Best Educational Toys Merge Kid Appeal, Chances to Learn

Richard asa blog by Richard Asa Chicago Tribune, Dec. 14, 2014

Conscientious parents, relatives and friends shopping for children’s holiday and birthday gifts often wonder what constitutes an educational toy.

For some insight, we consulted toymakers, authors, educators and advocacy groups. As it turns out, there are dozens of options that depend on the child’s interests and the skills you want to encourage. So think before buying, and understand what makes the gift educational.

“Kids need and seek out creativity, challenge and connection,” says James Siegal, president of KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization that advocates the importance of play.

“Toys should encourage kids to be creative, challenge them to achieve mastery over time rather than in one sitting, and enable kids to play with each other and with the adults who love them.”

But be sure you’re buying gifts for your child, not the child in the TV commercial, adds Elise Judkins, a social worker at the Menninger Clinic in Houston and a mother of two young children.

“That may seem obvious, but consider your child’s unique interests and developmental stage when buying gifts,” Judkins says. “That means you won’t always buy the most popular toy of the season, but one that encourages learning, dramatic play and creativity.”

Many educational gifts will inevitably be games, and there are hundreds to choose from.

“A variety of children’s games offer natural opportunities for educational moments as well as promotion of social skills and cooperation,” says Rebecca Kieffer, a social worker at North Shore Pediatric Therapy in Chicago. “Depending on which game you choose, more advanced and specific skill development can occur, including encouraging math skills, speech and language skills, strategy, reasoning, social perception, executive functional skills, problem solving and social skills.”

So, if it’s a game you want to give, consider what skills it promotes even if it’s also really fun.

If you want to keep it low-tech, consider products that promote imagination and creativity but are themselves incredibly simple, like crayons or the various substances and blocks kids can build something with.

Most, if not all, of these products were around when you were a kid because their simplicity stands the test of time. Just because they’re not new doesn’t mean they won’t be fun. And their educational value is stealthy.

“The toys kids enjoy the most are those that are open-ended, meaning the play can be different every time the child picks them up,” says Cheri Sterman, director of education and consumer relationships for Crayola. “Toys that let children direct the play and offer multiple outcomes based on the child’s decision are the types of toys that keep kids coming back day after day.”

Again, the core of the theme is for kids to play and have fun, while learning.

“A toy will contribute to your child’s development only if he or she is interested in playing with it,” says Patti Rommel, director of research and development at Lakeshore Learning Materials, a producer of children’s educational products. “So consider what your children are into at the moment. Is it dinosaurs or outer space? If so, look for games and toys that focus on that theme.”

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