Playing to Learn: Toys That Teach
- Lindy Abbott Author/Blogger
- 2013 11 Oct
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?
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.
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.
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
- Strong construction
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 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.
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.
Homeschooling can extend the window of time for children to effortlessly learn by playing with toys. Parents should provide children with several open-ended toys, such as blocks, little figures (people, animals, characters), vehicles, and craft/art supplies. For generations, these toys have successfully promoted eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills, vocabulary, relationship skills, and basic academic principles.
Several companies that make excellent toys for ingenuity are Playmobil, LEGO,, and Melissa & Doug. Permit your children to leave toys set up for several days at a time if they are constructing big projects such as a neighborhood or they are having a grand adventure.
Children need to learn how to come up with creative solutions when they encounter unexpected problems. Figuring things out is one of the best parts of play as children move from simple challenges to complex ones.
Since we should be good stewards with God’s money, buying toys that are well made ensure safety and longevity. Moreover, children are more likely to extend their play, exploring new directions, if the items are durable. For me, construction is one of the most important qualities in a toy. I want toys that will last and are safe!
Patch Products makes items that are purchased by schools for classrooms, so they focus on solid construction. Patch focuses on what they call toy-games, in which all of the pieces bounce, pop, roll, and flash! Tall-Stacker Mighty Monkey play set is a stackable imaginative toy that your child can enjoy creatively; many extension kits to expand play are available. Look for toys like this that grow with children.
Another outstanding teacher resource brand for learning toys is Learning Resources. Their website is set up by age, category, and subject. They have a special section for parents, teachers, and special needs. These toys were created with many years of school use in mind. A new construction set for this year is Candy Construction, which encourages structure building with pretend chocolate bars, peppermints, gumdrops, and pixie sticks. Parents have found that children aged 5–10 enjoy Candy Construction. Their doctor kit, tool set, and play food are also highly recommended.
Any toy with a movable part piques interest, but some toys are better at inspiring imagination and provoking interaction. We need to look for toys that do more than keep our children busy. Playtime should get our children moving in both small ways and big ways. Educators classify muscle development as fine motor and gross motor, respectively. It is important to give emerging writers many opportunities to use their fingers to pick up small objects and to develop the ability to move their hands and finger muscles with increased dexterity.
When you look at a toy, think about how it will engage your child physically. Educators use the word manipulatives to describe small objects that are touched by a child as he learns concepts. Many types of manipulatives that have been designed to teach a specific academic skill can be found at parent/teacher stores and learning centers.
Scholastic and Klutz offer graphic books that come with supplies to provide hands-on learning. The Hand Book comes with a snap-together scientific model of twenty-one bones in the hand, which is perfect for teaching children about the bones of the hand but which will probably not be incorporated into long-term playing. While most of these items do make schooling more interesting, the majority of children would not call them toys.
Some science books come with all the pieces needed to construct movable gadgets that really work. Battery Science comes with a battery, but by attaching this energy source to a small motor and propeller your child can make a dozen different projects described in the book. Gotcha Gadgets is a book that includes a motion and light sensor to build electronic devices, with suggestions about how to play twelve tricks on unsuspecting victims. Both of these resources provide easy, fun ways to make science concepts come to life. Their helpful website includes a section that lists extra supply items which will allow you to expand the hands-on activities or equip several children to use them.
Ride-on toys, outdoor equipment, and sports equipment are probably some of the best-loved types of toys. Is it any wonder that children for generations have enjoyed endless hours engaged in their own adventurous worlds with these kinds of toys? Children learn coordination, balance, self-control, and visual perception through activities that naturally motivate practice.
Toy companies offer products that help teach skills and also grow with the children. An excellent example is Bravo Sports Corporation, which sells skates, scooters, pogo sticks, trampolines, and skateboards. They have quality products for young toddlers (themed with many popular movie characters) to products that your oldest children would love.
Products specifically designed to teach children are educational tools that provide hands-on practice for basic skills and which make learning more appealing. As you choose educational toys for your family, carefully evaluate the toy’s playability, ingenuity, construction, and action. Many toys marketed as “educational” are actually merely slick, colorfully designed boxes that contain lackluster kits and boring informational pamphlets. Understand that some toy-like items that we buy in order to teach specific lessons are great for education but are not toys.
The best toys can be played with for years without ever getting “old” or uninteresting. A child will devise new ways to use a favorite toy, as he matures. Look for classic toys, because these have proven to be toys that teach. Materials used to make classic toys might have changed, but their playability has been maintained.
The joy of playing provides motivation for children to foster their natural sense of wonder. The emotional and social connections developed during play can equip children to become secure with their identity and abilities. Encourage your child to learn more every day by providing him or her with quality toys. Encourage your child to learn with delight and creativity by providing him with...delightful, creative toys that teach!
A Brief History of Toys
In the late 1500s, dolls, whistles, and simple hoops were the most popular toys. Toy-making in the U.S. did not take off until settlers experienced some economic security in the late 1600s. Strict religious principles and lack of money limited the appeal of toys. However, by the 1700s, more parents had money to buy toys and advertising had greatly increased. Young children treasured dollhouses, toy drums, and wooden figurines.
By the early 1800s, toy makers began to use tin and rubber, manufacturing soldiers, horses, animals, balls, and rattles. By the late 1850s, toy pistols and cap guns quickly had become favorites, along with the rocking-horse.
The years following the Civil War saw a huge upsurge in new toys, with more than 160 patents issued. During this time, toys that were propelled by wind-up mechanics were introduced, influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Kaleidoscopes, mechanical banks, and soap bubbles became classic favorites, along with wooden blocks and dolls.
By 1875 major department stores began to sell toys. As the United States entered its economic boom in the 1900s, the toy industry grew rapidly. More than five hundred toy manufacturers employed more than four thousand workers. Development of the toy industry was reflected by the variety and intricacy of competing toys, each hoping to have the most appealing car, motorcycle, toy solider uniform, or baby doll. The Teddy Bear—an American classic—was named after President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.
During the Great Depression era, inexpensive “five-and-dime” toys became popular. Many manufacturers of high-priced toys were forced out of business or had to adjust to making cheaper toys. In the 1930s character toys such as Mickey Mouse, Popeye, and Superman were quite marketable. Fisher-Price and Playskool managed to survive by producing educational toys for young children that could be sold throughout the years.
Lindy Abbott is a passionate follower of Jesus with a strong understanding of the Biblical, Christian worldview. She is a certified teacher and a homeschool mom of three teens. From childhood, she discovered writing as her way to express what she felt and learned. Lindy is a published author, freelance writer, editor of a homeschool newsletter, and avid blogger. Read her regular post at www.lindylou-abbott.blogspot.com.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
- International Council of Toy Industry, www.toy-icti.org.
- Riggs, Sue. “Play: A Child’s Work” and “Toys: Children’s Tools.” Family Times Newsletter, fh.ext.wvu.edu/publications/the_family_times.
- Child Development Institute Parenting Today, childdevelopmentinfo.com.
- Marano, Hara Estroff. “The Power of Play.” Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com/node/22865.
- Maiers, Angela. “Passion . . . a 21st-Century Skill?” www.angelamaiers.com/2009/05/passion-a-21st-century-skill.
- Klein, Robin Wooddall. “The Value of Play.” October 2011. www.rootinc.com/3751/the-value-of-play.
Publication date: October 11, 2013