10 Affordable Kids' Gifts That Won't Rot Their Brains

I am not a big fan of overtly "educational" toys, especially those that take batteries and make too much noise. However, I am a big fan of simple, inexpensive toys that help kids teach themselves and one another through play. (See also: Better Than Barbie: 5 Free Toys and Games Kids Will Love)

And people are always going to buy more stuff for your kids. So you might as well accept it and at least steer well-meaning aunties away from the Spongebob videos, and toward these choices that are either straight-up educational, or at least won't turn their gray matter into sponges themselves.

1. Art Supplies

This is nearly always my answer when people ask what my kids want. High-quality markers, colored pencils, paints, clay, and drawing pads are always in demand with kids, and the beauty is that they get used up, so you can give the same answer again next year.

2. ALEX Craft Kits

If art materials don't seem "gifty" enough, ALEX Toys sells roughly a billion kits for projects such as making jewelry, ceramic painting, and sewing. Remember to check the list of what is included in the box; some sets are better values than others.

3. 4M Science Kits

A lot of companies make science kits these days. I like 4M's for two reasons: They are not pricey, and the boxes are compact. Chances are, you will put this gift away in the cupboard until a snow day or other boredom emergency. The way some science kits are packed, just one or two will take up your whole cupboard. This year, Santa brought my kids 4M's Kitchen Science, which will let them generate electricity from a piece of fruit and make a vinegar-and-baking-soda-powered rocket.

4. Brain Quest Decks

My kids are too smart to see a workbook as a fun gift, but they don't shy away from flipping through Brain Quest's slick and durable sets of cards and calling out questions for their siblings to answer. Each card is firmly connected to the rest of the deck at the top, making them ideal for car and public transit trips.

5. Mad Libs

These classic fill-in-the-blank books may seem mindless, but on a recent long drive, our five-year-old learned the difference between a verb, adjective, and noun — all with scatalogical words, of course.

6. Games, Games, Games

Our kids have tablets, but that doesn't mean they turn down the chance to go mano-a-mano against their parents and sibs in a good old fashioned board game. Board games are a blast, they encourage family together time, and they teach important skills such as turn taking and good sportsmanship. Clue is a favorite for families where everyone can read, and our latest favorite that doesn't exclude the non-reader is Ticket to Ride. Then there are tile games, like Bananagrams, and dice games. Even good old fashioned Yahtzee teaches about math and probability.

7. Puzzles

From the chunky wood ones by Melissa & Doug to 3D Ravensburger sets, puzzles combine fine motor skills, spatial skills, and problem solving like no other toy. Not only that, but like other games, they teach kids that patience and emotional control pays off.

8. Building Toys

Lego and Magna-Tiles, while delightful, don't fit into everyone's idea of "affordable." But plenty of other building toys do. I have been adding to my kids' collection of Melissa & Doug wooden blocks year by year, and now kids of multiple ages will sit down for hours to build elaborate structures with towers and windows. That old standby, Tinkertoys, is still an affordable favorite as well.

9. Live Bug Habitats

A mom friend recently told me that her kids have used their Insect Lore Butterfly Habitat over and over, ordering new caterpillars in order to watch them form pupae and emerge as butterflies. My kids have too, and as a bonus, they love bringing them to school to share. If that gets old, there are also ant farms and praying mantis habitats.

10. Books

Did you think I would forget those? If you are buying for other people's children, consult a good bookseller to find the perfect book for the kid's age and interests. If you know the names of some books the child already enjoys, all the better to find a new book or series that will delight him or her.

What are your favorite "educational" toys and games for kids?

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