School Literacy & Culture’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide

Our Top 20 Stay Home, Stay Safe, Have Fun Picks
For children 4 – 8 years old

Welcome to the 2020 School Literacy & Culture Holiday Gift Guide! 2020… what a year! It is hard to believe that we welcomed the new decade with open arms, and within a few short weeks news of the novel coronavirus spread. March brought us quarantining at home, summer came and went, school started online or with facemasks and shields, and nine months after it all began we are bracing for a holiday season unlike any other. This year, instead of planning large family meals, holiday gatherings, and cross-country travels, we are planning our feasts for our immediate household and sending Zoom invitations so we can share pumpkin pie and family stories on the computer screen rather than gathered around the same table.

While disappointment and sadness at not doing things the way we have always done them may be underpinning this holiday season, there is still much to celebrate as we look at finding new traditions to embrace with those in our households and give thanks for technology, which is serving to unite us virtually, and safely, with those we love near and far. As always, children are the best and most prominent reminder to find joy in the holiday season, in moments both big and small. At School Literacy & Culture, we are encouraging each other to focus not on what we can’t do, but instead on what we can. We can’t (or shouldn’t) gather with our large family of 20+ for our traditional holiday meals, but we can still pull out our favorite recipes, and make our family’s traditional dishes for those in our household. We can’t (or may not want to) embark on our typical travels to celebrate the holiday season with our loved ones, but we can use Zoom or FaceTime to play games virtually (read on to find some of our favorite games/activities to share with loved ones over a shared video screen!) for a new take on quality time.

It is critically important as adults that we impart this way of thinking on to our children in such a trying time. Little ears and little hearts learn their big lessons from us. Let them hear our recognition of disappointment, but also our choice to embrace the positives in precarious circumstances. Let us adjust our communication, perhaps in the form of “Well, we can’t do… and that’s a bummer. I’m disappointed, too. But, we can… and that is awesome! Let’s plan/come up with some fun ideas to make this special together!” Children love taking part in the planning of events and coming up with creative new ideas. Invite them into your holiday planning and see where the magic takes you! Gratefully, most children are “glass half full” thinkers naturally. Even when it seems we can only see the glass less than half full, let us remind ourselves to be more like our children, the ones who see the possibilities.

As with most everything else in 2020, the holiday shopping season is shaping up to be “different”, too. In light of the global pandemic, many retailers are foregoing the annual Black Friday shopping hours and instead featuring online Black Friday shopping deals that last all month long. Additionally, many retailers are offering free shipping, assisting in keeping shoppers home rather than in crowded aisles attempting to do the social distancing shuffle. Therefore, we encourage you to get a nice hot cup of coffee, tea, chai or chocolate and surf for some deals from the comfort of your own home!

You will notice that our gift list this year is geared towards children four to eight years old, and all gifts are selected with the goal of supporting social distancing and encouraging quality family time together with those in your home. Our gift guide this year also includes activities children can do independently or with their siblings, because we know, as parents ourselves, that we often need activities that will keep our children engaged as we complete some necessary adult tasks – whether that be answering emails or calls for work, or folding the ever-present piles of laundry. In addition, all of our gifts this year are moderately priced, as many families may be more financially restricted than in years past. We have also included a couple of great books that pair nicely with other gifts in the guide, and a couple of new favorite texts.

Our team at School Literacy & Culture wishes all of you a very happy holiday season. May you relish time with those you love, savor togetherness in new ways, and delight in what you can do in this unique holiday season.

2020 Gift Guide


Games are a fantastic way to spend quality time around the table with those we love! These games foster a mix of strategic thinking, oral language development, executive functioning and literacy skills. Buy one or buy them all, our SLC staff is hooked on these favorites!

  1. Table Topics for Kids/ Table Topics Español Family Edition
  2. Qwirkle
  3. Ticket to Ride First Journey
  4. Boggle Jr. and Boggle
  5. Kanoodle Head to Head

Outdoor Play

With continued social distancing suggested, we are spending lots of time in our respective backyards for outdoor play! Here are a few of our favorite outside gifts that keep kids active and enjoying our temperate Houston winters.

