Not every learning experience happens in a classroom. A few may even come wrapped in pretty paper and a shiny bow.
This holiday season, we offer you a host of gifts that take the humbug out of education and deliver a festival of fun.
For all ages, and at all prices, you can find a gift idea below that will grow the brain of even the most learning-resistant Grinch. From caterpillars that teach kids programming skills to crop rotation simulators to partnering with others to save the world from deadly contagions — these gift ideas run the gamut of ways you and your family can add the Yule log of mental stimulation to your cranial Christmas hearth.
- Board Games
- Video Games
- Online Learning
- Science & Building Kits
- Museums & Planetariums
Since Czech writer Karel Čapek first used term
robot to describe self-directed automatons in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), we’ve been fascinated by thinking machines. We may not be to the C3PO or Lt. Cmdr. Data stage of development yet, but robots keep advancing, and what’s possible in robots for the educational market keeps gaining in power and capability. Robots help teach us how to construct operational algorithms and develop programs to make them work. Here are a few of the best on the market.
Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-pillar
Suggested Ages: 3–8
You’re never too young to start learning the principals of computer programming, and Fisher-Price gets the kiddies problem solving, sequencing moves, and thinking critically as young as three years. Next thing you know, junior will be hacking into the Pentagon. (No, we do not recommend this unless you want the NSA knocking on your door.) The segments of the Code-a-pillar perform different functions and can be connected in different orders to change the plastic insect’s operation. Expansion kits exist that add functions. Smokin’ hot gift for 2016, so get it while you can!
Ozobot 2.0 Bit Starter Pack
Suggested Ages: 6+
Use color markers to program this cute, little bubble of a bot. Learn block-based programming skills in Ozobot’s OzoBlockly language, and interact with your Ozobot through the Ozobot website, which includes free apps, games, and fun stuff to do with your Ozobot. A multiple award winner, Ozobot is used in schools to teach STEM concepts.
Suggested Ages: 8+
Like your robots with maximum personality? Cozmo not only has an adorable R2-D2-ish feel to him, but the more you interact with him, the more capabilities he unlocks, so in a way, he grows up. As with the other robots, Cozmo is programmable, made possible through a free iOS or Android app. This small guy plays games with his owner, using his three Power Cubes, and is ready to interact right out of the box. Can’t own a pet? Cozmo may be your new solution.
Cubelets TWELVE Robot Blocks
Suggested Ages: 4–15
Similar in concept to the Code-a-pillar and its segments, Cubelets are small cubes that contain one function: actions, sensors, or thinking. When grouped and modified, the seventeen available kinds work together to perform cool functions. This starter kit comes with twelve Cubelets: two each of Drive and Distance Cubelets and one each of Rotate, Flashlight, Brightness, Blocker, Inverse, Passive, Bluetooth, and Battery Cubelets. Additional Cubelets can be bought to add Speaker, Maximum, Temperature, Threshold, Bar Graph, and more. A block-based programming language also comes with Cubelets. Best of all, the starter kit includes brick adapter pieces to integrate with and power Lego-compatible brick systems.
Board Games are hot. In fact, with 6,000+ new board games released each year, you might say this is a new Golden Age for the venerable combo of cardboard, plastic, and wood. Board games succeed in social environments better than video games, plus they teach a variety of skills applicable to everyday living, from how to manage money and resources, to cooperating toward a goal, learning history, and even sleuthing a la Sherlock Holmes.
Hey, guess what? We already filled you in on some great board games that have educational merit. We even tell you how they can help you learn. So, see our list here and play some great games!
Supercharge the brain of your favorite giftee with a puzzle. Studies have shown that puzzle-solving activates nearly all parts of the brain and may even ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s. solving jigsaw puzzles can induce a meditative state and calm the mind. In short, puzzle are good for you.
UGears 3D Mechanical Safe
Suggested Ages: 8+
Is it a puzzle? Or is it a kit? Whatever the case, the 179-piece end result is a cool, wooden safe that really works. It even has a unique combination, so no two are alike. Looks great and locks great too. Choice gift idea for the child who wants to secure his or her personal items, while learning in the process how a safe works.
Suggested Ages: 8–13
A new twist on the classic Perplexus puzzle ball. (Yeah, we went there.) Don’t just think globally, think spatially too. This Perplexus will take you through 30 challenges AND add the need to twist its innards into the proper puzzle positions. If you prefer your Perplexus less tortuous, there’s also the massive Epic, simpler Rookie, odd-shaped Warp, and Original.
Educa Wildlife 33,600-piece Jigsaw Puzzle
Yeah, you read that number right. This puzzle has 33,600 pieces. But you’re good for it, right? Look at the menagerie of creatures revealed in this 225 x 62-inch, 38-pound behemoth. Can you name them all? Well, first you have to complete it; some say it will take a year to solve. Better start now!
