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Oregon Family Magazine

2016 Holiday Gift Guide

12/01/2016 08:21PM ● By Sandy Kauten

Bridging Learning & Fun with STEM Toys and Games

Learning focused on science, technology, engineering and math - or STEM - has captured the imagination of researchers, educators and parents. STEM experiences of all kinds can develop critical thinking and help build the next generation of innovators.

Of course learning is important, but do you sacrifice fun when you put too many educational toys and games under the tree? For this, our fifth annual holiday gift guide, we looked a wide variety of toys - and it turns out, you can have it both ways!

Our intrepid toy testers took more products for a spin than ever. Meet the testers:

Xander, Age 4: Curious and quirky. He’ll give anything a try, but isn’t shy about letting you know what he thinks — good or bad.

Braxton, Age 10: A veteran Oregon Family holiday gift guide toy tester, he’s been around the block. He’s open and interested in new toys, but won’t waste his time.

Brandon, Age 12: A tinkerer and builder by nature, Brandon has focus and determination needed to see some of the more challenging building sets through to the end and enjoys every minute.

Sammi, Age 6: With two older sisters, Sammi is wise beyond her half-a-dozen years. She particularly enjoys toys and games that either a) she can share with her sisters or b) not share and make her sisters a little jealous.

SCIENCE: Exploring the Earth & Sky

SmartGlobe Infinity

I remember sitting and spinning the globe on my dad’s desk as a kid, imagining all the places and people. Oregon Scientific satisfied that natural curiosity with the SmartGlobe Infinity. With a bluetooth “smart pen,” kids can learn facts, figures, compare regions and people and even hear the national anthems of hundreds of countries.

In an ever-changing world, it’s easy to keep the content up-to-date by syncing the pen to your computer and you can even connect through an iOS or Android app for even more games and challenges. For the kid who loves learning about people, places and culture, the SmartGlobe is a perfect gift. - $69.99 

AstroScan Telescope

The night sky is full of stars, galaxies, and mystery — sharing all that with your kids is fun. The AstroScan Telescope from Scientifics Online makes for great family time. It’s top quality without requiring computer enhancement. It’s also portable, powerful, easy-to-use and for an entry level telescope, very affordable. - $219

TECHNOLOGY: Coding, Gaming and Creativity


Sequencing and programming for preschoolers? The Fisher-Price Code-a-Pillar encourages the youngest potential computer scientists to experiment and develop critical thinking skills. The eight light-up segments each do something different — forward, left, right, wait. And kids put each segment together so they can reach the targets throughout the room.

When kids connect the segments to make Code-A-Pillar™ move - that’s sequencing. When they figure out a sequence that will create a path for Code-A-Pillar™ to reach a target, that’s programming (and problem solving, too). It’s all coding—and it’s all fun!                             Amazon or Toys R Us - $49.95


With games like Minecraft, Mario Maker and other do-it-yourself platforms, young gamers feel empowered to build their own creations. But the tools to do that aren’t always accessible. Thanks to Bloxels®, conception and execution of a new video game is easy. Kids can watch their game world come to life as they create and animate play spaces, characters and objects. The gamer becomes the artist, game designer, storyteller, programmer, publisher and player!

By using the physical pieces in the Bloxels® game set work along with the free Bloxels® Builder app to digitize their creations, kids can put them on-screen and make them playable. The app is free and will start with a series of tutorials to set your kids up for successful game development. - $49.95

Start-up Circuits

What looks like a simple pre-schooler toy becomes an easy lesson in electronic circuits with this creative set. Kids click together chunky pieces, each with a different switch on the bottom, to create three different results: either a spinning fan, a glowing light or a whistling siren. All switch blocks and action tops are interchangeable for mixing, matching and experimenting with actual working circuits in a completely safe way. The set comes with a parent guide so you can describe what’s going on to your young kids in an understandable way.

