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The Myth of Educational Toys

The toy industry is crazy and they’re out for your money. Not kidding. The hustle of the century is upon us. They’re called educational toys. And they’re crap.

Now That I Have Your Attention

Every Christmas, there are millions of searches for “the best educational toy.” Parents spend unbelievable amounts of money searching for the Holy Grail – the toy that will teach and entertain their child. And what are we left with? Rooms full of buzzing, singing toys that are quickly used, mastered, and put aside for the next toy.

Educational Toys are a Myth

Here’s what we know. Educational toys don’t work. Period. Educational apps don’t work either. This isn’t a subtle scientific finding. The research on children’s learning has been going on forever. And we’ve learned a few things.

First, kids learn best when moving. They need to do things to learn them. Showing them on a screen doesn’t create the same educational effect. Neither does reading it in a book.

Kids also learn from playing. Note: structured activities guided by adults with the goal of teaching information is NOT play, even if it uses toys. Kids learn best from child-directed exploration of the world.

Kids need unstructured time and unstructured toys. The ideal toy for a child is able to be used for lots of purposes and can be the source of repeated inspiration. To contrast this, most educational toys have a single function. You press a button and it teaches some bit of information: a letter, a number, a color. But blocks can be cars, buildings, spaceships, or flowers. They can be anything. And that’s where the learning happens.

My guide for playtime at home

  1. If it talks, sings, flashes, or beeps while trying to teach your child, throw it away now. It will save your sanity and give you more room for what your kids need.

  2. Go low-tech. Blocks. Lincoln logs. Legos. Dolls. Pretend food. Kitchen utensils. Kids can and will improvise.

  3. Find toys that encourage dress-up and pretend. The grown-up word for “playing pretend” is “creativity.” It’s a skill and it needs to be cultivated.

  4. Stop guiding play and follow your child’s lead instead. Don’t correct the “wrong” use of a toy. Yes, I know it’s a whisk and not a hot air balloon. But just try watching your child as he creates a new world around that whisk. You’ll get amazing insight into his mind.

  5. Butt out. Seriously. Once in a while, leave your kids to play alone, without an adult obviously hovering. Kids will learn to resolve conflict on their own if we let them. That is part of the learning that happens during play. And it doesn’t happen if you don’t give them a chance to resolve things on their own.

Give your children the chance to amaze you with their creativity. It’s worth stepping on a Lego or two. Almost.

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