  1. Slammo
  2. Ladder Golf
  3. Walkie-Talkies
  4. Audobon Backyard Birdwatcher Guide and Binoculars
  5. Outdoor Explorer Kit

Indoor Play

Gifts to inspire indoor play are a “must” in 2020! From craft activities to science experiments, keep your little ones’ hands and minds busy with these goodies. Paint some rocks with your children and place them around your neighborhood to spread joy to those that find them, build FuseBead creations to inspire new play ideas (parent help required J) around the house, and if you choose to give the Smithsonian Maker Lab book to a young child, consider including the materials to carry out one or two of the simple experiments. That way, children can jump right into the fun with no delay in needing to purchase or find the materials around the house!

  1. Fuse Beads Craft Kit
  2. Paint by Sticker Books
  3. Smithsonian Maker Lab Book
  4. Rock Painting Kit
  5. M& D Floor Puzzles


If you know us at School Literacy & Culture, you know we cannot publish a gift guide without including some great children’s books! Here are a couple of our favorite texts to pair with other items on our gift guide, as well as a book to inspire children to try new things and another to help little ones understand the COVID19 crisis in a developmentally appropriate way.

  1. Scribble Stones (to go with Rock Painting Kit)
  2. National Geographic Kid’s World Atlas (to go with Ticket to Ride First Journey)
  3. National Geographic Bugopedia (to go with Outdoor Explorer Kit)
  4. The Koala Who Could (trying new things, examples from quarantine)
  5. And The People Stayed Home

We wanted to share with you some ideas of things young children can do with loved ones on Zoom or FaceTime. If your children are anything like ours, it is hard to keep them engaged in virtual gatherings! We have found that playing games with grandparents, friends, and extended family members is a welcome way to connect and spend some meaningful time with others as we social distance. Some of our favorite games to play on Zoom are: Bingo, Charades, Pictionary, Guess Who?, Battleship and Scattergories. While some of these games require both parties to have the game (like Guess Who? and Battleship), others (like Bingo and Scattergories) only require one party to have the game. Completing a word search, crossword puzzle, or MadLib can also be a fun way to spend time together virtually! We’ve found that snapping a photo of the crossword or word search and sending it to the grandparents or friends works beautifully! Then, children and their loved one can sit together and complete the puzzle virtually. Again, there is so much we can’t do (or shouldn’t do) right now, but there is so much we still CAN! We’d love to hear ideas from you, too, about ways you’ve found to connect creatively with loved ones in this era of social distancing!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

School Literacy & Culture’s 2018 Gift Guide: Our Top 25 STEAM Picks

Gifts to inspire Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math learning in young children

Welcome to the 2018 SLC Holiday Gift Guide! We hope this post finds you gearing up for the holiday season, planning big meals for family and friends and enjoying this cooler weather that, we hope, is here to stay. Thanksgiving marks the kick-off of the holiday shopping season and our gift guide is here for you just in time! This year, we’re focusing on STEAM gifts. Traditionally, we hear STEM referred to more often than STEAM, with STEM being an integrated approach to teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to children. In recent years, however, there has been an emphasis on adding the arts into the STEM studies, creating a more comprehensive approach to these competencies. The addition of “Art” to STEM (STEAM) doesn’t refer to just painting and drawing, but to the liberal arts as a whole. It refers to the importance of incorporating open-ended opportunities for innovative design and creative thinking, even including other content areas like music, the humanities and writing. Marrying Art with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics demonstrates that “the arts” and STEM are not at all at odds, but instead they work cooperatively to build up well-rounded young learners. Integrating these competencies in meaningful ways rather than isolating them leads to a treasure of learning opportunities for young children.