Start-up Circuits are designed to give young children an innate understanding of circuitry and help build a strong foundation for future STEM success. It’s appropriate for a range of little ones as young as 18-months and it was a big hit with our 4-year-old tester. - $19.95

CreoPop Cool Ink 3D Pen

3D printing pens add dimension to your artwork—literally. This starter set is a great way to explore the intersection with technology and art, using your imagination to create. With the CreoPop Cool Ink 3D pen, the ink is cool, unlike other 3D pens, so it’s safer for kids.

Our 10-year-old tester loved experimenting and, with a little practice, was able to get the hang of it pretty quickly. This would be a wonderful gift for an artist of any age. We’ll just say mom had as much fun with this one as the kids did. - $129.95

ENGINEERING: Building from scratch

Jimu Robot

The Buzzbot and Muttbot kit from Jimu Robots is not for the faint of heart: focus and determination required! But these remarkable robots bridge the gap between learning and fun. 

Our 12-year-old tester built the Buzzbot via the step-by-step 360 degree animated instructions on the free Jimu app. Once built, he was able to program his robot via a smartphone to move, walk and even dance with tiered levels of coding and programming for all skill levels.

The Buzzbot and Muttbot Kit comes with everything needed to build the Buzzbot or Muttbot robots including six smooth motion robotic servo motors and 271 snap-together interlocking parts and connectors.  Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Toys R Us - $149.99 


The creative minds at Thames and Cosmos have some of the best building kits around. This year’s feature, the Geckobot, is an astonishing wall-climbing robot with a motorized air suction system that enables it to walk vertically up and down perfectly smooth surfaces.

The battery powered motor drives an innovative gear system that produces a rotating motion, making the legs move in motions that mimic a real gecko. The instructions are easy to follow with a guide that provides step-by-step illustrations and info about why the Geckobot works the way it does.

The same set can also built a handful of other things including a suction-cup smart phone holder. The Geckobot set is a great mid-level building kit for kids who enjoy complex LEGO sets. Amazon or Toys R Us - $49.99

14-in-1 Solar Robot

At under $30, this is a perfect entry-level kit for budding engineers. Build moving, rolling and even swimming robots. Kids can start with the first level of basic robot building to create silly creatures that move around your table. Make a companion dog-bot, a crawling turtle-bot, a scurrying beetle-bot, a wheel bot, boat bot and more.

Extremely detailed instructions with 190 easy-to-piece-together parts make building and learning easy for all. And it’s all solar-powered! What better way to get kids learning the basics of solar technologies. - $26.95


With an array of colorful, interlocking cubes and your kid’s imagination, Q-BA-MAZE helps create marble maze sculptures in any form such as animals, robots, towers, and geometric shapes. Configurations are unlimited, allowing for unpredictable action when the steel marbles travel different routes.

Follow the plans provided in each set, get inspired by our plans section on the Q-BA-MAZE website or create your own. Developed by an architect, Q-BA-MAZE inspires creative play as you experiment with motion, stability, physics and art. You have to think in 3-D to design and build with colors and cantilevers. It’s both right-brain and left-brain, part art and part science — and lots of fun. - $39.95 


Young architects will love this creative, freeform model building system. With large floor plates and easy “click and connect” components, this a perfect starter set. The buildings created with the Arckit are quite beautiful and display-worthy. If your builder is ready to take Arckit to the next level, she can integrate with popular CAD programs in the SketchUp 3D Warehouse. She can design and build your model digitally, and then build it with your Arckit set. - $59.95

Skullduggery’s Max Traxxx — Tracer Racers Remote Control Police Chase Set

This isn’t your typical race car set! With variable speeds and adjustable track heights, the Max Traxxx Tracer Racers is a great set for both beginners and more advanced track builder. But what really makes this track amazing is the Light Trail Technology and Skullduggery-patented glow-in-the-dark track. Each Tracer Racer beams down purple light rays from its undercarriage onto track specially engineered to emit glow remnants long after the racer has passed. We got lots of “whoas!” and “oh my goshes!” when we lit up the track in our living room.

