Holiday gift ideas that enhance school-based learning

December 19, 2016 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

The weather has turned, snow is the new norm and retail stores are decked out for the holiday season.

The biggest indicator for me that the holiday season is here are the television commercials; commercials that showcase the latest and greatest toys that cause my seven- and nine-year-old sons to franticly yell for me to stop whatever I may be doing so I can see what they hope Santa Claus will tuck under our Christmas tree.

The manic music, chaotic colors and cheery children on screen hold the promise of my boys being dazzled by whatever product is being marketed, but I don’t necessarily want them dazzled. I want them engaged. I want them learning and growing, both socially and academically.

Finding fun and engaging gifts that build upon and enhance what children are doing in the classroom isn’t hard. There are a variety of gifts that match all levels of learning – and budgets – and they can be high-tech or low-tech. From robotics to games focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) to tried and true favorites such as puzzles and building blocks, parents have a wide range of choices.

“Every child should have some type of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activity under their Christmas tree,” said Kyle Gannon, assistant superintendent for instruction at Queensbury Union Free School District in Warren County. “Our kids have to be able to think through the engineering lens.”

With the New York State Board of Regents recently approving new science learning standards, parents and students will likely see an increased emphasis on engineering in the classroom. Skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication, as well as creativity, are all building blocks to the engineering field. The new standards go into effect at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

Queensbury staff already incorporate activities into their classroom instruction that foster engineering traits. Working in teams to collaborate on projects and solve challenges is a skill needed in the workplace and therefore replicated in the classroom, Mr. Gannon said. Practicing those skills in school and at home will help set students up for success.

“This is really where the future is headed,” Mr. Gannon said. “You’re going to have to work with other people.”

Not all high-tech gifts are pricey, and many have add-ons that can be purchased at later dates once the basic system is bought. My nine-year-old has asked for a hoverboard, and many high-tech STEAM-related gifts cost just as much, or less.

“It makes you think about what you are buying,” Mr. Gannon said.

There are plenty of less expensive items that nurture STEAM skills. Mr. Gannon said many children love Legos, which foster creativity and builds communication and collaboration skills. And there are plenty of low-tech gifts for younger children that develop motor and language development.
Items such as blocks, crayons, colored pencils, coloring books and other writing supplies hone fine motor skills for all ages, and for young children, motor skills are closely linked to language development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

“Blocks, dolls, musical instruments, cars, trains, shape-sorters, and other low-tech toys get kids—and parents—talking, singing, playing, and interacting. These all help build foundational communication skills,” according to the AAP and ASHA.

Costumes and other dress-up accessories allow kids to use their imaginations and foster creativity, and children’s language skills expand as they tell stories and sing, according to the AAP and ASHA. And puzzles make great gifts as they build analytical, problem-solving and other skills.

As I review my children’s holiday wish lists, I can’t help but think about the toy chest full of toys that they hardly ever play with. As Christmas approaches, I think I can convince Santa to pack a few of the items below onto his sleigh for my kids, and I plan to keep the list handy for birthdays and other celebrations throughout the upcoming year.

Low-tech holiday gift ideas that enhance school-based learning


  • For infants and toddlers: Colorful board and picture books and books with textures are best.
  • For children learning how to read: Give books appropriate to their skill level.
  • For older children: Look for chapter books and book series so that family members can take turns reading chapters aloud.

Board, card and conversation-based question games
Building toys, blocks and crafts
Outdoor toys such as balls, sleds, jump ropes and yard games

Cooking supplies

  • For younger children: Making and trying new foods offers a wealth of opportunity for conversation and language-building, including likes and dislikes, tastes and textures.
  • For older children: Cooking together facilitates family bonding and following recipes helps improve reading and comprehension skills, planning, organization, sequencing and following directions.

Crayons, colored pencils, coloring books and other writing supplies

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

High-tech holiday gift ideas that enhance school-based learning

Grades K-3

Bee Bots: Bee-Bot is a colorful, easy-to-use robot that looks like a friendly bee. It is designed for young children and focuses on teaching sequencing, estimation and problem-solving while kids have fun. Directional keys are used to enter up to 40 commands that move Bee-Bot forward, back, left and right.

Osmo: Osmo is a gaming accessory for the iPad that fosters learning in areas such as problem solving, art and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Snap Circuits: Snap Circuits teaches about electronics with colorful pictures that help children build projects such as AM and FM radios, digital voice recorders and doorbells. The parts mount on plastic modules and snap together.

Magformers: Magformers are magnetic building toys for children targeting STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills. Designs may be 2- or 3-dimensional.

Grades 4 & 5

Bloxels: Bloxels is a video game development platform that allows children to create their own video games in a retro arcade style using physical and digital tools. They create the characters and their stories, the game backgrounds and art elements. The games are brought to life on screen and can be played and shared with others.

Ollie: Ollie is an app-enabled robot that rolls on two wheels up to 14 miles per hour and is about the size of a soup can. Using a smartphone, it can be directed for simple navigation or to perform tricks.

Quibits: Quibits is a snap-together building toy that teaches about modular design and geometric shapes targeting STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills.

Grades 6-8

Spheros: Spheros is an app-enabled ball-shaped robot that rolls up to 4.5 miles per hour. Using a smartphone, it can be directed for simple navigation or to perform tricks and play games

Minecraft: Minecraft is a virtual land in which users can create their own worlds and experiences and is sometimes compared to virtual Lego. Users can play with others or on their own, and it can be accessed via multiple platforms. It involves problem solving, building, planning and social skills.

littleBits: littleBits are electronic building blocks that allow children to invent anything, from remote controlled cars to a smart home device. The Bits snap together with magnets, and there is no wiring or programming necessary. littleBits target STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) skills.

Makey Makey: Makey Makey is an invention kit that turns everyday objects into touchpads connected to the internet. Makey Makey connects to a computer using alligator clips and a USB port; no programming knowledge or software necessary.

Grades 9-12:

RobotShop: RobotShop is a robot store for personal and professional robot technology. It provides personal robots, development platforms, kits, and more.

Hummingbird: Hummingbird is designed to enable engineering and robotics activities for kids that involve the making of robots, kinetic sculptures, animatronics and more.

ROBOTC: ROBOTC is a powerful C-based programming language with a Windows environment for writing and debugging programs.

Google Cardboard: Google Cardboard is a virtual reality platform developed by Google for use with a head mount for a smartphone.

Unity, Scratch, Game Salad, Code: 2D and 3D game-making platforms.

Source: Educators from the Queensbury Union Free School District

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her second- and fourth-grade sons and has heavily edited her holiday shopping list after researching this article. 

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