Tuesday, February 6, 2018

What are the main characteristics of educational toys? Why do our children need them? If a certain toy is not educational, what is its purpose? I ask myself these questions from time to time to keep in check what objects or toys enter our home as there are endless options in stores today.

It's not a secret that little children learn as they play. Our goal as parents, is to create an environment that has enough items for the child's enjoyment. Of course, enough can be interpreted in many different ways. For some parents, it could be a room with ten full containers of toys. For others, enough means just a few toys on the shelf. To date, I haven’t met such parents but heard they exist!  As always, a balanced approach is best. In the case of toys, I error on the side “less is more”. Also, if your child is daycare taught, they may require less toys than stay at home children.

Look through the baskets of toys your kids have and ask yourself a few questions. What is the purpose of this toy? What do I want my child to learn from it? If you can’t quickly come up with a positive answer, then consider removing the toy from your house. Chances are,  your child may not  even notice the change.

The following items are a guide for me, when organizing an educational play area for my children:

1. Most educational toys do not have batteries. If it is a musical instrument, it should teach your child to make a sound rather than simply pressing the on/off button. Generally, educational toys are quiet or passive. They invite our little explorers to take action and do something with them. Below are some great musical instrument ideas for children at any age:


2. Educational toys usually introduce and teach our children concepts from daily life. For example doctor's medical kit, a farmhouse with animals, planetary models, shapes, numbers, puzzles with realistic images, etc... Little children enjoy playing/ and imitating life games. I often observe my children building their "house". They bring blankets and pillows inside, a tea set and and their favorite toys. Then they sit inside the house and role play talking as little adults. 


3.The best toys are those that introduce cause and effect concepts to children. For example opening and closing wooden boxes (see images below), rolling balls, etc. If we let our children discover how these toys work, they will take away for themselves many lessons. I know it's tempting to complete every step for child and be their hero but the following quote always reminds me that it's not fair to take away from a child their right to make a discovery. In the words of Maria Montessori, "The child has a mind able to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself".

4. At each age the child has a particular desire to practice specific skills such as fine motor and problem solving skills. Simple educational toys help them with it: building blocks, matching games, shape sorters, stackers, and others. Maria Montessori said, "First, the education of the senses, then the education of the intellect". In other words, let children spend the first years of their life exploring and introducing themselves to their five senses. Do not rush into the next stage of having them  memorize and understand abstract concepts. 

5. Educational toys keep the child engaged for a long time. Children often come back to such toys to learn more. For example, I recently purchased a wooden fruit set with a toy knife for my fifteen month old daughter to teach her to cut fruit into portions. It has been over a month, and she plays with this toy by daily cutting her wooden fruit on her cutting board.

One suggestion for parents is to create a basket with items of different textures and shapes. The basket may contain different rocks of various sizes, building blocks, sticks, pine cones, and any other materials that will allow for your children to  sense and explore them and potentially create something out of the items with their hands. For nature items, ensure they are thoroughly washed.

When children play with practical, household items or toys imitating common use objects, they generally are more engaged in learning real life skills. Our little children want to be contributing members to society and the family. For example, if you have an area where you store children’s cleaning supplies, such as sponges, mops, spray bottles with water, and towels, your little helper will be eager to do their part in cleaning the house. If you teach  your child how to sort the laundry clothes, they will in turn have fun separating socks from skirts and pants. The opposite of such a practical parenting style would be to engross children in fantasy world full of superheros and mythical characters with superhuman powers which is popular these days. In these instances children are exposed to unicorns, fairy tales, and superheroes. They are not excited in learning the names of planets in our solar system, or studying the nature of water cycle.  A child’s phenomenal amazing memory is wasted on memorizing hundreds of superhero names, cartoons, and action figures. 

Depending on what we fill our children’s time with, has a profound effect on what they are exposed to learning and inversely which items block of clutter our child's mind.
It's a great balance to have both educational and leisure toys for children. For example, remote controlled cars or talking dolls are fun and harmless. In my home, I have educational shelves in one area with objects that aid in child development. In another part of the house, I keep fun or leisure toys. It is interesting to note that my children enjoy both options.

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