Toys that teach prove valuable long after the holidays

December 8, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

A look of alarm crossed my son’s face when I suggested there would be only learning gifts under the tree this year.

“That’s a horrible idea,” he said, as visions of flash cards, “boring educational books,” dictionaries and maps danced through his head.

I assured him he had nothing to fear – most of the items on his wish list, including Legos (construction, problem-solving) and the Hot Wheels Super Loop Chase Race set (velocity, gravity), are learning toys. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Toys that teach are gifts that keep on giving long after the decorations have been packed away. But remember: The packaging doesn’t have to scream “learn something from this” for its contents to be educational. In fact, toys that obviously promote a lesson may be less appealing and have less play value than those that encourage a child to unknowingly explore and learn.

Keep in mind a child’s age, stage and interests when selecting a gift. That train set you always wanted may not be the best choice if your child has no interest in a) trains or b) building things. Choose something that will encourage a child to explore something new, foster independent learning or improve skills in some area that interests him or her.

Explore the world of make believe.

Dress-up clothes, kitchen sets, fire trucks and superhero gear can help foster imagination as children create stories. This in turn builds language skills, which ultimately will promote reading comprehension and writing skills.

Think low-tech or no-tech and head back to basics.

Crayons, markers and paper help young children develop fine motor skills and artistic creativity. Stacking toys, shape sorters and other manipulatives help develop small motor skills in hands and fingers and perceptual motor skills. A simple toy such as blocks can provide an opportunity to engage in conversation that promotes learning. Ask questions: What are you building? Who will live there? Is it for people or animals? What kind of animals?

Consider the classics.

Games teach an array of skills, including counting, turn-taking and problem-solving. Monopoly helps children learn a bit about economics and how to count change. A Rubiks cube teaches problem-solving and perseverance. Candy Land offers lessons in matching colors and pictures. Sequences teaches about, well, sequences (one thing comes after another).

Words worth giving.

Research shows that children who build foundational skills in language and literacy – alphabet knowledge, awareness of phonics, print knowledge and vocabulary – in the preschool years enter kindergarten ready to read and write. Educators agree that reading and writing on a regular basis can lead to school success for every age child and in every content area. By introducing children to different kinds of text through reading, children increase their vocabulary and become familiar with different styles of writing. Plus, there is nothing like a book to foster imagination and start a conversation. What would you do if you were the main character? What did you like most about the book?

Give the gift of time.

Research shows that when parents and children are fully engaged in an activity together, children feel important and loved. Time spent together also gives a child the chance to voice their thoughts and feelings and helps strengthen communication skills. You can’t wrap it in a box, but your time is something that will create lifetime memories. Go ice skating; read a book together; bake cookies; play in the snow. Children want presents; they crave our time and attention. And it’s a gift that doesn’t cost a penny to give.

Electronically inclined

Our children live in an electronic world, and there is no doubt that electronic devices and games appeal to many of them. There are plenty of educational options here as well.

Whatever you choose, remember: If playing with a toy feels like work, it’s probably not going to be much fun. Toys can be both educational and entertaining.


LEGO is a registered trademark of The LEGO Group
HOT WHEELS is a registered trademark of Mattel, Inc.

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. Her teenage daughters, 18 and 16, and son, 10, have all unknowingly spent hours expanding their knowledge with learning toys.

Copyright ©2014 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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