Back to School in Uncertain Times – The Toy Guy

As kids go back to school, or in some cases are already in school, this is a year like no other we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. As schools and families try to deal with the ongoing issues related to the pandemic, the realities for kids in preschool and elementary school are very different from what we as a society have come to think of as “normal.” Whatever it is, it’s certainly not that.

A fourth grade class, mid 1970s.

And yet, learning is still happening, and kids are eager to learn. As we often say, learning is a kind of currency for kids, and there are both excited to acquire new learning and delighted to show it off. For educators and parents, however, there are some new areas of concern. In addition to ensuring that kids are engaging with traditional curricula, the less academic—but equally important—area of social emotional learning is more important than ever. Kids who have spent their Kindergarten and first grade years learning remotely, especially, haven’t had the chance to develop the social skills that are a critical part of those grades. We’ve spoken to many elementary school teachers who realize that while kids may perform at grade level on the ABC’s and 123’s, they may have to pay special attention to social and interpersonal skills.

Fortunately, that’s where toys can help. There are few tools in the parents’ and educator’s arsenal that are as effective as play for helping kids express themselves and reinforce and internalize learning.

Naturally, we’re all about toys and play here, but we think they are especially important this year and can provide support for developing minds—not to mention a lot of fun.

Following are just a few of the new and new-ish toys we’ve been reviewing that can provide great fun and terrific play experiences:

Preschool Fun

Lots of learning and interaction for preschoolers!

Sort & Recycle Ride-On Truck from VTech
For ages 18 months to 4 years.
Where to Buy
Kids in preschool are learning about their communities and social responsibilities. This big, green truck combines lots of traditional preschool play, including shape sorting, riding, trucks, (What kid doesn’t love trucks?) with an introduction to recycling. Kids can scoop up and load the six blocks, and they can sort them by shape, color and material (make-believe, of course) just like they do at home. It’s very empowering play, as kids end up feeling like they’re doing something positive and helpful while learning to be responsible in taking care of the planet. The truck is made from 90% reclaimed plastic, which means it’s manufactured responsibly, too.



We’ve got your number…and it’s a lot of fun!

Numberblocks MathLink Cubes 1-10 Activity Set from Hand2Mind
For ages 3 and up.
Where to Buy
Educators call them “manipulatives,” toys that kids can use to reinforce learning. We call them fun. Numberblocks is the hit TV and YouTube show kids love. Kids can play with the characters and learn how numbers really work as they learn kinesthetically by playing with the blocks. It’s an incredibly effective way to reinforce abstract concepts at a young age, and playing with these can prepare kids for more sophisticated math and number learning later. The set includes 30 learning activities that are taken directly from the TV show, but there’s plenty of room for open exploration and discovery. Whether used at home or in school, with an adult, or in solo play, this set makes learning personal. (Or at least character-driven.) The set includes 100 MathLink Numberblocks Cubes, 59 faceplates, 54 stickers, 11 numberlings, 11 character cards, 15 double-sided Write ‘N’ Wipe Activity Cards, 1 stand for zero and an activity guide.

Story Time

LeVar Burton takes storytime rich and engaging.

tonies from tonies
For ages 3 and up.
Starter set, including Toniebox $99.99; Individual figures $11.99-$14.99
Where to Buy
One of the biggest trends in kid world right now is audio. One of the best systems we’ve found is tonies. It’s a screen-free audio entertainment system. The Toniebox is a soft, shockproof portable cube that’s also a speaker. Place a Tonies figure on top, and you’ll activate storytelling, music, and educational content. The wide variety of Tonies includes favorite characters from Disney, Peppa Pig, and many others, as well as classic tales. Plus, there are “Creative Tonies,” which allow any user to create and upload content to the character and the Toniebox. New for this school year are Tonies based on GoNood Mindfulness content, and the LeVar Burton Tonie, which features LeVar himself reading his book The Rhino Who Swallowed the Storm.
There are few activities as powerful for developing minds as reading out loud. It fosters language skills, comprehension, builds imagination, and enhances focus and communication. We’ve been consistently impressed with the quality of the content and the levels of engagement it delivers. It’s a bit of an investment, but it’s one that will grow with the child, and can certainly be shared among siblings.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

