Toys That Teach 

Our top twelve picks for toys that have a purpose.

These days, we need public service announcements to encourage children to go outside and play. But it's not just to curb obesity rates. Play also makes us feel good, reduces stress, and increases our sense of joy. Everyone needs to play more, but especially children — to use all of their senses, stretch their imagination, and be creative.

There are different kinds of play: Active play contributes to physical fitness and mental balance; creative play stimulates expression; and learning play opens up the mind and keeps it alert and focused.

Time spent with electronics should be limited. Technology, while useful, can also make children (and adults) more passive, less expressive, and less physically active. The best toys are the ones that encourage playfulness, but also have a purpose. Many are made in the East Bay and are available at local toy stores. Here are our top picks:

Fastrack, by Blue Orange. Ages 5-12, $20.

Like miniature air hockey, Fastrack provides fun for the whole family. This exciting, disc-flinging game is played on a wooden tray. Using one hand, pull the elastic band to launch discs through the small opening. The first person to clear all ten discs to the opponent's side wins. The game packs plenty of action, and has the added benefits of strengthening finger dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Fastrack is made by Blue Orange, an eco-friendly company that plants two trees for each one used in its games. (The packaging is made of recycled and recyclable cardboard.) BlueOrangeGames.com

Rockridge Kids, 5511 College Ave., Oakland, 510-601-5437, RockridgeKidsStore.com

Wobble Deck Extreme, by Diggin Active. Ages 5-12, $39.99.

You may have never thought about your sense of balance — and how horrible it is — unless you've tried Wii Fit. Wobble Deck Extreme provides a similar exercise, but for a fraction of the price. The electronic balance board features four fun games — Copy Wobble, Memory Wobble, Wobbly Statues, and Musical Wobble — that challenge a child's mind, body, and responses, and improve physical coordination and reaction time. The base also detaches to become a portable handheld game.Wobble Deck is made by Diggin Active, an Emeryville company that offers other quality toys that involve physical play.

DigginActive.com

Little Puppets, by Folkmanis Puppets. Ages 3-12, $13.

These delightful little puppets make great stocking stuffers. Made by world-famous puppet-maker Judy Folkmanis, who started making and selling her puppets on Telegraph Avenue to support her son's preschool more than 35 years ago, the puppets feature great details and a reasonable price tag. They're also the perfect playmates to encourage singing, talking, and laughing. The company is based in Emeryville, and sells its products at many local stores. Folkmanis.com

The Ark Toy Store, 1812 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-849-1930, TheArkToys.com

Green Toys Sandwich Shop, by Green Toys. Ages 2-6, $15.

For the future chef in your family, try the Green Toys Sandwich Shop, which stimulates kids to "cook up" mealtime scenarios with ultra-safe play food that looks good enough to eat. Plus, it helps kids develop fine motor and communication skills. Sandwich Shop comes with everything needed for two complete, three-inch-square sandwiches, including bread slices, a bun, burger patty, fillet, cheese slices, onions, lettuce, tomato, plus sandwich order forms. It's made from 100-percent recycled milk containers and contains no BPA, PVC, phthalates, or external coatings, and is dishwasher safe. The box is made of 100-percent recyclable corrugated materials and is printed with soy ink. GreenToys.com

Five Little Monkeys, 1224 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-528-4411, 5LittleMonkeys.com

Whole Foods, 230 Bay Pl., Oakland, 510-834-9800, WholeFoodsMarket.com

Ink 'N' Stamp Animal Prints, By Hero Arts. Ages 3-12, $17.

Animal critters left their mark on this durable and portable Ink 'N' Stamp set, which contains eighteen woodblock stamps and one ink pad for plenty of creativity. All Hero Arts' woodblock stamps are made in the US on sustainably harvested wood. Jackie Leventhal, founder of Hero Arts, has come a long way from the Berkeley cottage where she started her business 35 years ago. As an art teacher, she made stamps in her home with an old, borrowed vulcanizer. Soon her creations were in great demand. Hero Arts, based in Richmond, is a vital force in the growing green stamp movement.

HeroArts.com

Coin Blaster Arcade, by Klutz. Ages 8-12, $19.99.

