Sunday, March 28, 2010

Choosing Great Educational Toys for Children

One of the readers of this blog (Aimee) asked me in a comment some months ago for advice on "a list of recommended age appropriate toys that are 'must haves toys that are worth buying." It was in response to one of my posts on 'The importance of simple play' (here) that talked about activities that don't really require much in the way of bought toys. There obviously is a place for bought toys. In this post I'll just talk about some of the toys I find interesting and which have worked with our children and grandchildren. I'm not trying to be comprehensive. I'll also offer some ideas at the end in relation to what I think makes a good bought toy.

For each of the toys I've chosen I will comment on what they are and how I think they help your child.

1. Timeless construction toys

No family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. There are many types of construction toys that children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:

Above: David uses Knupferli with Jacob (his son and my grandson)

a) Wooden blocks of some type - at our house our grandchildren still use the same set of blocks in their original walker that our children did 30+ years ago (age 6 months to 3 years).
b) Lego - probably all three types will be useful. Our children's Lego is now played with by our grandchildren (suitable for age 6 months to 15 years).
c) Other more challenging connector toys - e.g. magnetic games like the Intelligence M-TIC or Knupferli Construction materials (see above). I used the soft plastic Knupferli materials in Kindergarten and only just rediscovered them (age 5-10 years).
d) Meccano - newer meccano sets (see right) are different, but they still combine all the old skills and interest of the metal Meccano I had as a child (age 5-15 years).

You can do many things with construction toys. Yes, you can build simply things like towers or shapes.
You can make houses, cars, anything (in the case of Lego).
In combination with other objects (e.g. plastic animals or people) you can tell stories - zoos can be created, aquariums, farms, space invaders and dinosaurs can invade villages etc.
In some cases your children can learn how to follow instructions and design plans (e.g. Meccano, Knupferli & Lego).

What's great about construction toys is that they:
  • Help to develop hand-eye co-ordination
  • Encourage creativity and problem solving
  • Can help to develop spatial and geometric skills
2. 'Toys' that allow you to create

These are not all toys, some are materials, but all allow children to create. Here are a few of my favourites:

a) Modelling clay - you can buy cheap multi-coloured modelling clay for $2-3 per pack, or you can make Play Dough. I've written a post on the creative use of modelling clay (here). Suitable for all ages.
b) Magnetic learning boards with letters and shapes (age 12 months to 5 years), see picture to the right.
c) Magesketch (or some other variety) of this magnetic sketching board (see an example at the top of this post), age 12 months to 4 years.
d) Felt boards - there are many products on the market (many that are very cheap), age 2-6 years.

3. Model people, animal and objects

There are many wonderful examples of toys that consist of people, animals, dwellings, and objects that go with them like dolls houses, castles, forts, arks etc. These allow children to engage in creative play either alone or with others for long periods of time. These simple objects can allow children to amuse themselves in a world of make believe and fantasy at home, in the car, at other people's houses etc. They are a wonderful way for children to creative (verbally) their first narratives.

Some of the simplest are perhaps the best:

a) Keep a box of animals - depending on the child's interests these might be farm animals (under 12 months), African animals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and people - these can be used alone or with other toys (see the shot of Sam above with his Leggo 'zoo').
b) Commercial sets like the Little People series are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's Ark to which we've added other animals that has kept all our grandchildren amused (0-3 years).
c) A doll's house will keep boys and girls amused for ages and their modern variations on the same theme with medieval castles complete within knights and dragons (age 2 -8).

4. Other categories

There are many other toys that allow children to have fun, learn, manipulate and develop fine motor skills. Here are just a few examples that I spotted at my local Toy Shop this week. If you live in Sydney Monkey Puzzle Toy Store is worth a look, it's one of the best toyshops I've seen. The owners know and are passionate about toys. Find a good local toy store where the owners choose, sell and enjoy toys.

a) Magnetic (Mudpuppy) Dress up Figures - these come in a metal box and the mannequins vary (e.g. sports model, pirate, ballerina, monster, mermaid etc).
b) Chicken Socks craft sets - These are cheap and have a variety of separate packets including 'Crayon Rubbings', 'Fun Felt', 'Simple Sewing', 'Hand Art' etc.
c) Perpetual puzzles - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura, add a new level of creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.
c) Puppets - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets and string puppets.
d) Hungry Hippos - on the surface this toy might not seem to teach much but it helps children learn to count, helps them with hand eye co-ordination and reflexes, teaches them many social skills as they deal with winning and losing a game with some skill and lots of chance.

The above are just examples. After doing this post what I might do is feature specific toys at regular intervals.

A few principles that I apply in choosing toys

While there are single purpose toys that bring great pleasure and don't teach a lot (e.g. Hungry Hippos), on the whole, I expect a lot from toys. In fact, usually, I'd be looking for toys that offer multiple areas of learning.

1. Do they stimulate creativity and learning?
2. Do they encourage language use?
3. Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?
4. Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?
5. Will they last (i.e. not fall apart)?
6. Are they good value?
7. Are they fun, interesting, challenging?
8. Will they sustain your child's attention?

There are obviously many great toys that I haven't mentioned. In my home I'd always want to have puzzles, lots of writing implements (crayons, pencils, chalk, varied papers), toys that teach numbers and letters, toys that train hand-eye co-ordination (through threading, putting things in holes etc), percussion instruments, Thomas Trains and cars (especially for boys) and so on.

Related Posts

All previous posts on play (here)


Ms. Yingling said...

You do need to include a dress up box. Ours had an assortment of "donated items" including a mother-of-the-bride dress, space helmet, tricorn hat, necklaces, and several swaths of shiny fabrics as well as swords and light sabers. The children liked to put on plays. My youngest is 12 and I still see items out and about! Great list, though. I still get notes on the Magisketch!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Karen,

Thanks for your comment. Yes a good dress up box is essential. I didn't put it in because I figure this one we set up for free. My grandchildren have fun dressing up and dressing me up too (I get to be Grandma a lot! But I am tired of being eaten).

I love your blog and will add it to my reader.



PlanningQueen said...

Great selection criteria for choosing toys. Will forward this on to some first time parents.