Thursday, December 29, 2011

Books: Gifts that keep on giving!

A birthday gift just before Christmas
We've just celebrated a traditional Christmas in our family. The day started with church and the celebration of Jesus' birth, then our family got together for the sharing of gifts, play (especially the kids) and lots of talk. It was a wonderful day with much joy and happiness.

One thing I noticed was that books are certainly not dead in our family. We gave Kindles to our eldest daughter and our son-in-law, and books of varied kinds to adults and children. And each time there was delight.

A Kindle, books in an instant
I managed to receive four wonderful books (all in paper form), including 'Oranges & Sunshine', the story of Margaret Humphries' fight to reveal the transportation of 150,000 orphans from England to Australia in the 19th century. I also received some historical fiction (Conn Iggulden's 'Empire of Silver'), a book about writers of fantasy ('The Wand in the Word') and Geoffrey Blainey's 'A Short History of Christianity').

Of course, books don't just give once, they keep on giving. They can be re-read to learn new things, or remember old things. You can also revisit a story that has already given us joy, emotional experiences, new knowledge, inspiration, challenge and insights into the human condition. Books, whether paper or electronic, can also serve as a vehicle to other places, times and experiences. Yes, books just keep on giving.

Sam loved his book to help him make paper planes

After lunch some play.

Our youngest family member at play

And then we all had some exercise

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

25 Great Children's Apps to Stimulate Literacy, Learning & Creativity

Readers of this blog will know that I've reviewed a number of apps for iPads, iPhones and Android tablets (HERE). I have suggested before that apps for devices like the iPad should be more than just fun games that populate an expensive toy. While I want apps to be enjoyable and exciting, they also need to:
  • Provide opportunities for learning.
  • Encourage creativity and problem solving.
  • Offer knowledge that stimulates further learning.
  • Use as many of the senses as possible for this is one of the things apps can offer.
  • Be easy to use and intuitive to follow.
  • Avoid trivialising any narrative with add-ons that have little to add to the story.
  • Use quality language, stories and illustrations.
With thousands of people around the world about purchase device like the iPad I thought it might be timely to review some of my favourite apps currently on the market. I've grouped them into three categories: a) creativity & problem solving, b) writing, story making and animation and, literacy and literature.

1. Apps that promote creativity & problem solving

Dr Seuss Band
Price: $US0.99

This is a simple app from Oceanhouse Media allows you to play music associated with a variety of classic Dr Seuss books including 'Cat in the Hat', 'Green Eggs and Ham' and even the latest Seuss book 'The Bippolo Seed'.  You can transform a three-piece brass instrument with the flick of a finger and use it to play a variety of melodies or create your own piece. As you play, you can unlock new instruments, and create sound effects and new songs when you've attained higher scores. It contains 120 combinations of sounds that offer many variations and lots of interest. The user plays each note by touching the keys in time to a series of moving 'stripes' of different length that correspond to note length. It's a fun way for non-musicians to make music that takes colour-coded xylophones and keyboards to a whole new level. The app has three difficulty levels and scores your performance on each tune, allowing the user to judge progress.

Animalia for iPad
Price: $4.49

Australian illustrator and author Graeme Base has many wonderful picture books (see my review of his work HERE). 'Animalia' is an award winning book that has been given some new interactive dimensions via the iPad app. Readers can search for hundreds of different things hidden in the artwork, and enjoy engaging sounds while reading words and trying to solve the puzzles and uncover some of the deeper layers of the book.

Lego Creationary
Price: Free

I've never met a child who doesn't like Lego. The brick company has produced a great game based on virtual Lego bricks. It is based on the board game 'Creationary' and is a bit like a 3D version of Pictionary. The players roll a virtual dice and watch as objects based on a theme are created. You need to guess what is being built before it is revealed. There are almost a hundred different puzzles to complete.

Elmo's Monster Maker HD
Price: $4.49

This app allows your children to create different monster friends to play with Elmo. The player selects a body, face and features and so on. When finished the monster comes to life on screen. This is a simple app that allows creative manipulation and stimulates language use and story making. Children love the app.

