- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Playing, laughing and learning all are parts of this year’s educational holiday toys, which can be found along traditional lines as well as filled with new ideas and combinations of old-fashioned ingenuity and new-fangled technology. With all the catalogs and Web sites filled with gift ideas, here are a few items that stand out.

Infants and Toddlers

* The Fisher-Price Smart Bounce and Spin Pony (ages 12 to 36 months, $59.99) grows along with your little equestrian. More than just a rocking horse, it serves as a wireless controller as baby rocks the pony. On-screen fun includes three levels of play and five learning scenes that teach early color, shape and size skills, letters and numbers, and, in the highest level, math and reasoning concepts.

On each level, as the child rocks and spins the drum on the pony’s handle, background and music effects change. The pony also can be ridden without being plugged in.

* Give young learners a head start with LeapFrog’s ClickStart My First Computer (ages 3 to 6, $59.99). A colorful keyboard with a bright green puppy design, this plug-and-play system easily connects to the television, turning the TV into a child’s very own computer. Fun begins with four onboard games that teach basic keyboard navigation, mouse use, counting, ABCs, phonics skills, early math, shapes and colors.

Leveled-learning technology monitors progress, adjusting the games’ degree of difficulty. Eleven additional cartridges ($19.99 each) filled with familiar faces ranging from “Finding Nemo” to “Dora the Explorer” keep little ones having fun and learning.

* Get those toddler legs pumping as they run for the finish line with VTech’s V.Smile V-Motion (ages 3 to 7, $69.99) active learning system. This newest addition to the V.Smile line has been designed to promote physical play and healthy lifestyle choices.

Just like the big kids’ active video-game system, V-Motion uses a wireless motion controller and infrared signals to control the action. The system comes with the Action Mania Smartridge, which holds six action-learning games. Games combine questions, balance skills and movement to teach curricula-based and healthy-lifestyle concepts such as choosing healthy snacks.

Children and parents also can connect to Club VTech, where they will find a family-centered learning community, including bonus game-play downloads.

V-Motion is backward compatible with all V.Smile cartridges. A lush library of learning games that includes Scooby-Doo, Spider-Man, Kung Fu Panda and WallcE, among others, is available ($24.99 each).

Mega Bloks’ Smart Build Piano (ages 1 to 4, $34.99) is a colorful eight-key piano that will have the littlest pianists creating and recording their compositions. This piano changes its tune as players add Smart Builder sound blocks - three song blocks, three instrument blocks and one beat block are included. Children can add the blocks to the piano and change the beat or add instruments, such as guitar or xylophone, to their compositions.

Ages 6 and older

* Readers are guided across the moat into a world of historical detail brought to 3-D-model life with Explore Within a Medieval Castle (ages 8 and older, $18.99) by Silver Dolphin Books. This inventive book has a 3-D plastic castle wall mounted in the center. As the page is turned, the castle wall is divided into parts that feature castle architecture, living and defense. Scattered throughout the book are interesting facts, descriptions and present-day pictures of famous fortresses, such as Windsor Castle.

* Smithsonian Institution’s Dig That Dinosaur (ages 6 and older, $14.99) is a memory game featuring interesting facts about prehistoric beasts. The action requires players to use recall skills to find all six parts of their dinosaur’s skeleton by turning any two cards on the game board. If one of the cards matches, you keep it, returning those that don’t for your opponents to uncover. With 30 cards on the table, it can be quite difficult to remember which ones have been turned over.

Also, Smithsonian Institution’s Be the Expert (ages 8 and older, $14.99) features four photographs from the museum’s collection of art and artifacts on each player’s card - but one of them doesn’t fit. Can you tell which one is wrong? Get it right and move forward on the game board. Children will learn plenty of interesting facts about history, animal life, geography and more as they vie to “be the expert” on all things Smithsonian.

* Uncle Milton brings young adventurers the science behind the ancient booby traps from the famed archaeologist’s adventures with the Indiana Jones Room Booby Trap Spider-Dropping Idol (ages 8 and older, $29.99). Included with this 1500s Conquistador-era idol is a clever field journal guide/instruction booklet that explains how the trap’s gears work so youngsters can booby-trap their room against unsuspecting intruders. The guide also explains the three classes of levers, those used in scissors, a wheelbarrow or even your elbow, which is designated as a third-class lever.

* Uberstix’s Everyone Builds Scavenger Recycling Series (ages 7 and older, $19.99) has construction experts pairing the unique and versatile Uberstix with common household trash to build lots of fun things. Two long straws and a shower cap become an UberFO flying saucer, while four dozen paper clips, a plastic water bottle, Popsicle sticks, a grocery bag, a couple of cups, a rubber band and some Scotch tape combine with Uberstix to make a cool floating pirate ship.

Uberstix can be used with tons of household items or combined with other building systems, including Lego, K’Nex, Erector, Zoobs and Zome.

For the whole family

With more than 13 curricula subjects and 2,500 questions, Techno Source’s Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader: The Electronic Game (ages 8 and older, one to four players, $29.99) will have the whole family laughing and learning. The game visually mimics the hit show, in which fifth-grade students partner with adult players to answer questions and win prizes.

The questions range from easy to hard and cover the entire grade-school curriculum from first through fifth grades. Subjects range from art and music to science and math.

* Real estate goes international with Hasbro’s Monopoly Here & Now: The World Edition (Ages 8 and older, $34.99). This version of the 63-year-old property-trading game is unlike any other in more ways than one. The game features 20 international cities with game play that reflects their cultures, sights and history. Instead of the familiar St. James Place and Indiana Avenue, players must acquaint themselves with New York City, London and Sydney, or Toronto, Kiev and Istanbul.

Chance and Community Chest cards highlight cultural events and history from around the world, and the utilities reflect renewable energy sources - wind and solar power replacing water and electric power.

Property values have risen from the hundreds to the millions - Monopoly millions that is. Don’t worry, you don’t have to count all those bills as this global version has players keeping track of their money electronically.

* The 100 Greatest …by Shout! Factory (ages 8 and older, $44.98) compiles 500 sound bites from history under the categories of great speeches, news stories, personalities, sports moments and scandals. Examples include the inaugural speeches of presidents John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan as well as Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, among many others.

Each of the audio clips averages about one minute - the set does not provide the entire speech or news report. However, as a starting place for a unit study or a family discussion, the box set could be invaluable.

It comes with an exclusive history book that provides a brief description of all 500 items in the set.

Uncle Milton’s StarScope (ages 8 and older, $179.99) is an award-winning high-magnification telescope that works with interactive multimedia Stellarium software to locate star fields and solar systems.

The software is loaded into a PC laptop (a Mac version is available as an online download) so users can view the constellations and learn about their mythological figures. The software uses the owner’s location and the time of the year to locate stars and planets and get their locator coordinates. Those coordinates are dialed into the Alt/AZ (altitude and azimuth) coordinate system, turning and tilting the StarScope to pinpoint stars, planets and constellations. The StarScope includes two eyepieces, a 2x Barlow lens, erecting prism and red dot finder scope along with the Altazimuth, accessory tray and tripod.

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