When it comes to finding the perfect educational board games for the elementary school crowd (1st to 5th grade) parents can find themselves in quite a pickle. Younger children may not have the patience for games that tax their little minds too extensively, while older children might find themselves unequivocally lured by the siren song of those blinking, blipping, blatting video games. The trick is to find games that are the perfect marriage of educational value and fun.

A game that promises to teach your seven year old calculus does little more than incubate dust bunnies in the back of the closet if it’s too boring for any child in his right mind to endure. Your best bet for children in the elementary age range are games that involve logic, word play, basic arithmetic reinforcements, and challenging scenarios that allow them to develop their critical reasoning skills.

Luckily, many toy manufacturers have developed lots of fun toys that support key elementary skills-- whether kids realize it or not. For kinders and first graders, for instance, any game with letters, phonics, and simple word recognition will support reading development. For older elementary school kids, longer word play activities continue to build vocabulary and comprehension. And in math, kids can benefit enormously from any activity that requires them to solve puzzles, fit objects together, or add, subtract, multiply, or divide. Nowadays, you can even find games that build science and social studies knowledge as well.

So veto Indoor Tackle Basketball and Freeform Foot-Elbow-Kneeboxing Tournaments. Get a good game and make downtime a treat... and preserve your furniture in the process. Wondering where to start? We took a look at a range of toys which are easily found in stores or online. Five stars—our top award—went to toys that:

  • Clearly supported skills that are taught in elementary school
  • Included user-friendly directions and manageable doo-dads
  • Provided plenty of just plain fun

Here are some of our top picks for elementary age kids:

FIRST GRADE

What’s Gnu?( 2-6 players; ages 5-8)

What’s Gnu? is a terrific way to teach young children new three-letter words, and to build confidence in spelling and reading the ones they already know. Designed with easily distracted kids in mind, What’s Gnu? involves a lot of shouting, giggling, and a clever contraption called the “Letter Getter.” Visit the game’s website and you can download an extensive list of common three-letter words in the English language. The game takes about 20 minutes to play. It' s fun for older siblings as well, but if you’re playing with a 1st grader and a child past the recommended age range, you may want to give the younger player a 30-60 second head start on each turn. **** (Thinkfun; $15.00)

Connect Four (Ages 7 and up, 2 players)

This classic game is much like a cross between checkers and tick-tack-toe, except that it's played on a vertical grid which makes gameplay that much more exciting! Players drop their checkers into the rows to try and “connect four,” whether it's vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. But watch out! Your opponent will try and block your every move, so take the time to think ahead. This game never seems to get old, and though it may look like nothing much on the surface, its simple yet unlimited structure fosters light strategy, sequencing, and calculation skills. **** (Milton Bradley, $12.99)

Guess Who? (Ages 6 and up, 2 players)

In this one-on-one guessing game, players have a crowd of faces before them. Faced with the challenge of guessing which person is the other player's “mystery face,” players must ask a series of “yes”or “no” questions to narrow it down. “Is it a boy?” “Does he wear glasses?” “Is he bald?” As the possibilities are eliminated, kids learn to ask the right questions to make the correct guess. Although the appeal of this game may be lost on adults, kids often find hours of enjoyment out of the fairly simple gameplay. However, the laborious process of assembling the game out of its zillions of small plastic pieces may prove too much for weary parents and the game, though fun for youngsters, has limited educational value. ** (Milton Bradley, $17.99)

SECOND GRADE

Rat-a-Tat Cat Deluxe 10 Anniversary Edition( 2-6 players; ages 6 and up)

The best of the bunch! Rat-a-Tat Cat is a fun, fast-paced game that manages to be simple enough for a first grader to enjoy while boasting enough versatility to keep parents laughing and engaged right along with the kids. This is a card game that relies on rudimentary strategy, basic math, memory skills, and a lot of luck, but the addition of “power cards” that allow you to peek at what other players are holding and the special “Rat Scanner” adds an irresistible level of silliness that will have the whole family fighting to shout “Rat-a-Tat Cat!” ***** (Gamewright; $11.99)

Password & Password Junior (Age 7 to Adult; 4-6 players)

Remember that “Password” TV show when you were a kid? Well, bring that up to date with cool “decoder cases” and “password cards”, but keep the old fashioned word play, and you’ve got a great game that clearly supports elementary reading skills as well. This game, which takes at least twenty minutes, is best played in two teams of two each—and it’s best when the opponents are equally matched in skills. Each team gets a set of “password cards”; one team member sees the words using the “decoder,” and must give clues until a partner guesses the word. “Password” builds reading, vocabulary, and teamwork skills, and it kept our fifth grade testers happily engaged for a full hour. Two cautions: 1. It’s worth reading the “rules for clues” on the direction sheet—at least two of these situations threatened to disrupt our game, and the rule sheet helped! 2. This game is quite challenging for its youngest players. Make sure you check out the extra directions for “Password Junior”—an adaptation that still uses regular cool stuff in the box. ***** (Endless Games; $11.99)