MoYu Stickerless 4-piece Speed Cube Gift Box
Suggested Ages: 5+
Got a budding speed cuber? Yeah, that’s a thing, with area competitions populated by the cool kids who have moved beyond the standard Rubik’s Cube. MoYu is one of the better brands, the choice of a few world record holders. This combo pack of stickerless 2x2, 3x3, 4x4, and 5x5 cubes is a fine way to jump into cubes handfirst and set those fingers flyin’.
While not quite as incendiary as their board game brethren right now, video games are not going away anytime soon. Their $91.5 billion sales figure for 2015 speaks volumes. Though a fair number are just variations on shoot-’em-ups, a few meet our high standards for instilling more than a killer instinct.
Farming Simulator 17
Seriously. A farming simulator. With online group play options. Trust us, when the zombie apocalypse strikes and your local Piggly Wiggly is overrun with brain-eating abominations, you’ll be happy you spent all that time learning to farm, buddy. If you can’t tell a Kubota from a Massey Ferguson, or soybeans from . . . well, anything green that grows, this is your educational experience. Really, the reviews are raves, and Amazon (at the time of this writing) says this is a top 20 PC title.
Human Resource Machine
Rated: E for Everyone
Platforms: Steam & Nintendo Switch
It’s the first holiday season for the new Nintendo Switch, and though availability is still tight and games few (and costly), here’s a fantastic digital download for the Switch that won’t break the bank. Your boss demands results and you’re not the one who wants to do the work. The fix? Program your robotic office minions to carry out the work for you. Solve the tricky puzzles using algorithms and win. Rated 94% at Steam, where you can also play.
Typing Instructor for Kids Platinum 5
Rated: E for Everyone
Platforms: Mac, PC, Web
Writing in cursive is a dying art. So, you’d think schools would be replacing cursive instruction with typing classes — but you would be unbelievably wrong. At a time when the need to type feels like the need to breathe, where’s your kid going to learn this essential? Typing Instructor for Kids Platinum five is the latest in this learn-to-type series, and supposedly the best. Heck, it even includes both English and Spanish instructional modes. It features multi-level, arcade-style games too. Let’s get real: learning to type over 100 wpm may be the best gift you can give anyone.
Back when the television debuted, many believed it would be the educational holy grail for the common man, filling heads with ballet, opera, intellectual debates, and so on. The plummet didn’t take long, and soon pro wrestling and Queen for a Day ruled the tube. As for the Internet, though, the promise of online learning is trending upward. Online degrees are ecoming the way to learn, while saving a small fortune in tuition. Just about any topic available to learn exists on the web. Here’s how you can give someone you love that access.
Platforms: Android App, iOS App, Mac, PC, Web, AppleTV
What LinkedIn did for business networking, it’s trying to do for online learning with Lynda.com and Microsoft. With more than 4,000 courses in business, technology and creative skills taught by industry experts, a monthly subscription grants unlimited access and is a great way to learn. Tap into web development, photography, Agile, sound mixing, instructional design, and much more.
The Great Courses
Platforms: Web Video
Few instructional series have had as long a history as The Great Courses. Taught by some of the world’s most notable professors and thought leaders, the video series of signature courses offered through Amazon is the very best of The Great Courses offerings in History, Science & Mathematics, Fine Arts, Music, Better Living, and more. Best of all, The Great Courses maintains up-to-date information, as the company constantly refreshes its offerings.
Test tubes, circuit boards, moving LEGO® contraptions, mega-marble runs, and more! Get an education in physics, engineering, chemistry, and the intricate dance of electrons, and have fun doing so. If they build it, they will learn. You may too.
Snap Circuits SC-300 Electronics Discovery Kit
The sheer awesomeness that is a Snap Circuits kit is hard to underestimate. All you need to do to make 300 operating devices [PDF] from radios to motion detectors to light-operated fans to . . . well, 297 more cool things to build. And easily too, as all the resistors, capacitors, tone generators, and more just snap together like snaps on clothes. Simple, quick, and hours upon hours of fun. Find 300 to be too limiting? There’s a 750-project kit too!
Yellow Scope Foundation Chemistry Kit for Girls
Suggested Ages: 8–12
Chemicals may be no respecters of persons, but doesn’t it seem like too much of science has been aimed at one half of the population only? This chemistry set adds a female touch, designed to engage girls specifically and boost their enjoyment of science. Your daughter may just be the next great chemical engineer, flavor designer, forensic scientist, or toxicologist. This fun kit may be her start on that path.
Klutz LEGO Action Contraptions & Chain Reactions
Suggested Ages: 8–12
Is LEGO the perfect toy? The only way to make it better is to make it move! This classic building block set now features some of LEGO’s best gears, wheels, and spindles, and comes paired with two great Klutz books that show kids how to make moving machines. This combo is a winner wherever it shows. And the best thing about LEGO is that after the books’ contraptions have been built, kids can take what they’ve learned and build their own devices.