These racing sets are perfect for both beginning and advanced race fans as variable speed remote control cars and adjustable track heights allow racers to control course difficulty. Four Tracer Racers RC Cars available.  Toys R Us - $119.95

Edushape Magic Brix

Tiny builders want to create with toys that are made just for them. Magic Brix from Edushape are safe, soft and uniquely flexible knobby shapes interlock with each other from practically every side. The set includes 72 pieces to build race cars, houses, robots, furniture and more. A simple guide provides construction ideas to mix and remix. Xander decided combining the boat with the car was a great idea! (and he was right). Amazon - $21.99

MATH: Teaching money smarts


With three compartments for saving, sharing and spending, Moonjar Moneyboxes help to build good money habits early. Made in Portland, Oregon, Moonjar was created as a tool for children and families to incorporate strong financial values and practices into their daily lives in a fun and accessible way.

This durable retro-tin Moonjar Moneybox comes with a family guide, passbook to track transactions and three moneyboxes. Each moneybox is fitted with a color-coordinated acrylic lid. Amazon- $19.99

Building the bridge between learning and fun has never been easier than with this gift guide. But wait! There’s more, be sure to check out our recommendations for subscription boxes, family-fun games and other cool stuff.

Bringing the Family Together with Games


This game is not only fun but also very visual with its colorful game pieces. After drawing a challenge card you take turns stacking, trying to mimic the card for the win. As you play the board becomes a 3D mountain range where your pieces change the color of the landscape.

Each time you correctly build a pattern on a challenge card, you win that card. The player with the most cards at the end of the game wins! It takes some light strategy so I recommend it for kids six and up.  - $29.99 


Think Scattergories, but next level. This fun word game is made for kids who can read well and think quickly. During a round, three Anaxi Word Cards are chosen with describing words on them. They are then overlapped to bring two or more qualities together. Players then wrack their brains to come up with unique nouns that share those qualities. Did I mention the cards are round? It’s an enjoyable, fast-paced word game that gets you thinking and giggling.  - $21.99 

Arrazzles Under the Sea 

A great way to spend a Saturday morning with your littles! Arrazzles®, the multi-award winning, art-inspired building toy, launched by Funnybone Toys in 2013 came out with a new ocean inspired set. Create seascape with beautiful ocean creatures with the 45 slotted cards. All your child needs is their imagination.  - $19.99 

Agenda Game 

What better way to teach your kids about politics than with a game? The brainchild of a former teacher, the Agenda Game is a way to discover politics and the political games people play, but in a light-hearted way. Players compete for money, votes and their own agenda. It will spark debate and open a dialog between you and your kids. - $34.99 

The Gift That Keeps Giving: Monthly Subscription Boxes


Monthly subscription boxes of all sorts are all the rage. We had a chance to check out several boxes for kids, each with a very different focus.

Girls Can! Crate

Each month, GIRLS CAN! CRATE delivers a box celebrating the achievements of a fearless woman from history who helped make the world better. The box includes a 20-page activity book telling the fearless lady's unique story, 2-3 hands-on activities related to her field, a creative play prop and more. Real women make the very best heroes and every month, GIRLS CAN! CRATE delivers them.

We tried the Grace Murray Hopper Curious Coder box, which had an activity to make code necklaces, a naval cap and other awesome activities. Right now, there are more than half-a-dozen different crates in all and each features a real woman to inspire your daughter (or son) to do great things. - $29.95/  Use Holiday25 for 25% off first crate.

Creation Crate

The easy, step-by-step directions in Creation Crate give kids the tools to learn the basics of building electronics. The first box is a mood lamp that requires basic programming, simple electronic components and a small breadboard. The result is a lantern-style lamp that only turns on with the lights are off.

Completing each box gives kids tremendous satisfaction and confidence to tackle problems of all sorts. Building electronics isn’t as complex as many think and with Creation Crate, older tweens and teens can learn that it’s totally accessible and opens up a world of possibilities. - $29.99

Cheeky Days’ Outside the Box

As a long-time community volunteer - and citizen of the world - teaching my kids generosity, compassion and kindness is important. Cheeky Day’s Outside the box is a family subscription box focused on inspiring all those things.

Each box has a “give back” component. The box we reviewed featured an organization called 96 Elephants. After drawing and decorating an elephant, we mailed it to a friend to encourage them to learn about this endangered species and create their own elephant art.