2. Writing, story making & animation

PlayTime Theater
Price: $US2.99

'PlayTime Theater' is a customizable interactive castle that comes with varied characters, props, and sound effects. The user is invited to create and record short animated features. It is similar in principle to 'Puppet Pals' (see below) but is much simpler and a little more limited in the effects possible. However, its simplicity is one of its strengths, because some apps of this type are complex and detract from the fun of creating your own 'story'. The app provides ample opportunities for free play, creativity and storytelling using image, sound and movement.

Price: $US1.99

This is a wonderful app that again provides opportunities for creative play and image making. Many children will tell their own stories as they create composite pictures based on a variety of background images, characters, clothes and objects. Each character can be increased or decreased in size, rotated, dragged around the background and embellished to create an individualised scene. It includes ocean, aviation, space, dolls, and safari scenes. It is a cross between a sticker book and a dress up mannequin game. When finished you can remove all stickers from the scene by shaking the iPad. This animated 'sticker book' is ideal for boys and girls aged 3-6 years.

Puppet Pals
Free initial app with add-on themes for purchase

I've written a previous post about 'Puppet Pals' and other animation resources for children (HERE).
This wonderful app is available free for the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. Essentially it is a simple way to create an animated movie using 'cut-out' themed characters and a variety of backdrops and scenes to create an animated 'puppet' play.

The free version comes with Wild West backgrounds and actors.  However, you can also purchase different themes for $US0.99 or the 'Director's Cut' in which you can access all the themes for $US2.99. These allow you to obtain a range of additional scenarios and characters based on themes such as monsters, space, pirates, arthropod armada, Christmas and so on. You can even make your backdrops and characters.

Puppet Pals is a wonderful resource for supporting story telling, writing, language development, creativity, and problem solving, while at the same time introducing them to film making and animation. I could see myself using a smartboard to collaboratively develop a story with my class before introducing individuals and groups to this smart little app.

3. Literacy & Literature apps

Alice for the iPad
Price: $9.49

Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book has been enhanced for the 21st century. Children can engage with Alice and her story by tilting the iPad to watch her grow and shrink, help the Caterpillar smoke his pipe, shake the White Rabbit's watch, make Alice's neck stretch and so on. You can read an abridged 52-page version where the animation effects come more frequently or the full 249 original version. This app certainly created a lot of attention when it was released and still sets the benchmark for animation effects. Kids love it, but I still feel the effects are rather distracting from the reading. Expensive, but every app collection should include it.

The Nutcracker Musical Storybook 

Price: $US2.99  


The Nutcracker Musical StorybookThe Nutcracker Musical Storybook is a wonderful book and musical app that introduces this timeless classic to kids and grown up alike! It can be experienced as a video or in story format. The app presents 27 fully orchestrated musical arrangements of Tchaikovsky's musical. The wonderful illustrations and animations have been hand painted by Yoko Tanaka. It is a wonderful app that engages children at the story level as well as with music, image and creative animation. It can be read and joyed with children, as well as by children aged 6-8 years themselves.

'The Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross'
Price; $US6.99

'Moving Tales' is a developer responsible for a series of ePicture book apps that present traditional tales in new ways. The organization states that its purpose is to present imaginative interpretations and adaptations, "...inspired by age-old folk tales, archetypal yarns and legends from around the world." In my view they have succeeded in doing this.  They have released four stories to date; each is presented in the same format and with similar stylistic illustrations. I will review just one of the stories. The other titles are 'This too shall pass', 'The unwanted guest' and 'Twas the night before Christmas' (see them here).

The 'Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross' by Jacqueline O. Rogers (Moving Tales) is inspired by the age-old tale of a man who becomes rich through a dream. There are varied older versions of the story with origins in Persia, Israel and Ireland.  The story describes the journey of a poor pedlar woman who, guided by the shifting line between the real and the unreal, discovers a surprising and wonderful treasure.

As with all ePicture books you can read it yourself or have it read to you. The reader can also record their own reading if they wish. The storyteller provided has a wonderful Irish accent that works well with the traditional tale.  The background music also adds to the haunting nature of the reading of this story. The illustrations are monochrome, with touches of colour and partial animation on each page. It is available in English, Spanish and French.

