Gifts to stimulate kids’ minds

Ben Wheeler
Robot Owl
Published in
7 min readDec 7, 2015


A gift guide from the director of Ada & Leo, a tech class for kids ages 6–9 in Brooklyn, New York.

I’m a father of two girls (ages 6 and 4) and the teacher of even more. My students are at turns bright and demanding, curious about many things but impatient if my attempts to engage them are too long-winded or old-fashioned.

I am, after all, competing with a world of frantic digital entertainment that needs only a minute or two to make the rest of life seem tedious and boring. But even without that excuse, I’m an adult, and that means I must be humbled by the gap between what I think kids will respond to and what they actually respond to.

And that’s why I’ve assembled the following list of gifts — mostly board games — which do a brilliant job of stimulating kids’ minds. These are activities or tools that I don’t need to coax kids to use; these are ones they ask for, or which I wake up at 8am on a Sunday to find them doing by themselves. And they each have compelling educational power and purpose, even if the children who love them couldn’t care less about that.

Ask and Muse Magazines

[Ask: ages 4–9, $20/year on Amazon; Muse: ages 7–14, $20/year on Amazon]

It’s hard to praise these kids’ science magazines enough. Published by the beloved Cricket company (known for its magazines Cricket, Ladybug, and Spider), these are superbly edited. They have a mix of capsule stories and factoids together with longer articles around each issue’s theme, so readers can dip in or go deep. The writing is consistently excellent.

And magazine subscriptions are great for last-minute shopping.

Forbidden Island

[Ages 4–100; $16 on Amazon]

This is the board game I recommend most. Players scramble around a visually stunning island that is slipping into the sea with alarming speed. It’s a cooperative game, which means the players all win or lose together; so there’s laughter, rather than shame, when you all drown just a few turns from flying away from the island safely in a helicopter.

With only a very simple set of rules and choices each turn, this game sets up some surprisingly complex strategy. Young players like my 4 year-old daughter Nina can play along without considering all the angles, while older children and adults can get into discussing how to make the best use of each player’s position and powers. And crucially for a family or classroom game, it accommodates a wide range of players, from 2–6.

Most importantly, kids love to play this. It gets requested more than any other in my collection of 30+ games.


[Ages 5–100; $40 on Amazon]

Bitsbox is a brilliant way to get a child into programming. Created by two dads who used to work at Google, it is a box of goodies — trading cards, stickers, and the occasional creative toy — which comes with a magazine full of short snippets of computer code. Type any of those small programs into the Bitsbox website (using a regular computer, not a tablet or a phone), and you’ve made a simple, visually impressive game that you can show your friends. (Here’s one that my daughter Carmen made when she was 5; be sure to click around on the castle!)

Bitsbox will take a bit of adult supervision to get a child started, and for children not familiar with typing, some help explaining how to input symbols using the shift key. But the beauty of it is that once a child has input and run one program, they can input all of them, with little extra guidance. And if the box is a hit, you can subscribe to more on an ongoing basis, like we do; a new Bitsbox arriving in our home is a real, geeky holiday!

ASUS 11.6 Inch Chromebook

[$180 on Amazon]

It’s hard to believe you could pay this little for a laptop that isn’t a gimmick or a toy. But Chromebooks, which are laptops running Google’s simplified, web-based operating system, really do provide professional-grade functionality at affordable prices, which is why there are tens of millions of them in America’s schools.

Why get your child a laptop? Because the keyboard and mouse interface allow for a much wider range of creative expression than a touchscreen does. And just as a young child who enjoys picture books and puzzles is prepared to discover chapter books and complex thinking later, a child who gets comfortable with typing on a keyboard will be prepared to use one for projects that take thousands of keystrokes later. That familiarity is going to be a big deal in the mobile computing era, where computer literacy for many people starts and stops with their phone.

Of course, the internet always has risks, but it’s easier to limit the web to safe sites on a Chromebook than a Windows or Mac laptop.

7 Wonders

[Ages 6–100; $32 on Amazon]

A more complex game than Forbidden Island, but quite simple in its basic rules. Each player is trying to build up the resources, marketplaces, universities and architectural wonders (the Colossus of Rhodes, etc.) of an ancient city; these are represented by beautiful cards, each of which has a certain cost and a reward it produces.

The genius is that 1) everyone has the same cards, since you trade hands after each card is played; and 2) everyone puts down their choice of card simultaneously, so the game ends after 18 turns, no matter how many people (2–7 of them) are playing. In family and classroom life, it’s a huge help to know a game can absolutely fit into a 30 minute window.

Like the best board games, 7 Wonders is simple to learn (though you’ll find the instructions intimidating until you play through it once) but invites daydreaming and discussion about different strategies. My daughter and I have played 15 times, and we’re still discovering new ways to outscore each other. This is a level of systems thinking that games can prompt like nothing else.

It’s expensive, but the components are sturdy and gorgeous, and the gameplay holds up to endless numbers of plays.

(Note: I have suggestions for how to adjust the game to make it simpler to begin playing with 2 players, and to handicap a better player.)

Gravity Maze

[Ages 5–100; $25 on Amazon]

Not a board game, but a puzzle game, where you are provided a partial setup of a marble maze and must figure out where to place the missing pieces. When you try out a possible solution and the marble plunks into its goal, the feeling is deeply satisfying.

The wide range of challenges — from quite simple to requiring wicked cleverness and perseverance — make this great for a range of ages and aptitudes. I’ve seen it be a hit in classrooms, though the marbles and smaller pieces like to get lost.

Hey, That’s my Fish!

[Ages 3–100; $12 on Amazon]

Cute penguin pieces move about the board, collecting fish. Everywhere they step, they make the ice disappear, blocking everyone from going that way again. It’s an elegant game design that is simple but powerful; similar to checkers but just a bit more complicated.

My 4 year-old has been asking to play “the penguin game” since she was 3; she still needs to be reminded of the ways the penguins can and can’t move, while her older sister is starting to be able to see the need to cut off enemy penguins from snagging her fish.

Ben Wheeler is a programmer and teacher in Brooklyn; he runs Ada & Leo, a tech class for kids ages 6–9.

The Amazon affiliate links on this page mean that Amazon will give a small percentage of the sale price to the Compass Charter School, his daughter Carmen’s school in Brooklyn.