As birthdays and Christmas approach, parents, grandparents uncles and aunties across the world will be buying toys for children. If you go to one of the many warehouse-style toy stores, you will be met with a bewildering array of thousands of toys, stacked from floor to ceiling. Many of these will be touted as being “educational” - but which toys really do help children to learn and improve their skills?
Children are like sponges for new information and skills: They learn something from almost everything they do. It’s often said that they learn most when they don’t think they’re learning at all - namely, when they are playing.
Let’s define the idea of an “educational toy” as widely as possible, to include toys that improve a child’s social, physical and emotional skills - as well as their academic skills. Under this definition of “educational,” a football is an educational toy. It should be considered as such, given that exercise and team sports have proven benefits for physical, emotional, social and even neurological development.
Children are nowadays inundated with sleek, interesting electronic toys. These can be games consoles, smartphones, tablet computers, portable game consoles or laptops.
Being able to use computers, phones and electronic equipment is a basic skill required for modern life. Many games are educational and can improve reaction times and hand eye co-ordination. However use of any of these is considered “screen time”, in the same way as watching television is.
Too much screen time can harm children’s development. As it is naturally a sedentary activity, it can also cause them to become unfit and overweight. This factor can be offset somewhat by buying gaming consoles that require the user to be physically active, such as the Wii Fit.
Parents should be also aware that many consoles, as well as being able to play games, also enable access to the Internet. The parental control functions on should be switched on to ensure children do not access inappropriate content. Too much television and games can cause obesity and interrupt homework and family relations.
Natural toys for small children
Small children learn most from natural toys such as building blocks, Lego or play-dough. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those over 2 watch less than 2 hours per day.
Unstructured play with toys like blocks, dolls and Lego help children develop social and emotional skills. Children should be free to play and make up their own rules. Playing make-believe also helps children develop a critical cognitive skill called ‘executive function,’ which enables them to control their emotions and behavior. Dolls houses, toy cars, farms and airplanes can help facilitate imaginative play.
The first two years of life are a crucial time for brain development. Electronic media can interrupt the natural play and social interactions that encourage healthy physical and social development. When small kids are fighting over toys, that’s a good thing, in a sense, as they are learning to share and relate to others. If they spend most of their days zoned-out watching a screen, they wont develop these skills so well.
A recent study found that up to half of modern British children weren’t ready for school at the age of five because sedentary lifestyles had impaired their physical development. Many had difficulties gripping pencils, sitting still, or catching a ball.
Unstructured play with toys like blocks, balls, dolls and Lego help children develop physical, social and emotional skills. It’s vital that children sometimes be free to regulate their own play and make up their own rules. Psychologists believe that playing make-believe helps children develop a critical cognitive skill called ‘executive function,’ which enables them control their emotions and behavior.
Creative toys and musical instruments
Paper, paints, crayons and markers can keep children happy for hours on end. An easel or blackboard in a child’s room can encourage the child to wander over and start drawing on a whim.
Keyboards and under-sized guitars can be bought quite cheaply. Playing music can provide a contemplative space for kids but can also offer children a social outlet if they begin to play with others.
Model airplanes and ships have been kids’ favourites for decades. Making these can be intricate and teaches all sorts of skills.
There are kits for making clay pots, which can be fired in your own oven. For older kids, try kits for making candles or lead soldiers.
For older children, science-based toys can be fun, and are most certainly educational. Of course, the traditional favourite was the chemistry set, which resulted in many minor explosions on Christmas morning. Nowadays children can get electronics sets, as well as telescopes with star charts for a first foray into astronomy.
To teach kids about nature, why not try an ant farm or a worm hotel. For kids who like wildlife, bird feeders and a book about garden birds might be a suitable present.
A bike is a classic kids' present. It can bring children great freedom, as well as all the benefits of exercise.
Traditionally, at the age of three or so, parents would buy a small bicycle with stabilisers and let the child learn to cycle. Later, the stabilisers, would be removed - often resulting in cuts and scrapes. Nowadays a child’s first bike is usually a “balance bike” with no pedals - the child shunts themselves along with their feet. This way, they learn to balance and steer the bike long before they ever have to pedal it. A year or so later, they can get a pedal bike without stabilisers, and they quite often learn to cycle within a day or two as they already know how to balance and steer it, and so pedaling it is an easy addition.
Helmets are available for even very small children and should always be worn.
Even though December is not a time when we think of outdoor activities, spring is only a couple of months away. A basketball net, a badminton racket, a pair of football boots or a voucher for tennis lessons might spark a new interest in sport. In the era of widespread child obesity, encouraging exercise is more important that ever.
Board games, especially those based on knowledge quizzes, can be educational. Another advantage of these is that they can be played by all the family together.
Indeed, toys that require parents to sit down and play with their children, or explain things to them, may be of the greatest benefit to kids. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have recently shown that children with parents who lovingly nurture their children through such tasks have physically better brains and are less prone to emotional and mental health issues.
Therefore, perhaps more important than the toys we buy our children, is that we take the time to play with them patiently and lovingly.