'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore'
Price: $US4.99

The producers of this app Moonbot Studios suggests that the book written by William Joyce was inspired in equal measures, by Hurricane Katrina, Buster Keaton, The Wizard of Oz, and a love for books. It is a story about people who devote their lives to books and how books in turn enrich our lives. It is a poignant, humorous allegory about the power of story. It uses a variety of illustrative and animation techniques to create a moving story.  It is presented in a style that offers echoes of the great silent films of the past.

The various interactive elements in this app are complex and yet they relate well to the story.  The reader can repair books, descend deep into a great storm, learn the piano, become 'lost in a book', and fly through a magical world of words. I could have done without some of the games sprinkled through the reading, but kids will love them. There is a surprise on each page of this app. The sophisticated CG animation, excellent original music, and quality illustrations work well to support the narrative. While I felt that there was just a little too much gadgetry, I don't think children would agree, this is a wonderful app.

Above: Image from the app showing the books coming back to 'nest'

'Timo and the Magical Picture Book'
Price: $US3.99

'Timo and the Magical Picture Book' was written by well-known Dutch author Rian Visser and is illustrated by Klaas Verplancke, one of Belgium's most celebrated illustrators. It is a story app for younger readers (3-7 years).  It is about a little boy called Timo who receives an unusual birthday gift, a magical picture book from his uncle. A parcel that was not to be shaken, but... When Timo begins reading his new book he finds himself and his family mixed up into the story. As Timo enters the book, the app reader is able to interact with the illustrations, shaking and touching the images to elaborate on the story.

While the app doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the previous app, it is an appealing picture book that has just enough interactivity to support the narrative.  For me, this app does a good job balancing the interactive elements and story. The app plays English or Dutch language and the reader's voice is warm and friendly, although at times the reading is a little staccato.

'The Three Pandas' by Valerie Min (See Here Studios)
Price: $US2.99

I have reviewed another 'See Here' app in a previous post, 'The Wrong Side of the Bed' a 3D app, and I have just discovered 'Twinkle, Twinkle'. What I like about the work of this developer is the desire to put as much effort into the story and illustrations as the interactive elements.  'The Three Pandas' is based on the traditional story of 'The Three Bears' with an Asian twist.  It will appeal to younger readers aged 3-7 years.

Reading 'The Wrong Side of the Bed' with 3D glasses
The story is set in a bamboo forest, where a little girl (Mei Mei) enters the house of three pandas. As you would predict, she eats their porridge, sits on their chairs, and sleeps in their beds.  But unlike the traditional tale there is a slight twist at the end. The story has been developed in association with 'Pandas International' and so the app provides additional facts about pandas and an external link that enables you to learn more about the Giant Panda. A portion of all proceeds goes toward Panda conservation efforts. The animation is delightful. You can tickle the pandas on each screen shot and be surprised by their responses.  As with most apps you have a choice of languages (English or Chinese).

The story is simple and delightfully understated. The illustrations would be a hit in any form of picture book.  The animation of Mei Mei and the pandas is photographic in nature while the backgrounds are a mix of drawn and real objects. All in all, the images are wonderful.

'The Wonkey Donkey'
Price: $8.49

This app is based on Craig Smith's wonderful book and song of the same name by Craig Smith and is illustrated by Katz Cowley. The original picture book came with an audio recording of the song. This app can be read or followed as it is sung.  It is a funny, predictable and cumulative song, that uses rhyme to great effect. Each page tells something new about the three-legged, one-eyed donkey, who walks down the road. He ends up being a lanky, honkey tonkey, winky, wonky, cranky, stinky dinky, spunky, hanky panky donkey. No child or adult can use this app without smiling! There is much fun to be had by listening to the song and trying to predict the new word for each clue given!

'What was that Noise?' by Iain Anderson
Price: $0.99

"What Was That Noise?" is a simple, original, illustrated, interactive children's storybook. It's a rhyming, noisy book (each page has a sound effect!) that kids will love to read and play with. You can read to your child, or use the "read-aloud" feature to let them read on their own. It has to be the simplest app on the market and is perfect for pre-school children. You can touch the text and it reads the complete phrase or touch the picture to hear the noise that the text describes.  The illustrations are beautiful and yet very simple pen and wash. Young children will love this app; it is a good first app for 2-4 year olds.