Last year we shared with you a new text that the SLC staff and mentor teachers read called Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us about Raising Successful Children by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff. Originally written for parents, we’ve used the text in a variety of settings as we share with others the importance of fostering the “6C’s” of 21st century learning in young children. The 6C’s are:

  • collaboration
  • communication
  • content (deep knowledge of an academic subject area)
  • critical thinking
  • creative innovation
  • confidence

The 6C’s provide a “suite of skills that will help children to be socially adept, flexible thinkers who take joy in a lifetime of learning” (p.6). These 6C’s, the authors suggest, are the key to our future. We must nurture children who are willing to ask hard questions and come up with creative solutions. We must cultivate imagination and collaboration between children, because the problems of today are likely not the problems of tomorrow. Without an intense focus on these competencies in our homes and in our classrooms, we risk teaching our children to “know” but not to think about what they know and, perhaps most importantly, use their knowledge in positive and productive ways. Knowledge itself will only take a learner so far; creatively using the knowledge they have to come up with new ideas, solve problems in innovative ways, or ask novel questions about old theories are the skills children need for the future.

In this year’s gift guide, we’ve made an effort to share STEAM inspired items with you that also foster the 6C’s.  The items you see listed in our gift guide this year are most appropriate for children in preschool through first grade, though with parent assistance some could be used for children a little older or younger. We’ve scoured our own children’s playrooms, closets, and holiday wish lists to share with you our top 25 STEAM picks. The range of gifts is wide—you’ll see science lab kits to board games, paper-making sets to Stomp Rockets, telescopes to Tinker Toys. We’ve also included a book list for you at the end of the guide with a few of our favorite STEAM books for children. We hope this list inspires you and the children in your life, and makes your endless holiday shopping to-do list a little bit easier to master.

On a final note, as you greet your Amazon boxes at the door and your wrapping paper rolls are emptied as you tie up pretty packages, remember to save them! As excited as the young children in your life will be to play with their new STEAM gifts, you’ll also give them the gift of using their imaginations with these recycled materials. Children will take their STEAM learning to new heights as they build structures and inventions from empty boxes, paper rolls and everyday household materials like a roll of tape, a pack of markers and some play-dough.

Happy holidays to all of you! We wish you a joyful season full of play, creativity and togetherness.

STEAM1 Continue reading

Posted in gift guide | Leave a comment

School Literacy & Culture’s 2017 Gift Guide: Gifts for Play Around the Home

Play Around the Home: Gifts for Where Children Spend Their Time

Welcome to the 2017 SLC Holiday Gift Guide! We hope this post finds you embracing the holiday season with Thanksgiving just around the corner and the promise of precious time spent with family and friends near. With Thanksgiving, of course, comes the opening of the holiday shopping season and our gift guide is here for you just in time! This year, we’re focusing on “Play Around the Home.” The gifts you see on this list are organized by place in the home and are most appropriate for children aged three to six years old, though some of the materials can be used for children a little older and a little younger.

At SLC, we’ve recently read a book titled, Becoming Brilliant by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff. This text walks readers through what they call the “6C’s” of 21st century learning: collaboration, communication, content (deep knowledge of an academic subject area), critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. These 6C’s, the authors suggest, are what children need to become “knowledge transformers” rather than “knowledge digesters” (p5); to become the productive thinkers and dreamers of our tomorrows. Our futures quite literally depend on the creative thinkers we are growing and building up in our homes and classrooms! The gifts we’ve selected for this year’s gift guide encourage these 6C’s in young children as they play with friends, siblings and perhaps most importantly, cherished adults in their lives.

You’ll notice these gift picks do not include any technology, and only two items in the whole gift guide even require batteries. The materials are uncomplicated and focus on children engaging with the materials in authentic ways. There are opportunities for building, making music and art, fostering early literacy skills and pretend play options in this gift guide; the sort of play materials young children need most. Don’t get us wrong, there is a time and place for those hot toy items, too (Hatchimals in 2016 or Fingerlings in 2017, anyone?), but we want to be sure that toys like those are balanced with play opportunities that provide numerous occasions to foster children’s oral language development and budding imaginations. So, anticipate seeing a lot of “tried and true” and classic toys on our gift guide this year because some things are just so good they never go out of style!