This is one of the most important areas for kids in this unusual (to say the least) year. As kids begin to socialize in person again, there are opportunities for co-play, sharing, collecting, and developing essential interpersonal skills. As noted above, kids who have not had in-person Kindergarten or preschool haven’t had the essential social experience with peers, so there may be some difficulty in these areas as kids are back together in groups. The good news is, of course, that kids minds are so adaptable, that it’s probable they’ll catch up quickly. Overall, SEL can be highly beneficial for helping kids to be cognizant of their own feelings and communicating about them. Here are some toys that can help make the process easier and more fun

We’ve got a feeling kids will love this.

Big Feelings Pineapple from Learning Resources
For ages 3 and up.
Where to Buy
Few things help reinforce learning, especially about feelings, as effectively as having fun with them. That’s exactly what this whimsical toy does. The bright yellow plastic pineapple comes with 26 interchangeable pieces that allows kids to create faces on both sides of the pineapple. By seeing the faces they create, kids can begin to identify a range of emotions appropriate to preschoolers’ development. The two sides allow for exploring opposites or co-play. All the pieces fit back inside the pineapple for easy clean up and storage. What impressed us with this toy is the sophistication of the pieces that allow for nuances of expression and interpretation. This is a great toy to get kids talking about this important subject and creating their own narratives, which also reinforces learning. The toy comes with a guide that has suggested faces and emotions to start the learning process and begin to make the abstract concept relatable to kids.

Kids will want to collect the entire series!

Snapsies Series 2 from Funko
For ates 3 and up.
Where to Buy
Collectibles can be an important part of social play. They allow kids to identify themselves within a peer group through common interest, which is a fancy way of saying, “Hey, mom, all the kids have these!” Yet that’s just the point. These toys provide a way for kids to interact around the collecting, which can include comparing, contrasting and sharing. The Snapsies was the first line from noted collectible company Funko, and like many others they come in blind capsules and offer an unboxing experience. What makes these different is that the characters have a mix-and-match component that adds more dimension to the play. Plus, when kids collect several, they can create their own unique, personal characters. Series 2 includes characters and animals such as French Bulldogs, Alicorns (part unicorn, part pegasus), Leopards, Skunks and Koalas.


Thank you for being a friend.

Blingle Bands from Moose Toys
For ages 7-11
Deluxe Studio Pack $19.99, Starter Pod Pack $9.99, Bestie Pack $4.99
Where to Buy
As kids are in groups again and have to “remake” friendships. They can make and share these cool gem friendship bracelets for a lot of fashion fun and creating a “tribe.” As part of the huge boom in crafts we’ve seen in the past year, this is a great new addition to the collections. There’s even a hashtag on social media: #CraftyChic. To make the bracelets, dip the included pen into the silicone mix; use the pen to pick up a gem; place on the band, and that’s it. We were impressed by how easy and neat it is to do and by how well the gems stay on the bands. There are design templates kids can use, but those are really only a jumping off point. This is all about creativity and self expression. There’s something really special about having your BFF or a group of friends wearing and sharing these.

Special Needs

There are a lot of products designed for special needs kids, many of which support their needs for in-classroom instruction. We’ve been so impressed by the levels of sophistication and insight that have inspired so many caring people to create projects that support and reinforce these children.

Make any school day a sunny day with Sesame Street/

PunkinFutz Fidget Set by PunkinFutz
For ages 3 and up.
Where to Buy
The PunkinFutz line has been designed specifically to support children with a broad range of physical, sensory, development, and emotional needs. For many children with special needs, the transition and return to classroom learning can be challenging, and this toy helps them become more comfortable.  The company has created a partnership with Sesame Street, and this Elmo-inspired backpack includes an assortment of quiet fidgets and a cool, collapsible water bottle. The round backpack opens flat to create a contained play space. The activities promotes practice and development of fine and gross motor skills, social-emotional learning, and language and imagination skills. Plus, the PunkinPassport activity guide includes tips and projects for engaging kids with the toys and supporting their needs.

We’ll keep updating this page as we review more toys, so be sure to bookmark this page and check back often.



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