'The Cat in the Hat' & other Dr Seuss books

Price: $US 4.99

There are a number of Dr Seuss books that have been turned into ePicture books by Oceanhouse Media. These include 'Dr Seuss's ABC' (also available in a free LITE edition), 'Green Eggs and Ham', 'One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish', 'The Lorax' and 'The Sneetches'. I could have chosen any title because they are essentially all the same in design and format. It's hard to go wrong with Dr Seuss books but I have to say that this is a case where the ePicture version does little more than the paper book version.  Why? Because the only interactive element in these books is the ability to click on pictures which then leads to an appropriate word appearing. While this focus on individual words might be good for some young children to learn sight words, there is the potential to turn every reading of these books into a lesson, rather than the enjoyment of the book, the fun of the language, meaning, the rhyme and rhythm and so on. The text is also highlighted word by word in the 'Read to me' function as it is read. This could be helpful for some beginning readers, but distracting for others. You can try out the LITE version for free.

'Jack and the Beanstalk'
Price: $US3.99

This is a very amusing little app from Ayars Animation. While it is a well-known version of the traditional fairy tale, the animations have a sense of fun and add to the experience of the story rather than simply trivialising it (like some apps). It can be read in readalong mode or can be read yourself.  It has a number of hidden features on each page and has a summary menu that can be accessed showing what features are on each page. The varied forms of interactivity include a variety of elements in the illustrations that speak, move or do funny things. There is also a hidden egg, characters that can be moved, a sun that you can set, a page that you can 'paint' and so on. While some forms of interaction on ePicture books can distract from the story some of these quirky animations add value to the reading experience.

'Wrong Side of the Bed' by Wallace E. Keller
 Price: $US2.99

This 3D story has been produced by Seehere Studios. It comes in a 3D version that uses the typical paper glasses that you can purchase for about $1. Both versions work well. It is a delightful story suitable for 3-6 year-olds and tells of a little boy who wakes up one day to find everything is upside down. The book has simple and effective cartoon style pastel illustrations. The level of interactivity is limited except for the ability to zoom in on the images and move the image around a little. Younger readers will enjoy it, but this app does little for me and wasn't that exciting for child readers tested.
'Toy Story'
You can buy the more recently released 'Toy Story 2' and  'Toy Story 3' based on Disney and PIXAR movies, but the earlier 'Toy Story' app is free!! It is essentially based on Toy Story 1 and includes clips from the movie and some of the songs, pages that can be painted at the touch of the screen and some simple games. It has read to and read alone options as well as an option to record your own version. There is also a fantastic find a page option that allows you to bring up thumbnails of all pages and simply flick from one page to another - brilliant! My only beef with the app is that in the readalong version the text highlighting is word by word. I'd prefer a phrase-by-phrase option for many readers, and would suggest that developers try to incorporate both options. 

Toy Story 2 Readalong
Price: FREE

This story app is based upon the Disney PIXAR film of the same name. Andy heads off to Cowboy Camp, and leaves Woody behind. A toy collector steals him, so Buzz Lightyear and the other toys set off to rescue him before he is shipped to a museum in Japan. The app uses the same wonderful images from the film and includes games, movie clips, colouring pages and songs from the movie. Children aged 5-10 will enjoy the app.

'Little Mermaid and Other Stories by H.C. Andersen'
Price: $US11.99

It's hard to go wrong with a Hans Christian Andersen story and Game Collage has done a great job with this app. They also offer a free LITE version that allows you to try it out before spending $11.99 US to buy it. The app includes three H.C. Andersen stories, 'The Little Mermaid', 'The Emperor's New Clothes' and 'The Happy Family'.  This app does what the developers of 'Alice for the iPad' wanted to do but didn't quite achieve. Unlike 'Alice' this app manages to add a wide rang of interactive elements that use colour, movement, sound and image to engage the reader, complement the story and even, in places, add value to the experience of the book.

