Christmas toys: best 10 educational gifts for children
With that in mind, we wanted to highlight a range of toys on sale this Christmas that might help kids develop their numeracy and literacy skills.
That doesn't mean they're boring. All the toys below offer hours of fun for the little ones - but they just might set parents' minds at rest too.
1. LeapPad Ultra (£119.99)
The latest model in the popular LeapPad series of tablet computers for children, the Ultra offers a variety of apps designed to improve children's numeracy and literacy skills - as well as games. Parents will have to make sure their little ones don't ditch the educational apps in favour of playing SpongeBob SquarePants.
The tablet itself is a pricey £119.99, but we think it's worth it for the sheer range of things you can do with it. It has a camera, comes pre-loaded with 11 apps, plus offers access to over 500 more apps at a dedicated app centre. It is, of course, child-friendly with a secure browser that restricts what children can access online.
The unit has a bump-proof cover, giving it a sturdy feel that will surely survive unlimited drops to the floor. But perhaps the best thing about it is that parents can monitor what their children are learning via something called the ‘Learning Path' - you can even set up email alerts that will tell you when your child plays with their tablet and what they have played.
The apps range in price from £3.50 to £20. When I tried a LeapPad Ultra at home, my daughter immediately wanted to play Disney Planes: Wings Around The Globe (£7.50). While the maths element of the game definitely comes second to the frivolous fun of flying your crop-spraying plane around the skies, the educational side was indeed present.
Just a couple of negatives: my daughter tended to hunch over the tablet when using it at her little table - not ideal for her posture. Moreover, some parents might have issues with how long their children spend looking at screens. But if you can justify that as time well spent, then the LeapPad Ultra is a stand-out educational toy for Christmas 2013.
2. LEGO (all prices)
As we wrote in our Dream Toys feature, the LEGO City Coast Guard Patrol is one of this year's hottest toys. But LEGO has a huge range of products, from Duplo (for children aged one and a half to five) and Lego Friends (aimed at girls aged five plus) to popular movie and TV tie-ins such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Lone Ranger.
You can, of course, also buy simple LEGO bricks which, as a toy, date back to 1932 when the Kirk Kristiansen family launched the product in Billund, Denmark. Building things with LEGO bricks is long believed to be of educational benefit - the LEGO website even has a section for teachers.
Rebecca Snell, UK & Ireland marketing director, told Moneywise: "We have a very strong heritage and history of inspiring the builders of tomorrow. LEGO allows kids top re-enact real-life scenarios at the same time as developing their motor skills."
Whether it's a LEGO-style Gandalf and Saruman battle set (£11.99) or a simple bucket of coloured bricks (£19.99), there really is something for any age. That, coupled with the limitless scope for creation, makes LEGO a perennial parents' favourite.
3. Twig blocks (£39.99)
These innovative building blocks have been included in this year's list of toys recommended by the "Slow Toy Movement" founded by Thierry Bourret. The Slow Toy Movement (STM) aims to re-introduce real toys that inspire children, stand the test of time and offer "true play value" - and the STM has made the Twig blocks an award-winner this year.
These bricks are different in that they allow you to build using interconnecting blocks - square blocks with holes in that allow you to insert other rod-shaped bricks to create towering masterpieces.
The makers claim that Twig construction sets "refine small motor abilities and helps develop skills in logic, problem solving, visual-spatial ability, creativity and ingenuity, sensory awareness, language & vocabulary proficiencies, cooperative and independent play skills, and artistic expression".
That's a lot of education for one set of building blocks, but my daughter certainly found them fun whether she knew she was developing her sensory awareness or not. Colourful, well-designed, and offering endless scope for invention, these beat rival building blocks hands down.
4. Buzzing Brains 2-in-1 Art Case (£19.99)
This art case offers two toys for the price of one - always a bonus for cash-strapped parents. On one side, it's a magnetic board on which children can place numbers and letters to solve maths problems and improve spelling; but flip the board around and the other side offers a giant peg board on which kids can use the pegs to make pictures.
When my daughter tried it out, the case proved to be surprisingly robust once in its upright position. She had no problem spelling her name, though at just three and a half she is not yet ready to start solving maths equations! She also loved the peg board, and immediately set about creating a face made of coloured pegs.
The manufacturers claim the Buzzing Brains case can help develop fine motor skills, encourage creativity and instil confidence in children. From a parental point of view, it also takes up little room when everything is packed away inside the carry case. It's well-priced at £19.99 but if you buy from Kiddicare, it's part of a three-for-two deal, making it even more of a bargain.
5. Monopoly Empire (£19.99)
Most of us remember hours spent playing board games with our families when we were young, and there's a good chance Monopoly was among them. While you can now play a Millionaire version as well as a Junior and an electronic version, the latest offering from Hasbro is Monopoly Empire, where you must strive to become successful capitalists by building an empire of brands such as Coca-Cola and eBay.
Hasbro claims that you "need to make tough decisions and smart moves to take down the competition and reach the top" - skills that are (perhaps sadly) required in many areas of life. It may not be the ideal lesson you want to teach your children, but there's plenty of business themes that may well serve your little ones well later in life.
6. Meccano (£14.99)
A construction classic, Meccano was invented by Frank Hornby of trainset fame and has been around since the early 1900s. I took a look at the Multimodels 15 Model Set, which offers 15 different types of model you can build using the same parts. Meccano says this set challenges children's problem-solving capabilities, as well as developing manual dexterity and encouraging creative play. It certainly seemed to tick these boxes when I had a play (Meccano is too old for my daughter at present, so I had a go myself).
With all the usual silver Meccano components, this set also has blue metal parts, bright orange cables, gears and wheel hubs - giving it something of a modern twist. This is an enduring classic that your children will love. It is also another top Christmas pick by the Slow Toy Movement so has that ring of authenticity about it.
7. Squeeze Cup Slushy Maker (£12.99)
A strange inclusion at first glance, but I've included this because it can be used to teach children about flavours and how you can make your healthy drinks. Plus, it's so simple, even 2-3-year-olds can get involved. All you do is put the cup in the freezer and, once frozen, pour any fruit juice you like inside and squeeze the sides of the cup. This produces an instant slushy. An added bonus for parents is that you can also use it to make your own cocktails - frozen margarita anyone?
8. Innotab 3S (£99.99)
The second of the children's tablet computers in the list, this offers plenty of educational games for kids, with each game and app clearly labelled with the skill they can teach, such as 'problem-solving', 'maths' or 'handwriting'. Like the LeapPad, it also has an educational pathway designed to help parents keep track of what their children are learning: in this case, called the 'Learning Lodge'.
9. APPen (£13.99)
This Italian-made product is a lot easier to use than a tablet but offers some of the benefits of those computers. It's essentially a pen that you can use in conjunction with an iPad or smartphone. Simply use the pen to trace letters, solve maths puzzles and play games.
When we tried it, we found it was not as intuitive to use as it could be, and we struggled using it with an iPhone. However, when we tried it with the iPad app, giving us a lot more room to use the pen on the screen, it was better. You can also buy physical books that help children develop their numeracy and literacy skills.
Parents might want to compare this with Leapfrog's LeapReader. This looks as though it might work more smoothly, but it's more expensive, at £39.99.
10. Wooden abacus (£15)
No list of educational toys is complete without this classic - the humble abacus. They have been entertaining children for generations and still offer hours of maths-linked fun. This wooden little number, from the Early Learning Centre, has ten rows of coloured beads with which you can teach your child to count into the thousands. The perfect toy for tomorrow's accountants!