Educational Toys that Really Educate
Imagine yourself staring into the box. Pulsing light, an eerie thrum, and odd scents greet you. Knots of hair wrapped around hammers, covered in glitter catches your eye. The toy box is a weird mix of shapes, colors, and smells. As the contents of the box stare back at you, warping your mind, you wonder: how are these supposed to be educational toys? These things are supposed to be teaching your child all sorts of things. Yes, the packaging said they were educational, but you haven't noticed anything except an additional amount of goo on your walls.
Has the old Speak & Spell become obsolete and been replaced with something a little more high-tech? What are these toys actually teaching and do they actually work?
“ It has less to do with what the toy can do and more to do with what your child can do with the toy.”
Experts agree that playing with toys is important to the development of any child. Seriously, just search the scientific journal "Infant Behavior and Development" and you will find that there are more than 800 articles just since 2009 which deal with toys as a topic.
Roughly speaking, there are considered to be four areas of childhood development:
So what does that mean for toys? Well, it means that the toy needs to work with one of these developmental areas to stimulate a positive change. It has less to do with what the toy can do and more to do with what your child can do with the toy.
“...would you even play with that thing?”
There are plenty of toymakers out there that claim their product can teach your kid calculus but are really just a stand for a computer tablet or something similarly useless. Be careful of such unrealistic claims. A toy shouldn't just claim to stimulate development, your child needs to be able to play with it. A child could certainly learn the periodic table of the elements if they just applied herself themselves to reading a chemistry book and learned how to read complete sentences, but they would probably rather waste their time having another tea party with that plush-toy, Mr. Buns!
Something to consider is: would you even play with that thing? Seriously. If you won't even play with it, how do you expect anyone else to? With this kind of criteria in mind, let us look at some potential toys.
As a note: this list is cultivated for kids between 3 and 6 years old. As the parent, you get to decide if your kid is too young or too old for a toy. Those suggestions on the boxes are thus just suggestions.
Yes, the Fisher Price Code-a-pillar is a crawling pun but is also cool and fun. Simply put, the Code-a-Pillar is a very basic way of teaching rudimentary programming.
Each body segment performs whichever action is displayed on top. And it isn't limited to directions. It also can play music and give a little light show. Though the concept is very simple, the application is also very well done.
Does it fulfill any of the requirements from above for an educational toy? Let's see. Does it stimulate physical, cognitive, emotional, and social areas? The cognitive element is the strongest, but one could also argue that it stimulates the physical developmental area. Having to link the Code-a-Pillar together as well as plan out a path across the floor certainly seems like physical development to us.
The emotional element comes when you trip over the Code-a-Pillar and, while laying on the floor, get asked by your child "Why are you crying?".
Kids 3 to 6 years
If the Code-a-Pillar is an example of modern technology ushering children into the future, then the School Time! Classroom Playset from Melissa and Doug is an example of using proven methods to help kids learn.
Like a lot of Melissa and Doug toys, this classroom playset has a retro throwback feel to it. It is full of activities for kids which mimic a classroom experience. While this playset offers physical and cognitive learning aspects, such as how to read a clock and writing practice, kids will most likely be sharpening their social and emotional skills.
Kids can roleplay by choosing the role of teacher or student. As most kids playing with this probably won't have much experience with school yet, it helps prepare them for changes that they might face while entering school for the first time.
Strangely though, this set does not include a dunce cap like some of us had to wear through our senior year of high school, so this playset isn't entirely realistic.
Kids 4 to 8 years
If you have a boy and you are thinking about skipping over this because it is focused towards girls, then wait a moment and we'll explain.
“It is more than just a toy, it is an experience. “
Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine is indeed a toy focused on creating a positive and supportive experience for girls and their relationship to engineering, but that isn’t the most important thing about it. Of course, having toys that are more inclusive to girls is a good idea, but that isn't what makes this toy great.
As anyone can see, painting something pink and saying it is for girls doesn't make it better suited for girls. Goldie Blox does a great job of combining a toy and a story in which the reader (or the kid being read to) goes on a journey to learn about the technology they are going to be utilizing. This is what makes Goldie Blox stand out from similar toys.
It is more than just a toy, it is an experience. Kids aren't just given a task but also given motivation and context as to why they might want to learn about something.
For those wanting a reason that this toy is as appropriate for boys as it is for girls: why wouldn’t it be appropriate? Just because it has some pink and the character is a girl doesn't mean it isn't for boys. If you feel insecure about it then use a permanent marker to change the name to Codie Blox and replace the pink ribbon with a blue one. Those that want to have a totally gender-neutral toy: Just call it Moldie Blox and paint everything gray.
Kids 4 years and Older
“If you don’t work together, then no one wins.”
In Orchard, children play together to collect all the fruit before the crafty raven comes to eat it all. The purpose of this game is to work cooperatively. This is a valuable skill for children growing up, especially for those living in a single-child family. If you don’t work together, then no one wins.
“...before the raven, which represents death, comes to collect...”
Orchard focuses on social and emotional skills. However, the focus on strategy also allows for a sharpening of cognitive skills. Arguably, one of the best social skills this game teaches is patience while waiting for your turn.
If you read into it a little too deeply, you might find that the fruit represents the opportunities we are afforded in life and our desperate need to take advantage of them before the raven, which represents death, comes to collect and end the game. With such themes, it is clearly a game from Germany, the land of poets and thinkers.
Kids 3 years and Older
The classic. Duplos are a childhood staple for many people. They've been around long enough, people even pass them down to the next generation.
Duplos, or legos (if your child is old enough), are great at stimulating those developmental areas. Since they are the next step in the evolutionary ladder of building blocks, Legos are very adaptable. Manipulating the blocks in three dimensions, creating scenarios for the figures to play in and having to share with others, easily stimulates three of those developmental areas.
There are sets that also have numbers and letters if you want your kid to get a little more stimulation. Even as an adult you can easily find pleasure in playing with Legos but remember: if you borrow them from your daughter, remember to give them back or she might go tell on you. Then you won't get any chocolate after dinner and you will cry yourself to sleep.
Kids 1.5 to 5 years
The Primary Science Deluxe Lab Set is a new twist on an old classic. This chemistry set doesn't contain uranium ore! Apparently, there have been some changes since the 1950's as to what is considered safe.
This set from Learning Resources will make your child radiate - with joy! It introduces the scientific method, which includes hypothesizing and charting results, as well as following directions, simple math concepts and some problem-solving skills. If you actually check out this kit, you'll see that it is well thought-out and pretty cool.
It comes with easy-to-understand worksheets as well. I'm refraining from making any Breaking Bad jokes. You're welcome.
In the end, there are no educational toys that really touch on all aspects of child development. Maybe, someday, when nanomachines become a reality, we can give our children something like “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” as described in Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age, which will adapt to their learning needs as they grow.
Until then, as parents, we have to examine what makes a toy educational if our kids should gain anything from it and if we, the parents, will want to play with it, too.
The best way for your kids to learn with toys is to play with them, too.