Thing-a-ma-Bots ( 2-6 players; ages 6 and up)

Thing-a-ma-Bots is a fantastic game that works precisely because its “educational” qualities blend seamlessly with its innate goofiness. A simple matching game that blends memory skills with creative thinking, Thing-a-ma-Bots is as fun for the parents as it is for the kids. Plus, you can knock out a game in a cool twelve minutes, and it's easy to stash the cards in your suitcase for some vacation rounds. We had a great time with kooky characters like “Bolty,” “Crazymetal,” and “Weirdbot” – just to name a few. What robot friends will your family discover? **** ( Gamewright; 12 minutes, $5.99)

Twister (Ages 6 and up, 2 or more players)

This game has been around for awhile, but that doesn't mean it's gotten old! To put a retro spin on body awareness and motor skills, pull out this tried and true favorite, and get your stretch on. Just spin the wheel, and you'll be putting “right foot on green!” in no time. Plus, you'll be reinforcing body part and color recognition. Twister gets bodies, old and young, in motion. It's the perfect pick for a party or just a family evening of fun. **** (Milton Bradley, $13.99)

THIRD GRADE

Smart Mouth (Ages 8 to Adult; 2 or more players)

This game got top grades from our elementary school kid testers, and from a teacher mom as well. Using an appealing push-release mechanism, players get two letters. One must be the first letter in a word, and the second must be the last. First one to shout out a word gets the two letter tiles; the one with the most tiles at the end wins. The game clearly supports spelling and word work, and will definitely challenge third through fifth graders. We even tried it with a teenager and got raves. One cautionary note: this game should be played with evenly matched teams. If one kid’s way behind another, or one is much shyer than the other, adult supervision will be required, to put it mildly. With evenly matched teams, however, the possibilities are endless. “Smart Mouth” is also beautifully supported by a well-written direction brochure which includes extra adaptations at levels which will fit your kid’s skills. Set aside at least thirty minutes, to really do the game justice. ***** (Thinkfun, $17.00)

JamPack Jam( Ages 6 and up; 2-4 players)

With its bright van and goofy pieces, this toy caught our eye straight off. It’s also a top scorer for pure, silly fun. Players put a toy SUV in the middle of the table, push a talking timer, and must try to pack in the largest collection of objects possible—ranging from a spare tire to an armchair to a bathtub—before time runs out and the car pops everything out in a hilarious shower. For six and seven year olds, the game supports spacial reasoning skills as well as those eternal favorites: turn-taking and good sportsmanship. But our ten year old tester adored the challenge as well. Biggest fan of all was his dad, who could not stop laughing about the real-life relevance of this toy: any parent who has ever tried to pack for a family trip will know what he means. Our one reservation: the basic concept and task are fairly simple and straightforward. After less than fifteen minutes our testers were ready to move on, though they were happy for another round the next day. **** (Cranium Toys, $19.95)

Pictureka! (Ages 6 and up; 2 or more players)

In this visually stimulating find-it-first game, players face a constantly moving and shifting game board bursting with hip and wacky illustrations. Draw a green “mission” card, and you have thirty seconds to find as many items, such as beards, musical instruments, or things found in the jungle, as you've rolled with your dice. Draw a blue card, and all players compete to get a glimpse of the right picture first. This game fosters visual memory, reflexes, and creative thinking, and, with every “mission” card in both English and Spanish, kids can get a taste of foreign-language vocab into the bargain. **** (Parker Brothers, $19.99)

Zeus on the Loose (Ages 8 to Adult; 2 or more players)

Before you play this game, plan to take a few minutes to review the Greek gods. That way, you reinforce the Social Studies connections, and give yourself a chance to deepen your child’s intellectual experience. From there, the game is mainly a math challenge for your third to fifth grader: cards count toward an overall score goal of 100, and players round numbers up and down on specific turns as they calculate their totals. Like the Gods themselves, each card has a “power,” whether that means raising or lowering points. In the case of the Zeus card, it means that a player can grab a Zeus figurine that comes with the card game. With these complex rules, our testers were put off by dense and somewhat confusing directions. The math challenges in themselves were interesting; but the Greek god connections often didn’t seem like a clear or helpful match. ** (Gamewright, 20 minutes and up, $7.99)

FOURTH GRADE

Cadoo (Ages 7 and up; 2 or more players)