With little ones in the home, you can bet parents spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen. Someone is always hungry, and prepping meals and snacks takes time! These items are excellent additions to a child’s stash of toys that make for excellent play in the kitchen while a parent or caretaker is making a meal. Wondering why we included Play-Doh and tools rather than a pretend play food set? While the wooden or plastic pretend food is great, a banana will always be just a banana. But with Play-Doh and a set of plastic dough tools your child can create all kinds of imaginative dishes and not be limited to the items in the pretend food basket. Pine cone and pear soup, anyone? Magnets also make a great option for kitchen play as most dishwashers have a magnetic surface. Children can practice building words or creating scenes and play scenarios with the magnets suggested here!
Continue reading

Posted in gift guide | Leave a comment

Listening for the Stories

Like hundreds of thousands of Houstonians, our team at Rice University’s School Literacy and Culture program returned to work this week for the first time after Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic weather event ravaged our city.  We came in jeans and tennis shoes because we couldn’t muster the energy to dress in professional attire and we gathered around the table.  There was work to do, but somehow we couldn’t do it until we’d shared our stories… stories of hunkering down, of four year olds who wore helmets and played in bathtubs through tornado warnings, of loved ones whose homes filled with water and lost everything.  We juggled the guilt of being the lucky ones who entered the homes of our neighbors and the sanctuaries of our churches and used sledgehammers to take out our frustration as we took down drywall.  We hadn’t lost everything, and in many cases we hadn’t lost any thing, yet our world had been shaken.  We were no longer asking “What day is it?”, yet we were still in search of our “new normal.”

Because we are early childhood educators, our conversation quickly turned to the children.  As adults, we had a compelling need to share our stories before we could re-enter the regular world.  “Children will need this opportunity to talk, too,” we said.  Then we asked ourselves, “How can we create these safe spaces for children to share their stories?”

This activity guide is our attempt to work with our colleagues across the city who are just beginning to welcome preschoolers and kindergarteners back into their classrooms.  None of us really know what we will find as the children return to us, but when we talk it through, we realize that our backgrounds as early childhood educators have prepared us to support them. Please share this document with your teaching team, your leadership teams and your fellow educators as we begin to help children recover from the traumatic experiences associated with Harvey.SLC Listening for the Stories-102017 Find the PDF version of “Listening for the Stories: Supporting Prekindergarten and Kindergarten Students as They Return to the Classroom” on our website.

Written by Karen Capo, Jordan Khadam-Hir, Debbie Paz and Vanessa Vierra of Rice University’s School Literacy & Culture
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Program Feature: Writing Across the Curriculum


While it is easy to think of writing as its own “subject,” in reality writing is crucial across disciplines and areas of life. When developed and harnessed effectively, the symbolic thinking skills, confidence, motor skills, inventiveness and more that children gain from creative writing can be translated into success in social studies, science, math and beyond–a true testament to writing’s ability to meet children’s needs in innovative ways. Further, while writing can be an intimidating and frustrating endeavor for many children, educators can utilize activities and techniques that make writing meaningful and exciting. Doing so sets children up with the tools and motivation they need for a life of learning.

Given the powerful promise and urgent necessity of developing children’s writing abilities across the curriculum, we invite you to participate in a three-day workshop this July that provides the opportunity to discover fresh, effective writing activities and techniques that span the genres. Expert School Literacy and Culture mentors and Creative Writing Camp teachers will share narrative, expository and poetry prompts that transfer directly to the classroom, specifically addressing English, science and social studies.

Participants will be divided into two sections. Pre-K through 1st grade teachers will discover techniques that are meaningful to emergent writers and develop expertise in evaluating a variety of strategies for teaching writing and developing voice in the early childhood classroom. Teachers of 2nd through 4th grade will focus on creative writing formats across genres that are meaningful to students, with an emphasis on strategies that make it possible for students to transfer skills learned in creative writing exercises to standardized writing prompts.

Learn more and register for Writing Across the Curriculum. We hope to see you there!



Authored by Magen Eissenstat, Rice University School Literacy & Culture Senior Intern


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment