The design snob elves in Santa’s workshop have been making some sophisticated toys for kids this year: sets of blocks that teach empathy; little 3-D printed creatures powered by wind; building kits for budding architects. Good designers know the power of a toy to edify as well as to entertain, and take the responsibility of creating products that influence young minds seriously (while still having fun with it)–they don’t fall for the tired formula of pink dolls for girls and blue trucks for boys. Here, seven of the best products for children we came across in 2014.
The Clothes Letters Wear is a picture book that teaches tots about serif fonts, sans serif fonts, and other type nuances through illustrations of letters playing dress up. In the book, a wedge serif version of the letter A isn’t some esoteric set of angles—it’s an adorable character wearing shoes. “I want children to understand that letterforms represent creative possibilities for them,” Dooley says. “How we write letters has shaped and is shaped by technology.” Buy the book here for $10.
Dutch artist Theo Jansen creates massive creatures he calls Strandbeests—which translates to “beach beasts”—made from PVC pipes, sail cloth, and wood. They move on their own, fueled by nothing but wind. Now, these Strandbeests have birthed little 3-D-printed babies. Their movement is powered either by tiny snap-on fans, which come separately, or by blowing on them or placing them in front of a larger fan. They’re perfect low-maintenance pets. Buy them at Shapeways from $54.
Many psychologists consider empathy one of the most important traits to teach a child–it’s what gives rise to a sense of justice and of concern for others’ well-being. A new design aims to help teach it. The Empathy Toy isn’t too different from basic building blocks, save for several notches and grooves that allow them to lock together. Students have to verbally guide a blindfolded peer through a manual—and somewhat abstract—construction process. The toys are designed around obvious cues like “the square side,” forcing kids to unearth a sense of what the other person is experiencing. They’re available here from $90.
Rigamajig, created by industrial designer Cas Holman at Rhode Island School of Design, is a 263-piece building kit for classrooms. As kids improvise with building elaborate contraptions, or “Rigamajigs,” from planks, wheels, pulleys, nuts, bolts, and rope, they learn about engineering, architecture, creativity, and collaboration experientially. And they can make everything from three-legged rocket ships to elephant movie projectors. There are no instructions and no batteries. Price is available on request. Learn more here.
Strawbees is a simple building tool for kids. To make Strawbees, designer Erik Thorstensson created a flexible, plastic building unit that’s shaped like a flat lollipop. One end is designed for inserting a straw and the other end can hook onto other yellow connectors. The cheap materials and low-tech design make it easier to build big (Forts! Cars! Playgrounds!). So whereas other kits seem intent on fostering a new generation of micro-computer scientists, Strawbees wants to inspire young architects. The kits are available here for $20 to $80.
Furniture brand Dot and Cross aspires to reduce the price of parenthood with a collection of products that adapt over time as children grow from snuggle-worthy babies to sprawling teens. Some items undergo a functional transformation; a bed, for example, transitions from crib to sofa with the removal of a panel of wooden bars, and an easel-style drawing board rotates on its stand to become a desk. Other items, like a bookcase, are more traditionally modular; they can be combined and reconfigured. Check out the collection here.
Norwegian company Stokke tapped Oslo-based design group Permafrost to develop Stokke Steps, an all-in-one bouncer seat and highchair. Think of it as the transformer of baby products. The height is adjustable, so as your baby grows, Stokke Steps does, too. Get it here for $279.