Archive for category: Toys

Some of our favourite literacy-encouraging toys and games

Looking for a great gift for a kid? Just want to give them something to do when they’re bored–that’s not TV? Well, read on, my friend because here are the best of the best literacy-based games that I’ve reviewed in the past and that are still available and still awesome… Part I.


Microsoft Word - Riddle Edition Sales Oct29.docxuKloo
Recap—It’s a treasure hunt you don’t have to make yourself! (What?! You’ve never made a treasure hunt yourself? Well, trust me, it’s very Pinterest and a whole lotta work. This is muuuuch better.)

How it works
Kids find cards telling them where to search next… at the end is a small treat. The whole thing is great for developing reading skills because the child is super-motivated, not just for the treat but for the whole process.

Update—Since I reviewed this game years ago, they’ve developed a great phone app and a “Riddle Edition.”

Here are my past reviews:


must pop words enterMust Pop Words
Many online “reading” games are BO-ring and slow or both.  Well, here’s one that’s fun AND features a cute penguin. Gotta love that.

How it works
Go to the website:

And click on PLAY.
Then hit Enter on your keyboard to start.

Now, use the letters that fall to make words. Type a word and hit Enter. The balls will speed up, falling faster and piling up. Throughout the game you’ll get little “challenges” like “type a six letter word for 500 bonus points” that make the game more interesting.

Not only reading and word-making, but typing skills as well. Fun!

Here’s my past review:


Rory Story CubesRory’s Story Cubes
A fundamental building block of reading is being able to put stories in sequence: beginning, middle, end.

This is a wonderful game for that. And, bonus, if you have kids of different ages, they can all play at the same time and it will be just as fun for each of them. Many times I brought out these cubes at a restaurant while we were waiting for our order. Keeps kids busy and they don’t even realize they’re “sequencing.” Ha!

How it works
The cubes have pictures on them; you roll them and use the pictures to make a story that you come up with and tell to the others. More fun than I’m making it sound.

These simple cubes have come a LONG way since I first talked about them. Now there are tons of themed cube sets like Batman, Doctor Who, Scooby-Doo!, Looney Tunes and Moomin as well as Voyages, Actions and more.

My past review:


ScrabbleFlashScrabble Flash (known as Boggle Flash in the US)
This is an awesome game. Don’t ask me how it works because the answer is either “magic” or “magnets” or maybe both, I’m not sure.

Basically, you have letter blocks that work together–somehow, see above—and flash letters. You mix the blocks around to form words. The more words you can form with the blocks, the more points you get.

Trust me, this is an awesome game-slash-toy. Kids will love it.

My past review gives you a better idea of how it works:

Disclosure: I don’t get paid for reviews, but usually I do receive a free copy of the game after I’ve called up the company and asked for a review copy. Can’t really review a game unless I have it, can I? Yeah, that’s what I think, too. If I don’t like a game, though, I just don’t review it. So, not that much of a disclosure ’cause there’s not much hiding in this closet, so to speak.

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Scrabble Twist — good fun, great for literacy

Scrabble TwistHasbro makes great, sturdy toys. From an adult’s perspective, they tend to be an excellent buy–good value, won’t break. But for two other crucial factors, namely fun and literacy, we wanted to get the opinion of someone who is likely to play with the toy.

So we asked high school writer Leni K. to play with Scrabble Twist for awhile and jot down a few comments on it. We also asked her whether she recommends it for parents who want a good, solid toy for their kids that might also teach them something about words. (Spoiler: She does.)

Review by Leni K.

Scrabble Twist is a super-fun toy. I especially enjoyed its “turbo” mode. It’s very easy use, and kid-friendly.

It’s certainly much more literacy-focussed than other toys I’ve tried.

I didn’t get a chance to try it between two people, but that option sounds great.

Overall, it worked well and didn’t break, not even once.

Conclusion: Good for young kids, very hard to break.


Thanks, Leni!

Here’s a video by Children’s Technology Review that explains how to play Scrabble Twist. They call it “essentially, Words with Friends” — but as a toy. Not a bad description. Scrabble Twist is designed for kids 8+ and retails for about $28. That’s on the medium-to-high side for a game, but because it has several modes (you can play it alone or with others in various modes) and because words only have to be three letters long to count–but can be longer–it’s quite a versatile toy.

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Elmo will get your kid reading

20c87071-8197-42cc-b5c6-e5f0cc492a8d._V313956058_I’ve been testing out Elmo’s on-the-go Letters, a new addition to Hasbro’s holiday line-up.

This is a very simple toy, very old school. No electronics to be found here, but I also believe that It is one of the better literacy toys that I have seen lately.

It is just a plastic briefcase with the letters of the alphabet in it. The letters snap in. There is also a space at the bottom-right for children to make words with the letters.

The letters are quite difficult to snap out, even for me. A toddler would most likely not be able to get them out on their own, an adult would do it for him/her. But there’s an upside — it means that there won’t be letters strewn over the house, or lost pieces (kind of critical for an alphabet).

Kinesthetic learning (learning by touching) is a great way for kids to learn words.

The letters come in a bright red, plastic “briefcase” with Elmo on it. It is a very durable case too–I put about half my weight on it without it really making any sound, or breaking. The briefcase is hard to open, and it would be an impossible feat for a young child to open it, which means that they might be begging mommy or daddy to open it for them, which might be a problem.

All-in-all, this toy is excellent for any child who is starting to learn basic words and is starting to be taught how to form them.

Going to give this one four and a half out of five stars.

(Note: Hasbro sent me this toy to review but I haven’t been paid for this review and wouldn’t have reviewed it if I didn’t like the toy or didn’t think that it had a good literacy application.)

Price: Approx. $35.

Recommended age: 2-4

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beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g game for ages 8 and up

beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-I-n-g game

beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-I-n-g game

If your kids could use a little brush-up on their spelling, beezi might be the game that does it.

My son and I took the game for a test drive. He figures he’s a better speller than his mother (who is a writer by trade, a-hem).

We really enjoyed beezi. For off, it was easy to figure out how to play it–a huge plus. I hate having to read through two pages of directions to figure out a game before you can even play it.

And it was fast-playing. Another plus.

Essentially, beezi takes you around a board; you select cards and spell words. The harder the word, the further you go on the board. Special spaces on the board let you roll again, skip a turn or advance.

The game includes spelling challenges at different levels. That’s good because it means that your eight-year-old can play with your 10-year-old at the same time. And it makes it extra flexible for playdates.

There’s also a Teens and Parents edition, which we will definitely have to get (we were given this one by beezi, for review). We did find that the younger game was a bit too easy for my 12-year-old. Although, he did not—I stress, did not—win against his mother.

Because kids write down their answer, rather than just spell it out loud, the game can definitely help kids improve their spelling. The game provides a real incentive to sound words out and try to get them right. It also gives adults a chance to explain why certain words are spelled the way they are.

Some kids are shy or embarrassed about not being able to spell very well. Even my son, who’s a pretty good speller, didn’t like to admit it when he couldn’t spell certain words, and I can see that. So you may want to keep that in mind when you’re playing. Usually, I was able to explain that “everyone gets that one wrong,” or “that spelling rule is tricky” and then roll the dice and keep the game moving.

The game is themed around bees, a riff on “spelling bees.” The bee theme continues with the die, which features six types of bees (from honey bee – the easiest words to spell, to killer bee – the most challenging). My son likes “Shaggy Fuzzyfoot” the best; Shaggy’s a wildcard. And the object of the game is to reach the “beehive” in the middle of the board.

The illustrations are quirky and modern, and the dice is one of those big, chunky ones that are such fun to roll.

Bonus: The next time I go to a restaurant or a long car ride with my son, I’m going to bring along the card deck. It will be a terrific quiz-me activity, even without the game board. beezi would also be a good game to take to the cottage, because everyone can play it, using different level card packs.

beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g game sells for $29.99 and is available at toy stores and Chapters/Indigo. You can also purchase it from the beezi website ($10 to $15 shipping within Canada).

(If you’re in Toronto, buy it from my friend Sam at her Playful Minds toy store. Tell her I sent ya.)

On the beezi website, click on Take the Beezi challenge for a fun online spelling challenge.

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Stuffed letters are great for literacy

Letters for GabbyMy picture book, Gabby, is coming out this September.

I’m excited! The illustrations are by Jan Dolby and it’s published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

I’ll be doing some readings in schools, book stores and at Word On The Street to publicize the book.

I sewed and stuffed some fabric letters to use during the readings. It occurred to me that letters like this are also great for new readers, since they can hold them and make words out of them. Making letters and words tactile for kids is a terrific way to get them reading.

There are lots of ways you can do this without making your own fabric letters (trust me, it’s a lot of work). You can use Scrabble tiles, foam letters from the dollar store, letter dice from a game like Jr. Boggle or Alphabet Scoop, or you can cut out letters or words from magazines.

