This is part four of our holiday gift guide for your Quartziest friends and relatives. Collect all the installments here.
No one really knows how to prepare our children for a workplace that none of us can imagine. If we aren’t signing up our preschoolers for coding classes, we’re hiring nannies who speak multiple languages. But before all those vocational skills we want for our children come in handy, there are great toys and games to help with an arguably more pressing task: building executive function. Strengthening a child’s ability to plan and tweak projects is a core area that will help them succeed in the workforce no matter how it turns out. And it enhances other important skills: building relationships, making tough decisions, and leading with authority.
Here are six favorites that make solid work out of play for your future global leader:
Executive Skill #1: Self-awareness and adaptability
Empathy Toy — ages 6 and up – Twenty-One Toys — $90 and above
What started as a thesis project to design a navigational aid for the blind in Canada quickly became a classroom favorite for young children. In this wooden puzzle game, players learn to understand each other by describing without seeing. A blindfolded builder recreates a pattern of puzzle pieces assembled for a blindfolded guide, who must describe the unseen pattern to the builder. Sound complicated? It is, but there’s more to learn from the journey than the answer. It’s all about using creativity to problem-solve and adjust to change.
This is one of those rare toys that works for everyone—from adults to young children. Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, says its beauty is being difficult without killing the fun: “It doesn’t put you in a situation where you have to be afraid of failing.”
Executive Skill #2: Planning, prioritizing, and organizing
cloudBit Starter Kit — ages 14 and up — littleBits Electronics — $99
Think of this toy as a precursor to teaching your child to build robots or code. These kits are designed for children to experiment safely with electronics without all the soldering and wiring. The little electronic modules snap together with magnets, allowing the kind of fluid experimentation of building with plain wood blocks.
It’s the kind of practical planning and problem-solving that will prove endlessly useful later in life, when everything around us is connected to the internet. And the possibilities abound: Build a paper fish that swims on command, or program a smartphone to water your science experiment. As soon as your child is internet-savvy and ready to tinker with gadgets, let the pranks begin. That could be as early as age ten, or a bit earlier with help from an adult.
Executive Skill #3: Forecasting, strategizing, and activating
Coerceo — ages 7 and up – The Coerceo Company — €39.95
Innovating is all about thinking ahead and taking risks, mixed with creativity. In this strategy game, children get comfortable with planning their next move, anticipating pitfalls, and recalculating in the moment. It’s a favorite of mine during the elementary school years, when classroom lessons tends to be fairly regimented—take turns, follow directions.
The goal of the two-player board game resembles that of chess: Capture all of your opponent’s playing pieces and remove them from the board. But in this game there’s room to adjust the complexity; one way involves shrinking the number of tiles on the board as you surround your opponent. Veteran learning specialist Susan Schwartz of Friends Seminary in New York City values the game as a lesson in flexibility: “You have to react to your partner because your plan may have gotten disrupted,” Schwartz says, “and that’s what happens in life.”
Executive Skill #4: Sharpening working memory
A strong working memory—remembering your point midway through a story or what you wanted out of the kitchen—can elude even the sharpest adults. But it’s especially tough for children who are learning to read and write.
This box of 540 cards is a writing exercise, a parlor game and a toy wrapped in one—all with the goal of honing that critical skill. Weaving together a story from the words and phrases printed on the cards requires remembering where you are in the story as you go along. You choose how you tell the story—by writing, speaking, drawing or singing. And in the process, your child builds memories and shares observations.
Learning expert Annie Kim of New York’s BASIS Independent School says the game gives children the creative push needed to tap into their “imaginative pool of ideas.” Journeying through a story from beginning, middle, and end is “very motivating,” says Kim.
Executive Skill #5: Self-regulation
Ollie —ages 8 and up — Orbotix — $99
What if a toy could teach children how to regulate their excitement, anxiety, or anger?
This is why I love the Ollie. An upgrade from the original Sphero ball, this app-controlled cylindrical stunt robot runs, spins, flips, and tumbles, all commanded by a smartphone. High-grade polycarbonate makes it small, fast, and durable, giving your child the freedom to test its limits and discover new tricks.
The agitation will stir emotions in anyone (adults included). Starting around age eight, that’s just what a child needs: the ability to experience—and then regulate—a range of emotional highs and lows. The battery life lasts for roughly an hour, which means parents can sneak in a session with Ollie, too. And it’s designed to evolve. The company says it’s more hackable than its popular predecessor, the Sphero, which is a hit with robotics geeks.
Executive Skill #6: Independent thinking
Froebel Gift 1 in Wooden Box — Ages 18 months to 6 years — Froebel USA — $44.95
Scrap the singing hippos and gyrating trucks. Infants find joy in the simplest things: a necklace, a shoelace, a piece of cardboard. This was clear to eighteenth century crystallographer and Kindergarten inventor Friedrich Froebel, whose creativity toys called Gifts (Fröbelgaben) explore fundamentals like part-whole relationships, spatial positioning, and movement. With minimalist designs made of blocks, sticks, and paper, Froebel is credited with inspiring the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Wassily Kandisky, and Buckminster Fuller.
What I love about Gift 1, a colorful assortment of knitted balls with strings, is that every child’s reaction is different. Because the toy is so simple, the child is free to lead the discovery. Some will roll or squeeze them, some will swing them from their strings, some will make up their own games.
In his book Inventing Kindergarten toy historian Norman Brosterman describes Gift 1 as a “catalyst for the child’s first learning experience.” In the earliest stages of life, that’s all you really need.