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Fun in the sun doesn't have to mean a break from learning. As the weather heats up, educational summer toys and activities encourage your child to move and get creative, while also providing hours of entertainment. Plan a day of science in your backyard, teach teamwork with toys that encourage planning and cooperation, or make a day at the beach an opportunity to learn letters, numbers and sharpen spatial skills.
Dr. Susan Linn, child psychologist and author of The Case for Make Believe says, "Real learning, and learning how to learn, occurs best when children have time to initiate, to create, to reflect, to dream, and to explore the world with all of their senses—and research shows that children play more creatively in nature."
Don't ditch the books completely, but make some space in your day for these hot-weather favorites and enjoy summer play with a purpose:
- Scientific Explorer Backyard Explorer Kit Science Kit ($19.99, ages 4+) Help your child transform into a tiny explorer with this kit, complete with a bug net, a plastic storage case, a microscope and more. Your budding scientist can catch bugs, collect plant samples, examine his natural treasures under a microscope, and even build a worm motel—all while brushing up basic skills such as labeling, categorization, shapes and color practice. Additional project ideas and instructions are included.
- Play and Freeze Ice Cream Maker ($18.50-$53.00, all ages) This ice-cream maker doubles as a ball, offering your little chemist the chance to mix science and sweet treats! Have your child fill the plastic ball with rock salt, ice and ice-cream mix, and then toss, shake or throw it around at the park or beach. The ball provides an excuse for physical activity, while creating the ice cream helps your kid hone basic measurement skills—a great introduction to a conversation about where food comes from.
- Alex Toys Super Parachute ($49.99, 3+) A giant nylon parachute plus sixteen plastic balls equals the perfect combination for outdoor group games. Try playing "Parachute Bounce": Divide the children into two teams and practice lifting the parachute up and down—add the balls and see who can get them to bounce the highest (requires team cooperation!). From the physics of bouncing balls as a group to organizing the balls to practice color recognition and categorization skills, this multicolored parachute and balls encourage cooperative play and basic concepts.
- Learning Resources Alphabet Sand Molds ($9.99, ages 2+) A lazy day at the beach offers the perfect opportunity to teach your little one his letters with alphabet sand molds. Make letters with your child, spell out his name in the surf, and even create sand phrases and sentences. From A to Z, this alphabet activity preps him for letter recognition—a crucial skill for kindergarten readiness.
- Alex Jungle Croquet ($49.99, all ages) Grab your mallet, it's time for a game of croquet! Complete with animal-shaped wickets and colorful balls, this game is perfect for furry friend-loving little ones. Help your child learn the concept of taking turns and teamwork—while brushing up on hand-eye coordination—with this portable wooden game, perfect for indoors or out.
- Educational Insights number bean bags ($34.99, all ages) Bean bag games are a classic activity to encourage agility and motor skills—and why not practice math and number concepts while you're at it? This set has 20 color-coded bean bags with numbers 1-20 on one side, and words on the other, making it perfect for math games, color recognition, categorization and basic literacy. Play one of the suggested games, or come up with your own ideas for educational fun.
- Turbo Freeze Tag ($12.99, ages 6+) Use the soft six-sided ball and multicolored bracelets for a super-charged game of freeze tag. Simply throw the ball and see which way it lands—if the right-side up color matches your bracelet when the ball lands, you get to yell freeze and try your luck tagging others to earn another bracelet. This fun outdoor activity encourages friendly competition, motor skills and sharpens reflexes.
- Little Tikes Spiralin' Seas Waterpark ($44.99, ages 3+) Cool off and teach with this wet 'n' wild toy. Help your little swimmer develop motor and spatial skills as he scoops up water and watches the brightly colored balls drop and spin. Easy to set up in a backyard or in a park for group parties and play dates.
- Green Science Windmill Generator ($11.99, ages 8-11) Use those sweet summer breezes to teach your child about green energy with this wind power construction kit. Designed for older children, the generator is easy to make using recycled materials to create a super simple renewable energy device.
- Infantino Loopapalooza ($7.99, ages 1+) As much as you want to be outside this summer, there will be times when you're trapped in a train, plane or car. This ideal travel toy is a tangled mess of loops, bugs, teething toys and mirrors. There's no point to it and no "right" way to play with it—and fortunately for you, it will take weeks and months for your child to figure that out. In the meantime, your baby will stay interested, and quiet, in the back seat.
"Summer," Dr. Linn says, "with its good weather and freedom from homework is a perfect time for parents to ensure that children have the time and space for [active and creative] play." Choose your summer toys wisely and you'll be assured that when you let your little one loose, they'll be playing and learning all season long.