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Rory’s Story Cubes – simple, elegant literacy fun

Rory Story CubesHere is a simple, elegant, wonderful game that’s great for:

• Story-building
• Fostering imagination
• Putting events in sequence
• Inspiration for writing a story
• Staving off boredom while you’re waiting at a restaurant
• General all-round silliness.

There are nine dice. Each one has six simple pictures. For instance, a happy face, a magic wand, a tree.

You use the nine images to build a story.

For instance:

I was happy when I found a magical tree.


The magician used a tree to make his wand. It was a happiness wand.


I “wand-ered” over to a tree, where I stopped and smiled at my own pun.

The great thing is that there are no wrong answers. And all kinds of possibilities.

Rorys Story Cubes box

Rory's Story Cubes come in a compact, efficient little magnetic box.

You can use as many or as few dice as you want. You can ignore some. You can make the images mean just what you want—even if that wouldn’t be someone else’s interpretation of the picture.

And you can get as silly as you want.

Rory’s Story Cubes are portable and stored in an elegant little magnetic-closure case. We bring them to restaurants and roll them while we’re waiting for the food to come.

Rorys Story Cubes app

The app sells for $1.99.

If you’ve got a few kids in your group—even if they’re very diverse in terms of age or interests—it’s a great way to keep them occupied. And laughing.

There’s a great back-story to this game. Rory originally invented his cube game for companies to foster creativity and teamwork. He has since come up with a number of different versions, including a version with just “action” pictures (verbs), one that’s about voyages, and a smart phone app.

Rory’s story cubes sell for about $15 and they’re available at most toy stores or online at the Rory’s Story Cubes website.

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Squishy literacy fun with Cookie Monster

Cookie Monster Letter LunchI’m a big believer that if you want kids to understand words and letters, they’ve gotta get their hands dirty.

If there’s something to feel, touch, throw, squish and otherwise interact with — kids are going to get the message on a whole different level.

(It’s called kinesthetic learning, but I prefer “squishing.”)

Play-Doh has created a new toy that lets kids create, and then squish, letters. And in-between maybe spell a few words.

Cookie Monster’s Letter Lunch is a back-to-basics Play-Doh toy. You push the playdough into the moulds, and create letters and healthy foods.

Then you can “feed” Cookie. His mouth has a flap that goes down when you put, say, playdough broccoli on it. (My kid, who is 10 and far too old for this toy, loves the fact that after you feed Cookie, the playdough falls through his body and out his, er, back. OK, derriere. But 10-year-olds can find something rude in anything.)

The kit comes with a sturdy Cookie Monster, dozens of moulds the right size for tiny hands, four tiny cans of Play-Doh and one of those Play-Doh spaghetti-maker thingies. They’re fun.Cookie Monster Letter Lunch

If you’ve got a Play-Doh type of kid (if you’ve got one you know it – they spend hours!) this is a decent toy. Very simple and sturdy. And kids can squish every letter they make. And then feed everything to Cookie, who is never too full to eat a kid’s creations.

When you open the kit, make sure you keep the box intact so you can put all the parts back in there. The box has a handle, which is a good touch.

Disclosure: I asked Hasbro to send me this toy because it looked like it had some merit in terms of literacy; I think it does.


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Fun new, brain-challenging jigsaw puzzle

Ji Ga Zo puzzleThey’ve finally come up with a new, addictive, fun and brain-saving type of jigsaw puzzle that kids will actually enjoy.

It’s difficult – if not downright impossible – to explain exactly how Ji Ga Zo works. You have to try it for yourself, and you’ll understand. (Which is why I asked Hasbro to send me one – I couldn’t figure it out from the literature and now I know why.)

Here’s what Ji Ga Zo (worst. product. name. ever.) is:

1) A puzzle that you create from your own photo.

2) A game in which you (or your kids) have to find pieces with specific icons on them and locate where they go using a grid (the “acorn” goes on A-15).

3) A game that teaches “orientation” since every piece can be fitted into the puzzle rightside-up, upside-down or sideways—and only one of those options is correct for each piece.

Ji Ga Zo puzzle, icon board

This is the icon board. Kids have to find the pieces that match up to these icons, and put them in place.

4) A puzzle that can be reused over and over again, with any picture you choose.

It’s a little hard to believe, isn’t it? I’ll try to explain it.

First, you choose a photo you’d like the puzzle to be. It can’t be just any photo—faces work best, and even they need to be close up and high-contrast. You put the Ji Ga Zo (how I hate that name!) in your computer and follow the very simple instructions to create an “icon board” for your specific photo.

