Toys That Teach—Playing to Learn

Published with Permission

Written by Lindy Abbott


Ask children, “What is a toy?” and they will quickly reply, “It is something to play with, fun, and used over and over again.” Then ask adults, “What is a toy?” and often they will think of things seen in a store display or even reflect about their favorite toy while growing up. Such a simple question may sound silly, but it is really essential. If we are going to discover toys that teach, we must first determine what makes an object a toy.

Manufacturers are keenly aware of their customers’ motivations and consequently often promote their products as “educational.” They make toys that they hope will appeal to both children and parents. Of course, all parents want their children to play, but parents also want to encourage their children to learn. Finding toys that promote a child’s ability learn while he plays sounds like a perfect purchase—money well spent.

In theory, this all sounds ideal—everybody wins! However, in reality, are educational toys the best toys? Or more precisely, are they toys at all?

Child Development

Children build an astounding amount of brainpower in the early years. They begin learning via interaction with concrete objects: their mother’s face, a soft cuddly blanket, and a musical mobile circling above the bed. Babies also learn to respond to sounds, touch, and taste by associating these with concrete objects: a specific male voice belongs to Daddy and satisfying food comes from sucking on a bottle.

Human senses are the very first windows through which children learn. As infants grow into toddlers, their learning is still mostly related to concrete objects rather than abstract concepts or ideas. Have you ever shown a child a ball and then hidden it and asked, “Where’s the ball?” The child looks puzzled, because for him, out of sight means out of mind. He needs to actually see the ball to tell you where it is.

As children age they learn to associate symbols with sounds and objects. A Bb represents the sound |-b-| as in the word bat. The brain systematically develops different sections, creating pathways for higher-level areas of abstract thinking: substituting objects, determining which items work best, finding new uses for objects, and wondering if something could be made. All of these types of learning can be encouraged and developed by playing with toys.

A perfect example of this is when a child gets a new LEGO kit. Most children follow the illustrated instructions and build the toy pictured on the box, but some children will disassemble that object and create a new, original one by adding other bricks, removing some, or simply putting them together in a different way. The try-and-miss discovery style of assembly is a higher level of abstract thinking than following pictured directions to make the model, and therefore this type of play should be encouraged.

Classic Toys

As a result of my love for history and research, I started to dig into the origins of toys. I was hoping to identify the point at which a toy changed from being something for play to something for learning. After receiving many sample products from several companies, I was surprised to learn how many times my children were disappointed with the product and commented that the item sent was not a toy. This caused me to wonder if the focus of the toy industry had shifted too much in trying to make “toys that teach,” thus inadvertently overlooking the key element of playability.

Prior to the last hundred years, most toys were homemade and were constructed from natural resources. Families made toys with rocks, clay, sticks, leftover scraps of fabric, buttons, and dry vegetation. For example, early American children shaped cornhusks into dolls and carved spinning tops and yo-yos from wood.

We don’t usually think of making our own toys; we simply go out and buy them. Toy manufacturers have come into existence only in the last hundred years. As a matter of fact, Barbie and Play-Doh initially came out in the 1950s. Mr. Potato Head was the first toy to be advertised on TV in 1952.

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