningful and helpful to kids’ development. However, I also have a 4-year-old, and I am well acquainted with the utter garbage her heart most keenly desires. In this gift guide, I’ve made suggestions that I hope will be genuinely appealing to children of all ages in your life, but will also support their growth. Think of these gifts as trying to strike a happy medium somewhere between “Look, Santa brought you a set of flashcards” and “Here—it’s a googly-eyed mythical creature that shits pastel glitter!”

Gifts to Help Your Kid Calm Down or Focus

As anyone who’s fielded a toddler tantrum or tweenage meltdown can attest, helping kids develop their emotional regulation skills is critical to helping them thrive in every other area too. Teachers use a variety of tools to help students get into a calm and focused mindset or to help them recover after losing their cool.

Calm-down bottles are a favorite tool in the “early mindfulness” category (every single classroom in our elementary school’s pre-K program has a set!). Their function is very simple: Shake ’em up, then sit still, watch, and let your emotions settle along with the glitter. The mesmerizing effect of the bottles’ slow swirls are helpful in encouraging quiet time, managing anxiety, or recovering from a tantrum. You can find pre-made bottles in various styles, but there are also lots of empty bottle sets for sale if you’re feeling crafty and ambitious enough to follow a DIY tutorial. A Mason jar does the trick, too.

I know that one of the premises of this gift guide is “things that are not junk,” and this fiber-optic rainbow light treads the line. It’s preeeeetty tacky. But! It’s also very effective at lulling a worked-up child into relaxation, especially at bedtime. It’s bright enough to draw focus without being distracting, and silently watching the slowly changing colors is soothing.

If you have a kid who struggles with transitions, especially those that require a shift from high energy to low, a liquid motion timer might be helpful. As a timekeeping device, it’s not quite as precise as, say, your phone, but watching the twin ladders of colorful oil bubbles drizzle downward is also a lot more appealing than being interrupted by the blare of a ringtone.

Although I believe we’ve passed the peak of the slime craze, plenty of kids still enjoy manipulating something squishy and tactile. “But it’s sticky and cold and stains and smells weird and sheds little globules that ingrain themselves into any fabric surface they touch!” you protest. May I introduce you to Theraputty? Technically it’s a physical therapy tool, meant for strengthening grip and dexterity—but it also makes a great fidget toy, and it’s not nearly as messy or prone to falling apart as the contact-lens-solution-and-glue concoction favored in YouTube tutorials. It comes color-coded by softness, and you can also pick sparkly, scented, and “puffy” versions.

Gifts to Help Your Kid Play Independently

Nondirected, independent play is essential to children’s intellectual growth, but keeping oneself productively occupied in a task—even if that task is play—is a skill that can need some nurturing. High-quality, open-ended materials are the best support for helping your kids learn through absorption in free play.

If you’ve got a kid who enjoys dramatic play, the Hape dollhouse is unbeatable. It’s beautifully (and gender-neutrally) colorful, durable, and thoughtfully constructed, with openings on all sides for easy access. When my preschooler plays with hers, we do not hear a peep other than the many voices she implements as her doll family engages in lively conversation.

Magnet blocks are one of the gold standards for encouraging open-ended free play, and with good reason: Kids freaking love these things. Their possibilities for use are endless, and the more you add to your collection, the more elaborate the constructions. It’s quite amazing to watch young children grow their understanding of physics, gravity, and structure through the trial and error of building the horse palace/ninja hotel/orange spaceship/princess performing arts space of their dreams.

Hear me out before you dismiss this last one: sand. I know, I know. I’m of the opinion, though, that sand mess is relatively fixable, and the long periods of absorbed experimentation it allows for are worth it. We own this moldable kinetic sand, and it has yet to dry out after nearly two years of semiregular use. Stash it in a big Tupperware, keep a set of little toys inside it, bust it out periodically enough that it doesn’t lose its luster, and sip your coffee for 45 blissfully uninterrupted minutes.

(I also own this book, which is full of simple, easily implementable activities that will happily occupy kids from roughly 18 months to 6 years old, including recipes for endless variations of sensory doughs, sands, and creams. Snow days are coming, folks. Stay ready and you won’t have to get ready.)