You print out the icon board, which is a grid containing 300 one-centimetre squares. Each square contains an icon: it could be a house, a duck, an exclamation mark.

Then, you create the puzzle by finding the appropriate icons and fitting them onto your puzzle space according to the icon board… this sounds ridiculously difficult. In fact, it’s very easy—it’s just really, really hard to explain.

Ji Ga Zo (seriously, Hasbro, you couldn’t have called it Re-puzzler because it’s reusable or Griddle because it’s a puzzle with an icon grid? And these are just off the top of my head!) is very addictive and quite soothing. Harkens you back to those days when you and your mom would sit in the kitchen doing a puzzle, something we rarely take the time to do these days. And because it’s a puzzle of your child’s face, you’re more likely to want to continue making it until it’s done. And so is your kid.

The puzzle pieces are very sturdy and fit nicely together. There’s none of the wiggle-wobbling and coming apart so common to cheaper puzzles.

And you can make it easier for younger kids by sorting the puzzle pieces according to colour. Really young kids can simply help you find the pieces, which they’d find really fun. Slightly older kids can find pieces that are sorted by colour and try to find them on the grid. Older kids can do the whole thing, with or without your help.

The image itself is going to be sort of abstract. It’s not going to be a great representation of your child’s face, because it’s actually made up of shadow and light. Again, you have to see it to understand. And if you don’t have a photo you want to use, the game comes with a few including the Mona Lisa.

So here’s what I recommend. Don’t hesitate to buy Ji Ga-whatsit. It would be good for a birthday present for a party your child’s going to, or a present from gramma for your own kid. And it’s definitely got some great learning components. And it’s fun.

Once I find out from Hasbro how much it costs and where to buy it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m thinking of offering a contest to rename this thing…

Update: Hasbro got  back to me… $24.99. Name’s staying.

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Sequencing game (online)

My friend’s daughter needs some practice with “sequencing.”

Sequencing is important for reading, because it helps you understand what comes first, what comes next, and what’s last. That goes for words, sentences and stories.

A game you can make
One thing you can do to practice sequencing is to take a loooong (two or three feet) piece of paper. Write a sentence on it in marker. Then cut it up into words and mix up the words. Have your child piece the sentence back together. (She can use cues like the word with the period goes at the end; the word with the capital letter goes first.)

An online game
Here is an online game about sequencing.

Pick a game that matches your child’s interests.
Click on “Play this game.”
And then ask the child to tell you which activity goes first. Type in the appropriate number in the little box and click on “Check answer” or just hit Return.

Every time you get it right, it will reward you by turning over part of the image.
What, you may ask (and I wouldn’t blame you), has the picture of the old car got to do with anything? This car-bit is one of the images that will get turned over as you guess the sequencing correctly. You end up with the whole car, and a couple of newlyweds, I think. Other reward images are snakes. You’ll see.
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New Tag books

Tag has some new books for learning short and long vowel sounds.

You know I love the whole LeapFrog system. My son learned so much from it when he was little.

So when I received these book kits, I was excited.
What I discovered, however, is that you have to:
a) Find your Tag reader (difficult enough, if you have the kind of kid I have – which is to say, not particularly organized).
b) Find the original box in which you’ve kept the Tag cord and CD.
c) Go through the books one at a time and download audio for each one from the LeapFrog website.
d) Save it on your Tag reader, ensuring you don’t go over 20 MBs.

I managed to get 13 books on my reader before it told me I was over my limit.

Then I was ready to begin. Now, if I was the child, all of this would be transparent to me. My parent would be doing all the work. (So like life.)

The books look pretty good. Kids can read each one, using the Tag reader (by pointing to the words or letters, or the page icon to let it read an entire page out loud).

There are games in the back of each book that reinforce the ideas from the book. For instance, help a cook find ingredients for his “short-a” cookies – all the ingredients have the short-a sound.
So all-in-all, Tag is a pretty decent value for the money, and worth the up-front work to prepare it for your child.

If you want to know more, here’s an awesome, in-depth review on the Tag system by KidsTechReview website. They give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

Disclosure: LeapFrog gave me a Tag system and the books to review. However, I don’t work for them or receive monetary compensation from them and I’m free to write whatever I want about their products. If they sucked, I’d tell you – or more likely, I just wouldn’t blog about them.

Product review – I’m going to have one or two of the neighbourhood children try this product, and the books, out. Then I’ll let you know what they think. Much better than hearing about it from me.

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