Like 'Alice', at times the interactive elements seem a little contrived, but they work. They have used an ornate style for the print and design (in keeping with the age of Andersen's stories) and have added a mass of varied interactive features. These include swimming through the ocean with the Little Mermaid, travelling to different kingdoms in the 'Emperor's new Clothes', shooting fireworks from a ship, watching ants and snails crawl across the screen, being able to rock and switch on lanterns and many more. Unlike 'Alice' the elements are on virtually every page.

The 'Little Mermaid' is a longish story, with the 'Emperor's New Clothes' medium in length and 'The Happy Family' much shorter. There is no readalong option for any of the stories which some will see as a weakness.

Aesop's Wheel of Fables (for iPad)
Price: FREE

This is a simple collection of Aesop's fables. That can be read by children or listened to. One novel feature is a wheel that is spun to choose the fable. There are also some other games embedded along the way which can be chosen. I could have done without the games and perhaps a little more interactivity but nevertheless it is a good collection of classic fables.

Lazy Larry Lizard
Price: $US4.49

This Australian animated children’s book was created especially for the iPad. Early readers are invited to play an active role in the story and are rewarded with full animation - when they ‘poke’ Lazy Larry on the screen, he wakes up and comes to life. But as delightful as this is for the reader, it’s not so much fun for poor Larry and the reader learns of a better way to make him happy when he plays his favourite game. This is an excellent story and the game is addictive.

My previous posts on story apps & eBooks

'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)

'Literacy and the iPad: A review of some popular apps' (HERE)

'Literacy and the iPad: A second review of children's apps' (HERE)

'eBooks, not what they're cracked up to be?' (HERE)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Building Writing Stamina: The importance of writing workshops

There are many good reasons to implement daily writing workshops in any classroom. Probably most important amongst these is that they offer the opportunity for children to experience writing as process. That is, to understand that writing is something that has to be worked on if it is to communicate with and engage readers. Young writers need to experience writing as craft, something that requires hard work, revision, research, planning, careful use of language and a sense of purpose and audience. But Katie Wood Ray reminds us in this short video that there is something even more basic that writing workshops offer - the chance to develop stamina.

I had the chance to observe this in detail some years ago when team teaching on a Grade 1 class with an outstanding teacher, Inta Gollasch. The language story that I share below also illustrates a number of other good reasons for having daily writing workshops in classrooms.
I spent most of the year in Inta's class observing the literacy behaviour of her children (I have written about this in detail on my book 'Pathways to Literacy'). Inta's approach to writing workshop was simple, she provided:

  • Time each day when children were encouraged to write about topics of their choosing.
  • Folders in which they kept their draft materials and lots of writing materials.
  • Opportunities for the children to share their writing with others when the need arose.
  • Individual teacher conferences for children when needed (but at least weekly).
  • Varied opportunities for the children to publish and share their writing with larger audiences.
  • Help with publishing when the young writers wanted to pit their work into some more permanent form.
On the first day in the classroom I observed a boy named Brock eagerly writing in a "magic cave" constructed as a retreat area.  I stopped to ask how he came up with this idea for his story.  He replied:

"Well, it was like Chlorissa. (She wrote about) that book (The Enchanted Wood) that had children who moved to the country.  I changed it around."

Brock's piece based on the The Enchanted Wood (Blyton, 1939) was primed (at least in part) by the fact that Chlorissa had done this earlier. 

I quickly observed a preoccupation with Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books in Inta’s class.  The teacher had read two of these books ('The Enchanted Wood' & 'The Magic Faraway Tree') in the first 4 weeks of school.  The third ('The Wishing Chair') was read over a two-week period some two months later. 

The teacher's reading of these books had a strong influence upon the writing of children in the classroom.  This showed itself in the students' narrative writing, in playground games, in letter writing and even at home.  In all, ten 'Blyton type' stories were written in this classroom during the year.

Chlorissa's writing that had inspired Brock and others to write their own Faraway Tree stories was begun in June (mid school year in Australia). She was still writing it at the end of the school year (December).  By this time the story was 20 pages long and Chlorissa had stuck each of the pages together to form a scroll, that could stretch almost across the width of the classroom (something she liked to do at the end of sessions).

