The Best Educational Toy?
Do you know that educational toys count for one billion in toy sales each year? But what, exactly, is an educational toy? Is it only a toy or game that has a specific learning purpose, like teaching a child how to do multiplication, a chemistry set for an older elementary school-age child, or a software program to learn new vocabulary words? Generally, most toys can have an educational purpose through play for all developmental stages of childhood and, as a “low realism” toy, can enhance a child’s creativity skills through play. While typical subject-teaching educational toys are best used for children six years or older, however, what about educational toys for toddlers and preschool children? Educational toys for this pre-kindergarten age group are developmental – even for infants – and are for teaching social and physical skills, as well as creating a foundation for learning by introducing analytical thinking, logic, reasoning, and cognitive ability.
Educational toys for younger children are based on the theory of constructivism, in which children create their own knowledge by being active in the learning process. Therefore, a child engaging in play allows the child to create his or her own environment and develop his or her imagination. In an article titled “Finding Educational Toys Is Not Hard; Key Is Keeping Child's Age in Mind” by Neil Schoenherr published in July 2008, R. Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., an associate professor of education in at Washington University in St. Louis, is quoted as stating, “Basically any kind of toy is good for young children as long as it is safe, of course, well-constructed and age appropriate. Parents can relax a little bit. There aren't really any bad toys or bad kinds of play. Because of my research on children's improvisation during fantasy play — which leads to all sorts of social and conversational advancement — I like to see pretend play that is more loosely structured and more improvisational." The types of toys that allow for a child to be more “improvisational” are “low realism” toys, such as blocks, LEGOs, and toy figures like dinosaurs and farm animals – or toys that do not have a strong association to a particular product. “High realism” toys, on the other hand, are those like dolls and action figures based on a character from a movie or a cartoon. A child could incorporate them into his or her play but, because of the movie or television association, the child could also simply play out the scenes from the movie with the new toy.
The toy itself, however, won’t always push a child forward to the next stage of development or expand his or her creativity when left alone with it. Play with a parent and the new toy, allowing for interaction between the parent and child, maximizes the benefits of the toy.
Toys with an educational purpose have been around since the seventeenth century but didn’t actually receive the title of “educational toy” until the 1960s. In the article “Educational Toys, Creative Toys,” which appeared in a collection titled Toys, Play and Child Development, author Birgitta Almqvist writes, “The purpose of toys has practically always been educational. The bows and arrows that little boys in ancient Rome were given to play with were undoubtedly regarded as vehicles of training future mastery.” Although an object like a small bow and arrow given to a child was for practicing future adult skills, not until the seventeenth century were toys specifically designed with an educational purpose. English philosopher John Locke claimed that toys could be used in educating children, and he produced a set of lettered blocks to support his theory. The blocks, designed more for boys, had the original purpose of keeping children indoors to learn instead of outside playing in the street; girls, at this time, were expected to play indoors with a Nüremberg cabinet house – an early dollhouse – to learn homemaking skills. As the result of Locke’s letter blocks, the late 1700s saw an educational toy market emerge, except the toys were marketed as “improving toys,” which included card games and jigsaw puzzles. The latter, given the title of “dissected maps” at the time, were invented by printer John Spilsbury and were designed to teach geography to a child. Later, similar puzzles were designed to teach children history and morals.
The nineteenth century, however, saw less direct educational value placed on toys, and, instead, toys were seen as an expression of a child’s individuality. The next time toys were thought of as being education was during the 1960s. In Europe, play was incorporated into the school curriculum of the Soviet Union, but Sweden’s school reform of the förskolan – or preschool – in 1968 changed the curriculum for its youngest students to have an indirect educational focus, with play and toys both having an educational purpose. The reform was based on the philosophy that children prefer play over education. However, as “play” in the classroom is solely directed play, periods of unsupervised play free periods were also introduced into the school curriculum.
Between the 1960s and the present, the same educational philosophy of play and toys to stimulate the development of young children seemed to permeate western educational systems, but toy marketing has been adjusting itself since. While a toy with a direct “educational” label seems to repel children, toys with developmental and educational purposes have been marketed differently to seem fun to children using the toy but also to have an indirect developmental purpose.
Part of marketing any educational toy has been the age group for which it’s geared. Many toys do have the age limits printed on the box or packaging, and, although children do develop at different rates, the age range of certain toys is important. While a toy too below a child’s development level can make him or her bored by being unchallenging, a toy too far above a child’s current developmental stage can make him or her frustrated and anxious – it won’t help a child develop quicker. The purpose of an educational toy is to help a child master his or her current stage of development before graduating to the next stage. Educational toys given to a toddler, for example, should be helping him master many skills learned before the age of three – mental, physical, and social skills – so that he or she can be prepared for preschool; a toy designed to teach a child about multiplication and division skills would be useless at this stage of development, although it could be helpful when a child is seven or eight years old and understands very basic math. With an educational toy on a child’s level, he or she will inevitably play with it over and over in creative play.
Choosing an educational toy for a child should be based on his or her stage of development – not to learn anything new quickly but as reinforcement. Although many toys are marketed specifically as educational and development stimulation toys, many toys for younger children can have an educational purpose, from creating a story, to playing with others, to learning hand-eye coordination and balance. The main things to keep in mind when looking for an educational toy are its age-appropriateness – will it challenge the child without frustrating him or her? – and its developmental purpose.