Cheapism: Kid-recommended educational toys under $20

Nov. 16, 2011 at 7:42 AM ET

By Kara Reinhardt

Kids’ holiday wish lists these days practically require a pocket translator: Zoobles, Fijit Friends, Moshi Monsters Moshlings — and what in the world is a Squinkie? If parents have to master a new vocabulary, it might be nice if the kids learned something too. Educational toys are a budget-friendly antidote to zone-out-in-front-of-a-screen games.

An expert at Washington University in St. Louis recommends gifts such as chemistry sets and educational games for children 6 and older, who are far enough along in their development to learn specific subject matter. Admittedly, such toys may not be the most exciting things to open. That’s why we subjected highly rated educational toys to the scrutiny of our resident expert: an 8-year-old girl. In video reviews, we tested toys that target elementary-schoolers of both genders to see if they could hold our young reviewer’s interest and earn a spot under the tree.

Below is a primer on Cheapism’s top picks for educational toys under $20.

  • The Mind Blowing Science kit (starting at $15) may not quite live up to its name, but our 8-year-old reviewer relished showing off results such as test tubes full of colorful crystals. Her only complaint: She had to wear an apron to shield her clothes from experiments such as an underwater volcano. (Where to buy)
  • The Scrambled States of America game (starting at $12) helps children of all ages keep their Missouris and Mississippis straight. Parents and teachers posting reviews report improvement in kids’ knowledge of geography. Our own 8-year-old reviewer was enthusiastic about this low-cost option for family game night. (Where to buy)
  • The Rainbow In My Room (starting at $19) uses LED lights to cast a rainbow on a dark wall or ceiling. It may be a stretch to call this an educational toy, but it’s a charming visual aid for introducing children to Roy G. Biv (aka red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). It also makes an enchanting nightlight, but our reviewer warns that it goes dark after 10 minutes to conserve batteries. (Where to buy)
  • Spot It (starting at $12) is a card game that asks players to find the matching images on a pair of cards. That’s often harder than it sounds, according to our reviewer, because the images are different sizes. Spot It may not have the “wow” factor you’re looking for in a gift, but keep it in mind for long car rides if you plan to visit friends and family over the holidays. (Where to buy)

OK, so maybe even the most expensive educational toy isn’t going to buy happiness the moment the wrapping is ripped off. In that case, here are a couple of affordable toys that are more likely to elicit “Just what I wanted!” than “What is it?” First, a vocab lesson: Moshi Monsters Moshlings (starting at $6) are in demand among kids who play the Moshi Monsters game online. The tiny collectibles delighted our 8-year-old reviewer. Finally, the Nerf Vortex Vigilon (starting at $16) makes an impressive addition to any arsenal of foam-slinging firearms. It thrilled even our reviewer, who wondered aloud if it was for girls before gleefully peppering a patio cushion.

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