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Holiday gift guide: The best toys to boost brain power

Find out what toys work best for boosting your child's brain power!

Toys, toys, and more toys. Being surrounded by them almost all the time, I wake up and go to sleep thinking about toys. But as a self-proclaimed "brain lady," I also find myself thinking about what toys might actually help my children's brain grow. Turns out, there are a number of fun and interesting toys that could improve your child's abilities.

First, we have to think about learning in general. Kids learn in stages. If we borrow some theory from our education friends, Bloom's Taxonomy tells us that first, children have to gain some basic knowledge. Then they must demonstrate comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of that knowledge.

Ok, so how can we apply this to toys? Well, we can use some tricks to determine what level of learning our kids are ready for (See the chart below). So, if our toy asks our kids to "match," we're at a basic level. If our toy asks our kids to "solve" a mystery, we're at a higher level.

All that being said, what actually grows the brain? Well, you've already seen my previous post about exercising kids brains, and that's extremely important. In the case of playing to grow your brain, it's also about learning, imagination, creativity and practice. We need to give our kids a chance to take the basic level-matching toy we gave them and de-structure and recreate the activity. Let your children imagine you're on a ship and the only way to get to shore is to match 4 cards in a row! Allow them to be creative and tell you the rules of a new game where you compare the cards you matched and if both the animals bark or meow, you do a silly dance! If you sit back and watch, your child will take a basic "knowledge level" toy and turn it into a "analysis" level activity!

So, what should you buy your kids this holiday season? Here are the top 4 toy ideas that will help to grow your children's brain:

1. Blocks: Whether it's Magna-Tiles, plain old wood blocks, or Legos – these encourages your children to go through a number of learning stages while also being creative and imaginative.  Blocks also teach your kids problem solving and visual-spatial skills.

2. Matching or card games: Cards provide a number of learning opportunities. You can go old school with simple picture cards or a deck of cards or try a game like Zingo!. By following a set of rules, kids learn receptive language skills and organization.

3. Board games or strategy games: Basic games like Chutes and Ladders or Candy Land can teach at the analysis-synthesis level. Or, if you're looking for a more active version of a basic board game, try Cranium Hullabalo. These games also work on turn taking, waiting, counting, listening and losing.

4. Puzzles, 3-D Mechanical Puzzles, and Building games: These are great for fine motor skills, planning, evaluation, and prediction learning. Interlocking wood puzzles, K'nex or even Lego can again be helpful in this category.

Remember, you or your child can turn any activity or toy into a learning and brain growing game. Just allow your child enough unstructured playtime, which is good for their brains anyway, to be imaginative and creative. You could also ask thoughtful questions like, "what would happen if…," "if you made the rules, how would you play," or "how is this game like another we played?" These steps will encourage your kids to take the next steps in their learning, thereby enhancing their brainpower!

A special thanks to Susannah Levin, MA, a psychotherapist in the NYC area for her toy consultation. She is a psychotherapist who specializes in fun, engaging interventions for children with special needs that improve cognitive, behavioral, and social skills. For more information, contact her at

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