Chlorissa's writing demonstrates what Katie Wood Ray was talking about; daily writing workshop can help children to develop stamina. This is stamina of two kinds, first, the ability just to stick at a task for a long period of time (30 minutes each day). Second, the ability to keep coming back to the same task day after day. This is one of the key skills of the writer, sticking with the writing task - stamina!

But I think the language story also demonstrates a few other things:

1. Writing workshop can encourage children to learn about the craft of writing.
2. It offers opportunities for young writers to write for 'real' audiences.
3. The sharing of writing can inspire other young writers.
4. Books are an important source of inspiration for young writers.

Other posts on writing
'Writing that Matters' HERE
'When do children start writing?' HERE
'Ten ways to encourage preschool writers' HERE

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Choosing Great Toys for Kids

This is the third time I've written a post on toys - toys that teach, challenge, stimulate and encourage creativity and learning. This is an updated version of a previous post. Before looking at examples of great toys, here are some key principles for choosing toys:

First, children don't need expensive toys to learn. I've written many other posts stressing that play in and, of itself, stimulates learning, problem solving, language development, creativity and so on (see for example my post 'The importance of simple play' here). There are many activities that require few or no bought materials within the child's world. We've all seen toddlers toss the toy to one side and play with the box. So too a pair of your shoes, a coat that quickly becomes a cape, some blocks that become just about anything in an imaginary story, the plastic or saucepan sections in the kitchen cupboards whose treasures can amuse children for hours and outdoor activities.

Second, even a single purpose toy that brings great pleasure but doesn't teach a lot can achieve more if adults are engaged to some extent with the activity. For example, a game like Hungry Hippos besides helping with basic counting, can also help children to learn about turn taking, being gracious as a winner and a loser and so on.

Third, if you were planning to spend significant sums of money on toys I would be aiming for toys that offer multiple purposes and varied areas of learning. My test for many toys would be:
  • Do they stimulate creativity and learning?
  • Do they encourage language use?
  • Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?
  • Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?
  • Do they help children to develop interpersonal skills (if it is a multi-player toy)? 
  • Do they require children to collaborate with and, play well with others?
  • Will the toy last (i.e. not fall apart)?
  • Is the toy good value for money?
  • Is the toy fun, interesting, challenging?
  • Will it sustain your child's attention beyond a few uses?

While you don't need bought toys to stimulate children, in this post I will talk about some of the bought toys that I find interesting and which have worked with our children and grandchildren. I'm not trying to be  comprehensive just offering examples of good toys that meet some of the criteria I outline above.

1. Timeless construction toys

No  family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. These toys help to develop good hand-eye coordination, encourage creativity and problem solving and can help to develop mathematical and spatial intelligence.  There are many types of construction toys that  children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:

Above: Father & son play with Knupferli (see below)

a) Wooden blocks of some type  - at our house our grandchildren still use the same set of blocks in  their original walker that our children did 30+ years ago (suitable for ages 6 months  to 3 years).
b) Lego  - probably all three types/sizes will be useful. Our children's Lego is now  played with by our grandchildren (suitable for age 6 months to 15  years).
c) Mobilo is one of my grandson Sam's favourite toys
d) Other more challenging connector toys - e.g. Knupferli  Construction materials (see above). I used the soft plastic Knupferli materials when I was in Kindergarten and only just rediscovered them again (ideal for age 5-10  years). You can use them to make a simple necklace or a complex 3D shape.
e) Meccano  - newer meccano sets (see right) are different, but they still combine  all the old skills and interest of the metal Meccano I had as a child  (age 5-15 years).

You can do many things with construction toys. Yes, you can build simply things like towers or shapes.
You can make houses, cars, anything (in the case of Lego).
In  combination with other objects (e.g. plastic animals or people) you can  tell stories - zoos can be created, aquariums, farms, space invaders  and dinosaurs can invade villages etc.
In some cases your children can learn how to follow instructions and design plans (e.g. Meccano, Knupferli & Lego).

