Toys for the Brain

Nine gifts for children that are educational, affordable, eco-friendly — and fun.

Finding the right gifts for kids is an exercise in choosing products that will bring more than shiny new clutter into your home. That means selecting toys that parents might actually appreciate, that allow children to explore a skill or learn something new, and which don’t reinforce gender stereotypes.

In the East Bay, there’s also a wide selection of toys that are affordable and responsibly produced (recycled materials galore!). We talked to local storeowners about their favorite picks — toys that have already proven to be popular among kids.

Kinetic Sand

Cleaner than the sandbox and more fun than Play-Doh, Kinetic Sand offers a unique molding material that’s irresistible to kids and soothing to adults. It’s made of 98 percent sand and 2 percent “mystery” material, explained Natalie Lipp, a sales associate at The Ark Toy Store in Berkeley. “It moves on its own and you can mold it,” she said, noting that that the mystery 2 percent is non-toxic and gluten-free. You don’t have to get Kinetic Sand wet for usage; it sticks together on its own, making cleanup easy, and it doesn’t dry out. Seeing is believing!

Available at The Ark Toy Store


The Q-Ba-Maze combines two beloved toys into one interactive product: It allows kids to build sculptures that, when completed, also function as marble runs. (The building blocks come with little passageways that connect into paths for marbles to roll through.) The product includes guides for building dinosaurs, trees, robots, ice cream sundaes, and much more. And especially creative users are encouraged to design their own original sculptures. Kids five and up — and adults — can enjoy these modern-age building blocks that take marble mazes to a whole new level.

Available at The Ark Toy Store

Miyim Set

The only item in this guide that’s for babies, the Miyim set is one of the best gifts in town for newborns, according to Lipp at the Ark Toy Store. The set includes a small blanket, a stuffed rabbit, and a little rattle shaped like a duck. The materials used in production make it an extra safe and responsible choice for consumers, said Lipp. The company uses all-organic cotton and vegetable-based dyes, as well as stuffing made from recycled plastic bottle fibers. “Very eco-friendly, nice and cute, and soft and cuddly,” she said. A win-win-win.

Available at The Ark Toy Store

Demolition Lab

Science is extra fun when it involves explosions. That’s the thinking behind the Demolition Lab Triple Blast Warehouse, one of the most in-demand products at Five Little Monkeys, which has locations in Albany and Walnut Creek. Kids can mix and match more than sixty walls, spires, beams, and panels to create buildings, which they can then send tumbling down with strategically placed blasters. “Build a building and just blow it up,” explained Shana Olson, Five Monkeys’ marketing coordinator. The maker, a company called Smart Lab Toys, recommends the product for ages eight to twelve. It offers a colorful way to learn about the science of power, force, momentum, and gravity. And, you know, explosions.

Available at Five Little Monkeys

GoldieBlox: Spinning Machine

Oakland-based company GoldieBlox aims to level the playing field for women in science, technology, engineering, and math. The hope is to “disrupt the pink aisle” with construction toys that take a female perspective. The “Spinning Machine” contains a book series and construction set starring Goldie, a female inventor. It comes with a variety of design ideas and building options and is designed to teach girls (ages four to nine) spatial skills, basic engineering principles, and confidence in problem-solving.

Available at Five Little Monkeys


This is one of those rare toys that adults enjoy just as much as kids, according to Mae Frey, one of the owners of Ruby’s Garden in Oakland. “Grownups want it in their house and kids have fun with it,” she said of the Cubebots, which are foldable, wooden robots that come in a range of sizes and colors. Their joints are like little rubber bands, and children (or adults) can fold the figures into different shapes, including a compact cube. Designed by a company called Areaware, the smaller Cubebots make great stocking stuffers while the larger versions work well as standalone gifts.

Available at Ruby’s Garden

Baby Leo Capes

Another popular item at Ruby’s Garden, these shiny and colorful capes from Baby Leo Designs “merge unusual and vibrant combinations of colors, textures and patterns into unique, wrappable pieces of art,” the manufacturer states on its website. In simpler terms, they are superhero capes for children. “They’re very kid-power,” said Frey. For gift-givers willing to shell out a little extra cash, Ruby’s Garden can facilitate a custom design. Otherwise, there are many options to choose from, such as rockets, flowers, lightning bolts, dinosaurs, and more. The capes are designed and handcrafted in San Francisco, “from cut to finish — no assembly lines,” the website states. They’re also sweatshop-free and free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

Available at Ruby’s Garden

Green Toys

Green Toys are like new age-y Fisher-Price products, but more eco-friendly and, in our opinion, a lot cooler. Based in San Francisco, the company makes classic children’s toys constructed out of recycled plastic and other environmentally friendly materials. They’re all produced in California to cut down on energy costs related to transportation, and the main ingredient in the toys is recycled milk containers. Every pound of milk jugs used in Green Toys saves the equivalent of 3,000 AAA batteries’ worth of energy, the company estimates. At Rockridge Kids in Oakland, the rocket ship and ferry boat models are very popular, employee Aminta Steinbach said. “Any kid who sees it immediately goes to it.”

Available at Rockridge Kids

Gummi Bear Anatomy

This toy — available at Mr. Mopps’, one of our favorite local shops — is just the right kind of weird that makes it stand out in a pile of gifts. The “4-D Gummi Bear Anatomical Model,” as the name suggests, offers children a look inside the complex anatomy — organs, skeletons, and more — of a gummy bear. A bizarre take on traditional toys displaying human anatomy, the Gummi Bear features transparent skin revealing the muscular and skeletal system that you never knew a gummy bear actually had. “It’s an educational item,” said Devin McDonald, Mr. Mopps’ co-owner. The (inedible) gift gives kids a rare look at the intricate biology of a (candy) bear.

Available at Mr. Mopps’


The Ark Toy Store, 1812 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-849-1930,,

Five Little Monkeys, 1224 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-528-4411,,

Mr. Mopps’, 1405 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, 510-525-9633,

Rockridge Kids, 5511 College Ave., Oakland, 510-601-5437,

Ruby’s Garden, 5026 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-595-5325,


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