The box also included a handmade rhino mask and a beautifully illustrated book about endangered species. The whole box is delightful and engaged our four-year-old in craft and conversation. - $49.99 monthly

Mail Order Mystery

One of the most creative subscription boxes we’ve seen, the Mail Order Mystery box sends your 8 to 13-year-old on a quest to solve a mystery through a story that unfolds through a series of mailings.

In each mystery there are are codes to crack, clues to solve, red herrings and double-crossing characters - all part of an ongoing story that resolves in the final mailing which includes an artifact or collection of keepsakes that are part of the mystery’s resolution.

The first envelope contained a letter from a long-lost pirate relative with a coded message and a key that promises future loot. Our 10-year-old tester is obsessed with the mystery and can’t wait until the second clue arrives (note: we’ll write a wrap-up web article about the mystery, too. Follow us on Facebook for updates). - $73 total (6 mailings)

Other cool stuff

A hodgepodge of creative toys and games may not have quite fit any other category, but we love them just the same!

Fuzzy Flyers

Our four-year-old tester proclaimed this a “baby toy” when it first arrived, but it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with Coco and encourage us all to have a doggie dance party in the living room.

Coco is a Fuzzy Flyer. These plush toys react to your actions with hilarious phrases, challenging games, and interaction. Intelligent sensors inside the lovable characters recognize movement, and the toys respond. Each character senses when it has been hit, shaken, tossed and caught to facilitate unique gameplay and interaction. - $24.99

Really Big Coloring Posters

For anyone who loves to color, Pirasta’s Really Big Coloring Posters are the ultimate project. Created by award-winning illustrators, the Really Big Coloring Posters are huge -- they measure 5 feet by 3 feet -- so no one has to fight over finding a space to color or elbow each other for a spot. The Coloring Posters are printed with vegetable ink on recycled content paper. You can use markers, gel pens, colored pencils and crayons. Spread it on the floor or hang it on the wall with painter's tape and start coloring.

We got Let’s Color America and I quickly saw that four different colorers in our family would create a beautiful mosaic of styles and colors. I’m in love!

The newest Really Big Coloring Poster is What A Colorful World, a globe-trotting adventure that charts every continent in great detail and celebrates cultural diversity from historical landmarks to food. You can also find: The Big Apple, Food Fight and Funny Farm. - $32

Fair Trade Finger Puppets

These tiny knitted creatures were the first to arrive this year and they’ve been well-loved through dozens of stories of adventure, conjured in the imagination of my four-year-old. Believe it or not, you can find more than 200 adorable characters to collect, trade and share — from wild animals, to kings and queens of the castle to beautiful birds, there are 16 different collections to browse.

And even a tiny finger puppet can change the world — each one is handmade by women's artisan collectives in rural Peru and every purchase supports subsistence communities. - $5 each for 5 for $20 (use code: FUN)

Motorola Walkabout T100

“Copy that.” “Breaker-breaker.” “Over-and-out.” Give two boys each a compact two-way radio and a big yard to roam and let the fun commence! Our testers had a ball creating an outdoor adventure, all the while checking in with each other.

The Motorola Talkabout T100 series of two-way radios are pocket-size and easy-to-use. They are fun for hours of playtime time outside and are perfect for families who enjoy outdoor adventures, especially if those adventures take you out of cell phone range.

You can get them in either blue and bright pink. And with 22 channels and up to a 16-mile range, your family members can easily stay in touch at the park, at the ball fields or even between cars in a caravan. Most major retailers - $34.99

Goodie Gusher

An alternate to the piñata, the Goodie Gusher is brand new and a must-have for birthday parties and celebrations. It is easy-to-fill and it’s reusable! Just fill the Goodie Gusher with candy and prizes, hang it up, kids (or parents) take turns trying to pull the Magic Key, once the Magic Key is pulled the Goodie Gusher will release a wide shower of party treats! This mom-inspired, dad-invented fun party game will make sure kids have fun without the fear of getting hit with a stick or bat and you can use it - $20