What's great about construction toys is that they:
  • Help to develop hand-eye co-ordination
  • Encourage creativity and problem solving
  • Can help to develop spatial and geometric skills
Above: A family favourite, 'Zoob'
2. 'Toys' that allow you to create

These are not all toys, some are materials, but all allow children to be creative. Here are a few of my favourites:

a) Modelling clay  - you can buy cheap multi-coloured modelling clay for $2-3 per pack, or  you can make Play Dough. I've written a post on the creative use of  modelling clay (here). Suitable for all ages.
b) Magnetic learning boards with letters and shapes (age 12 months to 5 years), see picture to the right.
c) Magesketch (or some other variety) of this magnetic sketching board, age 12 months to 4 years.
d) Felt boards - there are many products of this type on the market (many of these are very cheap), age 2-6 years.

3. Model people, animal and objects

There  are many wonderful examples of toys that consist of people, animals,  dwellings, and objects that go with them like dolls houses, castles,  forts, arks etc. These allow children to engage in creative play either  alone or with others for long periods of time. These simple objects can  allow children to amuse themselves in a world of make believe and  fantasy at home, in the car, at other people's houses etc. They are a  wonderful way for children to create (verbally) their first  narratives.

Some of the simplest are perhaps the best:

a) Keep a box of animals  - depending on the child's interests these might be farm animals (under  12 months), African animals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and people -  these can be used alone or with other toys (see the shot of Sam above  with his Lego 'zoo').
b) Commercial sets like the Little People  series and Sylvanian Families are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's  Ark to which we've added other animals. This has kept all our  grandchildren engaged for hours (0-3 years).
c) A doll's house  will keep boys and girls engaged in creative play for ages and there are modern variations on  the same theme with medieval castles complete within knights and  dragons (age 2 -8).

4. Mathematical or Spatial Skill Toys

a) Perpetual puzzles   - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura. They add a new level of   creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall   puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.
b) Blokus is a relatively new puzzle game with simple rules, but it can keep adults and children stimulated for ages. The purpose of the game is for each player to place his/her 21 pieces on  the board (or at least the maximum number of pieces) in a continuous span unimpeded by other players' pieces. It can be played by 2 or 4 people.
c) M-Tic  

This is a brilliant and simple construction type game that consists of  multi-coloured plastic pieces with magnetic ends. The purpose of the  game is to create geometric shapes. It is excellent for developing  geometrical and spatial knowledge. If you can't find this version there are other similar examples at good toy shops (see the picture below).
d) Puzzles of all kinds - puzzles are brilliant for developing memory, patience and a variety of spatial skills. Young children can start with simply puzzles that require them to insert an animal or shape into a single hole. Later they can move to simply 6-20 piece puzzles then much more complex puzzles as they develop their skills.

5. Other categories

There  are many other toys that allow children to have fun, learn, manipulate  and develop fine motor skills. Here are just a few examples that I  spotted at my local Toy Shop this week. If you live in Sydney Monkey Puzzle Toy Store  is worth a look, it's one of the best toyshops I've seen. The owners  know and are passionate about toys. Find a good local toy store where  the owners choose, sell and enjoy toys.

a) Magnetic (Mudpuppy) Dress up Figures - these come in a metal box and the mannequins vary (e.g. sports model, pirate, ballerina, monster, mermaid etc).
b) Chicken Socks craft sets (Klutz) - These are cheap and have a variety of separate packets including 'Crayon Rubbings', 'Fun Felt', 'Simple Sewing', 'Hand Art' etc.
c) Puppets  - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different  types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets and string  puppets.
d) Card games of all kinds. There are so many wonderful card games today that encourage language and mathematics and also encourage sharing and collaboration. Some recent favourites include 'Rush Hour' and 'Story Cubes'. 

There  are obviously many great toys that I haven't mentioned. In my home I'd  always want to have puzzles, lots of writing implements (crayons,  pencils, chalk, varied papers), toys that teach numbers and letters,  toys that train hand-eye co-ordination (through threading, putting  things in holes etc), percussion instruments, Thomas Trains and cars  (especially for boys), a dress-up box and so on.