It’s hard to think of anything this well-established, award-winning game does not offer. Think tic tac toe, bingo, charades, Play-doh AND Trivial Pursuits (for kids), and you’ll be part way there. Kids take turns pulling cards which give them quick, goofy tasks to complete, sometimes alone and sometimes with another player. When they have succeeded, they get to put a token on the board (that’s the tic tac toe part). This game is zany, hands-on, fast paced and gripping. Seven year olds can do it, but may require extra adult support; nine, ten, and eleven year olds will be able to do it more independently—and hilariously, too. As for academic content: unlike an activity such as “Smart Mouth,” this game is too broad ranging to qualify as systematic academic practice. But the tasks involve logic, sequencing, word puzzling, art, and “fun facts,” and as such are related to school in a fun, fast-paced way. It's thirty minutes or more well spent. Our kid testers gave it a happy thumbs-up. ***** (Cranium, $19.95)

Rush Hour Deluxe (single player; ages 8 and up)

Kids will absolutely love this tough three-dimensional puzzle, if they can manage to wrestle it away from Mom and Dad. A unique and addictive take-off on those little sliding square puzzles from the days of yore, Rush Hour challenges kids and adults alike to give those deductive reasoning, logic, and creative thinking skills a thorough workout. If your little ones are finding the challenges to be too, well, challenging, simply gather the whole family around and find the solution as a team! ***** (Thinkfun; $20.00)

Three of a Crime ( 2-6 players; ages 8 and up)

Three of a Crime is a fun, brisk game that turns a basic logic conundrum into a mystery involving shady characters like “Loose-Eye Lenny” and “Pencil Top” (represented by colorfully illustrated cards that players take turns flipping over to eliminate potential “suspects”) While most children in the recommended age range will likely enjoy the game, parents may become frustrated by the fact that it is often more fun for the kids to make random guesses and flip the character cards than to actually attempt to solve the crime using deductive reasoning. In short: the game is fun for kids, a little tedious for parents, and misses the mark a bit on enforcing deduction and logic skills. I think even “No Neck Nick” would agree … *** (Gamewright; 15 minutes; $9.99)

The Scrambled States of America Game (2-4 players; ages 8 and up)

Based on Laurie Keller’s book of the same title, The Scrambled States of America Game is a creative and very witty method of teaching children geography. Quick moving and wacky enough to keep parents and older kids entertained, this game reinforces U.S. geography and visual discrimination skills in a fresh, unique way. Younger children may become frustrated with some of the challenges and riddles, but simply slowing the pace of the game or playing in parent/kid teams should keep everyone happy and able to participate in the fun. *** (Gamewright; 20 minutes; $13.99)

FIFTH GRADE

River Crossing (Ages 8 to Adult; 1 or more players)

 

A hiker wants to cross a scary river. You put down logs he can step on so he doesn’t get chomped by gators. No problem, right? Wrong! This marvelous game of logic and spatial relations consists of a magnetized guy, a bunch of toy planks and tree stumps, and 40 “challenge cards” from Beginner to Expert level. Our six year old tester was riveted, despite being told he was too young; he made it through the first few cards. Our ten year old moved faster—but slowed down significantly as routes got trickier. Our forty-six-year-old Mom? No comment. From an educational standpoint, we give this toy top marks: it directly addresses the problem-solving, spatial relations, and logic skills that run through math and science curriculum in every elementary and middle school grade. Plus, it can take as little as five minutes to play, so it's a great way to take a quick break in the middle of a homework session. ***** (Thinkfun, 5 minutes and up, $15.99)

Shape By Shape (single player; ages 8 to adult)

An addictive take on the ancient Chinese game of Tangram, Shape by Shape provides an obstacle course for the mind. The puzzles can be worked out alone or as a team, either with or without the use of the solutions on the back of the cards. Children (and adults!) will build their logic and deductive reasoning skills, and when played as a team, Shape By Shape is an excellent means of reinforcing cooperative teamwork. **** (Thinkfun; $10.00)

Block By Block (single player; ages 8 to adult)

Similar to Shape By Shape (but significantly more difficult) from the same manufacturer, Block By Block is a three-dimensional puzzle game that requires patience, dexterity, and deductive reasoning skills. Younger children (and easily frustrated grown-ups) may find these puzzles more enjoyable when worked out as a team. Answers are provided on the back of the puzzle cards, and many of the problems are difficult enough to pose a fun challenge even when constructing a particular shape with the aid of the solution. Like Shape By Shape, this game can be used to teach teamwork skills to all children in the elementary school age range. **** (Thinkfun; $10.00)

Ready for play? A word to the wise: before cracking open one of these games in front of a kid, crack it open when they're not around. Read the directions, assemble all necessary pieces, and familiarize yourself with the rules, prior to breaking it out for some family fun. Even the simplest games can have detailed, sometimes confusing instructions, and watching Mom or Dad quietly labor over them can quickly drain a kid's interest and patience.

That said, there's a lot of fun to be had in this pile of boxes. And none will really break the bank. So get playing, already!