Mindware Mega Marble Run and Motorized Marble Elevator
Suggested Ages: 4+
Holy cow, yes! Something about 40 marbles gliding through 215 interlocking pieces, all powered by an honest-to-goodness marble elevator. Who can resist the allure of all that moving marble madness? Would not be surprised if someone with the start of gray in the hair sneaks down at night and does a little design experimentation on this one when the kids are asleep. No one would blame you either.
They say to go big or go home. Well, sometimes you can go small too. Microscopes and telescopes remain venerable educational gifts, but the quality, ease of use, and value have never been higher. From distant galaxies to a hidden world in a drop of pond water, good optics can open up a universe of learning. And lasers. Everything is better with lasers, right?
My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope - MFL-06
No, it’s not a German-made Leica, but for the money, this is an amazingly good beginner microscope. Not only will budding scientists enjoy its clear views up to 400x magnification, but so will mom and dad. Comes with a 50-piece accessory kit, including slides, tweezers, slide covers, and more. Really, this is an impressive value scope and may help jumpstart someone’s future in science.
Celestron 21087 PowerSeeker 80AZS Telescope
Celestron is one of the big names in telescopes, so you’re getting quality and value. At 80X, this scope is a great place to start for those new to astronomy. It can even be used as a spotting scope for distant birdwatching. Best of all, it’s a compact design, so it won’t get in the way and increases casual use because you can set it up and keep it up.
Khet, the Laser Game v2.0
Like games? LOVE lasers? Khet transports you to an alt-history Egyptian dynasty where laser beams ruled the land. Master your opponent by beaming your genuine laser into your foe’s pharoah’s heart. How twisted will your path through the game’s mirrored pieces and beam splitters be? Can it get any cooler than this? Could we possibly ask any more questions about this radical combo of light and leisure? Well, can we? A Mensa Select honoree.
HTC Vive Virtual Reality System
Platforms: Windows, Steam VR
Want to go all out in visual electronics? Get the best virtual reality headset on the market, the HTC Vive, now with educational content from Lifeliqe. Take a walk on Mars or commune with the dinosaurs. Virtual reality removes the limits, with your imagination the only boundary. For work, play, or schooling, the HTC Vive puts you in an immersive world and helps you better envision — and reach — your goals.
Ah, the venerable book! Repository of educational goodness for millennia. How we overlook it. And why do we overlook it? Because we too often read boring books. But when TBS picks books, we only pick the best. These will not only keep your attention, they’ll supercharge your learning!
The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe
Here’s a coffee table book that makes every coffee table it rests upon an altar to science. Nothing is more pure than the elements. Everything we know and see is made from these building blocks, and Theodore Gray gives us a fascinating and gorgeous visual look at all 118 of these denizens of the Periodic Table. Your abode needs this book, and readers of many ages will enjoy not only marveling at its pictures but also partaking of its enlightening text within the skimmable layout.
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Munroe’s xkcd is a must-read daily comic for the smarter set. In this, his crazy book of weird questions, you’ll get answers to what might happen to the Earth if you shot it with a bullet made from a neutron star. Or, whether it’s possible to build a jetpack powered by machine guns. Or, whether a nuclear explosion could dissipate a hurricane. Expand your mind! Get this book and learn something you not only didn’t know, but you didn’t even think to ask!
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
Love to cook? Want to know the science behind cooking that will make you a better artisan in the kitchen? Alton Brown of Good Eats fame made food prep nerdy, and J. Kenji López-Alt takes the science of it even one step further with expansion of his Food Lab column. There are a lot of tasty chemicals out there, and López-Alt shows you how to wring the last bit o’ flavor out of ’em. Want some quick foodie hacks instead? Make sure to check out The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss.
National Geographic Books
From the world of cooking to . . . well, the world. All of it. National Geographic’s best magazine stories and much more can be found in its many books. Curl up on your couch by a warm fire and visit the Amazon basin at the same time. No company helps people journey to the world’s most exotica locales better than NatGeo.
Art That Changed the World
Every major movement of art, and on a timeline that makes it make sense in history, across 400 pages. And published by Dorling Kindersley, so the quality is top-notch. You want your art survey? This is it. If music is more your thing, you’ll find that in Music, also by Dorling Kindersley. And if the overall creative process is what you want to understand better (and especially if you want to stoke your inner muse) don’t miss The War of Art.
Lastly, nothing beats a live experience of learning. Season passes to your local museums or planetarium are a splendiferous way to learn while getting out from behind a computer and into the real world. Go there. Be present in the moment. Get your learning up close and personal. This is the way to do it.
Find a museum or planetarium:
- Find a children’s museum through the Association of Children’s Museums
- Find a museum through the American Alliance of Museums
- Find a weird museum in every state in America
- Find a planetarium through GoAstronomy.com
Someone you love could use a little more education! Show them you care through one of these great educational gifts.