Toys That Teach—Playing to Learn

Parents who want to buy a toy that can teach look for easy-to-identify learning skills such as matching, sorting, counting, patterns, letters, and words. Certainly those types of toys can teach educational concepts, but even toys that do not advertise their ability to teach skills actually promote learning in a much less obvious but more engaging way. For example, in a toy kitchen you can talk about what to prepare for meals, sort food into categories, identify the colors of the food, ask how many kinds of fruit are available, or make a menu to choose items from. All of these topics relate to academic lessons. If you add toy money to pay for a meal and to buy groceries, you have expanded the activities to teach children about numbers, addition, subtraction, and money concepts. Therefore, when looking for toys that teach, I highly recommend that you consider the common beneficial qualities that the most commendable toys have in common—from centuries ago until today:

  • Intrinsic playability
  • Ingenuity
  • Strong construction
  • Action

Playability

Playability is essentially the play value of a toy. Toys with greater playability are fun to play for a long time and provide a wide range of playing options. The more ways a child can incorporate a toy into entertainment, discovery, and adventure, the more a child will intrinsically learn through using it.

As an early childhood educator, I have studied research and participated in lab experiences, observing ways that children play. Children are drawn to objects that make them laugh or squeal with delight, challenge their inquisitive nature, and fuel their creative expression. An adult should not have to suggest how to have fun with a toy. Of course, parents who come alongside their children can encourage additional methods of extending the play value, but initially the intended purpose should be self-evident to a child.

As I search for great toys, I look for toys that score high in the area of playability. One toy I recently reviewed was a mini glider bike by GliderBikes (www.glidebikes.com). It was easy to assemble (and came with all the tools needed). In a few minutes I had put it together. Although I don’t have little children, my teens enthusiastically jumped on the glider bike and flew up and down our wooden hallway. Ed Mondello, an experienced mountain bike rider and the inventor, wanted his young children to be able to “ride” a bicycle without it constantly tipping over and scraping their knees. Consequently, he created a lightweight frame designed that maintains balance and exhibits excellent durability. This toy is a winner because it has instant natural appeal to children (and a late-night assembler will be finished with the job in a few minutes).

For children, the fun factor is the most important feature. If the toy is not enjoyable it will not be used, and soon it will be ignored and will begin to gather dust. How many times have parents bought a popular toy for their child to find that the child is more interested in the box? Children do not need to be coaxed to play with great toys!

Keep in mind that some toys have a higher appeal for a specific child, depending on how God created him. Very few toys are universally appealing to every child; therefore, your child’s likes and dislikes determine the playability factor of a specific toy.

Ingenuity

A child’s ability to freely express what he feels and thinks develops effortlessly as long as he is nurtured. As parents, we need to observe our children to see what each one’s unique bent is and then provide each child with things that will likely develop his interests. In our high-tech age, parents should resist the urge to buy toys that are noisy, flashy, or entertaining, because they require very little invention, construction, or strategy by the child. Non-electronic toys usually inspire resourcefulness and creativity.

For children, playtime is work time. Early years of play establish the foundation for success in school and beyond. Children are born with the ability to discover, absorb, imitate, repeat, and grow. As we mature, we learn socially accepted behavior, boundaries, and norms.

Peer influence and adult-directed activities most frequently curb a child’s unique approach to playtime. Instead of uncovering new ways to enjoy a toy, a child will often choose to simply repeat what has been modeled in order to fulfill his innate desire to belong.

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