Coin Blasters, a collection of ten competitive tabletop target games in a colorful book, offers create-it-yourself fun. Sturdy plastic chutes custom-molded to hold a coin steady and upright on its edge offer children fun with extra benefits of hand-eye coordination and finger dexterity. With a bit of practice and a simple flick of a finger, anyone can send a coin zooming with surprising speed and accuracy at a target (not your sister). Take slap shots at a hockey goalie, shoot baskets at Hot Shot Blaster Hoop, knock teeth out of a monster's mouth, and more. Everything needed for hours of fun is right inside the book. Includes two coin blasters, a ramp, and punch-out parts. Klutz.com

Mr. Mopps' Children's Books and Toys, 1405 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, 510-525-9633, MrMopps.net

LeapPad2, By LeapFrog. Ages 4-9, $99.99.

LeapPad2 is a personalized learning tablet featuring a built-in front and back camera, a video recorder, and a microphone — all in a durable kid-friendly case. The tablet offers learning, entertainment, and games that adjust to your child's level. It's a significant upgrade from LeapPad1, with 4GB of memory, a faster processor, longer-lasting battery life, plus a recharger pack available separately. Bonus items include extensive free content with music player and five learning songs, and Apps like Cartoon Director Creativity, Art Studio, and Pet Pad Writing. Kids learn through play as they touch the screen to bring characters and words to life. They can also tap, draw, and write with the stylus, or turn, twist, and shake the tablet for exciting motion-based play.

LeapFrog.com

Tag Interactive Human Body Discovery Pack, by LeapFrog. Ages 4-8, $19.99.

Children are naturally curious about the world around them. With Tag Interactive Human Body Discovery Pack, they can learn how the human body works and understand characteristics of living things. They can also learn about food science, nutrition, and diet in order to help them make smarter eating choices. Children learn how diseases are caused and can be prevented. Included is a game board and jumbo two-sided chart, interactive growth chart, three interactive sticker sheets, a set of glow-in-the dark bone stickers, and more than three hundred interactive responses and more than forty learning activities.

LeapFrog.com

Hike, by Moosetache Games. Ages 7-12, $10.95.

Hike is the new, fun user-friendly card game in which nature surprises and players battle for survival. It encourages learning and teaches about the great outdoors and rules of nature. Players receive seven cards and play one suited card or specialty card per turn, and score points by capturing "The Worm" with a "Bird" or planting a "Tree" in "Spring." The goal is to outlast other players and have the fewest leftover cards. MoosetacheGames.com

Games of Berkeley, 2151 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-540-7822, GamesofBerkeley.com

Animal Planet Wildlands, by Nukotoys. Ages 4-12, $1.99.

Animal Planet Wildlands whisks players into a stunning 3D savannah where they collect, trade, interact with, and learn about fifty exotic animals such as lions, jaguars, and elephants. These collectible trading cards "magically" interact with apps when tapped on the screen of an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Once "tapped" into the game, players can run with the animal through its environment, take part in races and quests, collect in-game puzzle pieces, and learn about the predator-prey food chain. Players can also view Animal Planet videos and learn about an animal's conservation status, its predators and prey, natural behaviors, and other fun, educational facts. Nukotoys.com

Available from the App Store on iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Cards available at Apple stores or Target.

Hoot Owl Hoot!, by Peaceable Kingdom. Ages 4-12, $14.99.

Stimulate cooperation with this color-coded skill-building matching game. Everyone who plays this innovative board game helps owls fly back to their nests before the sun comes up. The extra benefits include learning while playing, plus improving hand-eye coordination, concentration, and social skills. The game includes 1 game board, 6 owl tokens, 1 sun token, 14 sun cards, and 36 color cards. PeaceableKingdom.com

Games of Berkeley, 2151 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-540-7822, GamesofBerkeley.com

The Original Colorforms Set: 60th Anniversary Edition, by Colorforms/University Games. Ages 3-12, $39.98.

The Original Colorforms Set is a reproduction of the inspiring, creative product that launched in 1951. Recognized by New York's Museum of Modern Art, the set includes 350 brightly colored pieces in an elegant, spiral-bound book with an intriguing design booklet. Arrange Colorforms' simple, versatile shapes in endless, fascinating combinations. Colorforms Stick-Ons easily attach to any glossy surface, or to one another. Colorforms.com

The Ark Toy Store, 1812 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-849-1930, TheArkToys.com

Stevanne Auerbach (aka Dr. Toy) is the Berkeley-based author of Smart Play Smart Toys and Dr. Toy's Guide, DrToy.com.

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