If you’re the doting dad of a four or five year old, the end of this summer heralds a whopping milestone – their very first day at school. Exciting stuff it may be, but also a nervy time for your little ’un – and you. Happily, there are some first-class toys and games to help your newbie prepare for their first few weeks in the classroom, and have them racing through those school gates without so much as a backward glance (just as well – wouldn’t want them to catch you blubbing)…
Pre-schoolers can be crafty. You may be the proud owner of one who can genuinely read and write, but when some children of this age are ‘reading’ aloud, they’ve actually memorised their favourite tales, sometimes even whole books – and hats off to them. But when it comes to teaching kids to read for real, even the best-intentioned dad can get it wrong. First, phonics are tricky – just how do you pronounce ‘e’? – plus, most pre-schoolers have more entertaining business to attend to than listening to Dad making weird ‘eeergh’ noises and yabber on about uppercases. So take the pressure off with a toy that knows what it’s talking about. With three action-packed games and five learning levels, the Word Whammer gets kids busy developing phonics skills as they spin, push and twist the handles to identify letters and build words. Thrust the handle to blast a rocket into letters to spell more than 100 words. Match upper and lowercase letters by spinning the handle to bump a car into the correct answer. Listen for a letter sound, then twist the handle fast to spin the teacup into the letter that makes that sound. The learning adapts automatically, keeping kids challenged as they play through the levels, while you sit in a corner practising those pesky phonics.
LeapFrog Word Hammer (ages 4+): £14.99. Leapfrogstore.co.uk
Pre-School Countdown Calendar
If your little one is becoming more apprehensive as the big day approaches, a nifty way to turn foreboding into excitement is with this toy-packed calendar. In fact, the Wow Countdown Calendar was specifically developed following on from focus groups held with parents, whom – like you – didn’t want their children turning into nervous wrecks come the first day at school. Each numbered window in the 10-day calendar contains a surprise toy. Once all 10 have been collected, your nipper can put them together to create a cool school-themed playset. The classroom and playground graphics are bright and colourful, and make a brilliant backdrop to imaginative play. Toys include a see-saw and a playground slide for the boy and girl figures to whizz down, a learn-to-tell-the-time clock, a couple of push-along scooters, a rotating classroom table with seats, and a friendly-looking teacher. Top, interactive fun and a genuine way to get even the most nervous of children (and their anxious dads) excited about starting school.
Wow Pre-School Countdown Calendar (ages 1+): £14.99. argos.co.uk
Zingo 1, 2, 3
If maths was never your strong point at school – or now – leave it to the professionals to come up with a way to have your pre-schooler giving Claudia Winkleman a run for her money. With Zingo! 1-2-3, 72 cards are placed in the ‘zinger’ and each player is given a Zingo board. Slide the zinger and it magically deals two cards, which players must try to match on their Zingo boards. The first player with a full card wins the game by yelling “Zingo!”. Because the number tiles show numerals, whereas the Zingo boards show images and the written number (one, two etc), players learn to match one with the other. What’s more, it’s a great way for kids who are all fingers and thumbs to develop fine motor skills (that zinger won’t load itself!), while older siblings can join in the fun with younger ones by varying the difficulty rating. Zingo!
Zingo Number Bingo (ages 4+): £15. Coiledspring.co.uk
Even for the most confident of children, starting school is a huge step, so it’s only natural there’ll be fears and worries along the way. But as a dad, there are few things more distressing than seeing your little ‘un withdrawn and upset, especially if they won’t – or can’t – talk to you about it. Enter Toy of the Year 2014, the Sorgenfresser Worry Eater. Specially created to help children deal with their fears, these kooky-looking critters take their cue from the ‘problem shared is a problem halved’ motto and aim to obliterate said problem by gobbling it up in their monster-sized zip-up mouths. All you have to do is encourage your nipper to write or draw their anxieties onto pieces of paper and feed them into the gaping mouth of their wide-eyed Worry Eater, then zip it shut. Safely sealed away, and with a little help from Dad, your worry monger will be able to put their fears behind them. Available in three sizes – key ring (£6), junior (£12.50) and classic (£20) – surely it’s only a matter of time until they do dad-sized ones, too.
Sorgenfresser Worry Eater (ages 3+): £6-£20. Amazon.co.uk
All About School Sticker Book
We don’t usually include books in our Toys & Games reviews, but the All About School Sticker Book gets top marks for being full of interactive educational fun and, as the name suggests, it’s packed with cool stickers (we’re suckers for stickers). Using friendly characters and a range of activities to encourage learning and develop foundation skills, All About School takes newbies through every step of their first day – from getting ready in the morning to checking out their new classroom. There are titles for every little learner in Galt’s Home Learning series – covering everything from spelling and counting to handwriting and times tables – and, of course, they’re all packed with colourful stickers for your kids to get stuck in to!
Galt All About School Sticker Book (ages 4+): £2.99. Galttoys.com
Fish ‘N’ Spell
Now this is a top example of how a game can promote learning through having a right good time. Requiring skill, speed and a steady hand, the aim of Fish ‘N’ Spell is to pick one of the 100 word cards, grab your magnetic fishing rod and then race to be the first to fish out the letters needed to spell your given word. All of the cards contain a picture of the item and the word – such as a bird, horse or farm. But you’ll also find the word written in Spanish, Italian and French, providing a nifty educational dimension, helping your nipper to become a budding bi-linguist (kids are so much better are learning languages than us grown-ups). Big gold star for this fishy game.
Fish ‘N’ Spell (ages 4+): £19. Mulberrybush.co.uk