First, children don't need expensive toys to learn. As I have argued in other posts, play in and of itself stimulates learning, problem solving, language development, creativity and so on (see for example my post 'The importance of simple play' here). As well, there are many activities that require few or no bought materials within the child's world. We've all seen toddlers toss the toy to one side and play with the box. So too a pair of your shoes, a coat that quickly becomes a cape, some blocks that become just about anything in an imaginary story, the plastic or saucepan sections in the kitchen cupboards whose treasures can amuse children for hours and outdoor activities.
Hungry Hippos besides helping with basic counting, can also help children to learn about turn taking, being gracious as a winner and a loser and so on.
Third, if you were planning to spend significant sums of money on toys I would be aiming for toys that offer multiple purposes and varied areas of learning. My test for many toys would be:
- Do they stimulate creativity and learning?
- Do they encourage language use?
- Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?
- Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?
- Do they help children to develop interpersonal skills (if it is a multi-player toy)?
- Will the toy last (i.e. not fall apart)?
- Is the toy good value for money?
- Is the toy fun, interesting, challenging?
- Will it sustain your child's attention beyond a few uses?
1. Timeless construction toys
No family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. These toys help to develop good hand-eye coordination, encourage creativity and problem solving and can help to develop mathematical and spatial intelligence. There are many types of construction toys that children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:
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 (suitable for ages 6 months to 3 years).
b) Lego - probably all three types/sizes 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. Knupferli Construction materials (see above). I used the soft plastic Knupferli materials when I was in Kindergarten and only just rediscovered them again (ideal for age 5-10 years). You can use them to make a simple necklace or a complex 3D shape.
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 be creative. 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, age 12 months to 4 years.
d) Felt boards - there are many products of this type on the market (many of these are very cheap), age 2-6 years.
3. Model people, animal and objects
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 Lego 'zoo').
b) Commercial sets like the Little People series and Sylvanian Families are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's Ark to which we've added other animals. This has kept all our grandchildren engaged for hours (0-3 years).
c) A doll's house will keep boys and girls engaged in creative play for ages and there are modern variations on the same theme with medieval castles complete within knights and dragons (age 2 -8).
4. Mathematical or Spatial Skill Toys
a) Perpetual puzzles - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura, and 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.
b) Blokus is a relatively new puzzle game with simple rules, but it can keep adults and children stimulated for ages. The purpose of the game is for each player to place his/her 21 pieces on the board (or at least the maximum number of pieces) in a continuous span unimpeded by other players' pieces. It can be played by 2 or 4 people.
c) M-Tic - this is a brilliant and simple construction type game that consists of multi-coloured plastic pieces with magnetic ends. The purpose of the game is to create geometric shapes. It is excellent for developing geometrical and spatial knowledge. If you can't find this version there are other similar examples at good toy shops (see the picture below).
d) Puzzles of all kinds - puzzles are brilliant for developing memory, patience and a variety of spatial skills. Young children can start with simply puzzles that require them to insert an animal or shape into a single hole. Later they can move to simply 6-20 piece puzzles then much more complex puzzles as they develop their skills.
5. 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 (Klutz) - 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.
d) Puppets - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets and string puppets.
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), a dress-up box and so on.