Gifts to Help Your Kid Problem-Solve

Spatial reasoning, logic, and pattern recognition are all building blocks of math literacy, and in the current approach to math education, conceptual understanding is highly valued. While these toys aren’t “math gifts” per se, they do hone the basic thought processes that undergird mathematical reasoning.

Tangrams are classic toys that encourage kids to understand patterns and geometric concepts like angles and symmetry. Younger kids are happy to play freely with a colorful set of shapes and will often initiate sorting and arranging them into patterns all on their own, but you can also pair them with activity cards to build specific pictures. Older, puzzle-minded kids can dive into a geometry challenge with a plain wooden tangram of 7 pieces and a book of silhouettes, attempting to recreate the images by manipulating the shapes.

Labyrinth is an eternally popular board game in which players race through a maze while moving pieces to constantly shift and manipulate the path. By design, it’s different with every play, so it’s a game that has a long lifespan of enjoyment. It will also sharpen elementary schoolers’ strategy and planning skills as they decide how best to modify the maze to their own advantage or to hinder their opponents.

“STEM toys” are trendy right now, but they are also tricky; there are plenty of duds out there that are of questionable quality, don’t deliver the skill-building they claim, or simply aren’t much fun. Gravity Maze, on the other hand, does it all. It’s a combination of marble run and puzzle, in which kids use a clue card, a grid, and a set of blocks to build tower mazes that will allow a marble to pass through. It’s an absorbing challenge that really does hone engineering and spatial reasoning skills.

Gifts to Help Your Kid Become a Thoughtful Reader

I’m firmly in the camp of “all pleasure reading is good reading,” but of course books are also one of the most powerful tools for developing critical thinking. Here are some suggestions for books at all age levels that are thoroughly enjoyable and will also push your reader to attend to details, make inferences, and grapple with language—in other words, read well.

For little ones, wordless picture books are wonderful for building early literacy skills. They require kids to identify details in the illustrations, interpret them, and draw logical conclusions to understand the intended narrative; all those skills are critical to proficient reading. David Wiesner is the triply Caldecotted king of this genre: Tuesday, in which a crew of frogs go joyriding on their levitating lily pads, is my particular favorite, and Flotsam is great too. Aaron Becker’s trilogy Journey, Quest, and Return are also gorgeous.

Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning novel When You Reach Me is a winning, humane story about sixth grader Miranda’s navigation of the travails of middle school friendship. It’s also a seamlessly constructed, genuinely suspenseful mystery. It will ask upper elementary or middle schoolers to reckon with big ideas like time travel (and the overall nature of time), and it will test their logic as they try to figure out who is sending Miranda a series of eerie notes that accurately predict the future.

If your child is already a proficient and eager reader, eighth or ninth grade is a great time to introduce engaging books that also offer a more significant challenge or feature literary elements likely to be included in your child’s high school English curriculum. M.T. Anderson’s The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge and Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep are very different in tone and topic—the former a witty fantasy about goblin-elf diplomacy and the latter a poignant, sometimes surreal depiction of the onset of schizophrenia in its protagonist—but both feature unreliable narration and perspective shifts that require critical thinking to suss out the truth. Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap is also engaging but not straightforward, featuring magical realism, complex language, and allusions to folklore and mythology—all elements that will increase your high schooler’s facility with literary analysis.

Gifts to Help Your Kid Stay Organized

I’ve known adult fans of bullet journaling for a while now, but it’s a practice gathering steam amongst teenagers as well. As high school progresses, independent time and task management skills become an expectation, and most students need some sort of tool or system to manage successfully. The teenage bullet journalers in my life use theirs as hybrid organizational tools, diaries, and art projects, but the system is quite flexible and can be as spartan or fanciful as they prefer. A classic black Moleskine and set of ink pens is all you need to get started; point your teenager toward the many bullet journal hashtags on Instagram and see if they’ll take off with it too.

Hopefully this list will inspire ideas for gifts to entertain and benefit your kids this year, and you can enter the new year satisfied that you’ve added some enrichment to your home, rather than beset with an urge to sell, donate, or burn everything you own. If not, well, the Poopsie Pooey Puitton Slime Surprise Kit does have good reviews. Happy holidays!