What makes a toy ed­u­ca­tional?

Camilla Rankin takes a closer look at what makes toys ed­u­ca­tional

Your Baby & Toddler - - CONTENTS -

WALK­ING INTO A toyshop can be a truly scary ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially for a new par­ent.

The on­slaught of bright colours, noises, flash­ing lights, but­tons to press and levers to pull can be a real shock to the sys­tem (as can your tod­dler’s sen­sory-over­load-in­duced tantrum!).

It is no won­der that toy mak­ers are look­ing for more ways to make their wares stand out from all the oth­ers crowd­ing the shelves. But it’s not the bright­est, most branded or loud­est toys that are the big sell­ers, it is those toys that claim to be “ed­u­ca­tional” that fly to the tills.

What ex­actly makes a toy ed­u­ca­tional? Do they re­ally make a dif­fer­ence? And should we re­ally care – and fork out the ex­tra money for them?


While there is no clear an­swer to this ques­tion, there are two dif­fer­ing schools of thought.

The first says that ed­u­ca­tional toys are specif­i­cally de­signed to en­hance par­tic­u­lar ar­eas of your child’s de­vel­op­ment and it is to your child’s ad­van­tage to play with them.

The sec­ond claims there is no such thing as an “ed­u­ca­tional toy”. It is just a mar­ket­ing ploy – as all toys have some in­her­ent ed­u­ca­tional value and will teach your child some­thing (good or bad). This school of thought holds that it is not the toy it­self that is ed­u­ca­tional but sim­ply play­ing, cre­at­ing and us­ing imag­i­na­tion that is. In­ter­act­ing with an adult or care­giver is also con­sid­ered es­sen­tial, as are the val­ues taught while play­ing with a par­tic­u­lar toy.

Many ed­u­ca­tors and ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als say that for a toy to be la­belled ed­u­ca­tional, it needs to play a spe­cific de­vel­op­men­tal role and en­cour­age the learn­ing and per­fect­ing of a par­tic­u­lar set of es­sen­tial skills.

They must fall into at least one de­vel­op­men­tal cat­e­gory, such as cog­ni­tive (count­ing toys, books); vis­ual-per­cep­tual (puz­zles, copy­ing shapes, tan­grams); fine mo­tor (draw­ing, cut­ting, paint­ing, thread­ing, play dough); gross mo­tor (balls, swings, hula hoops); sen­sory (jun­gle gyms, slimes, sand pits) or imag­i­na­tive (dress­ing up).

“All the toys we buy for our class­rooms have an un­der­ly­ing ed­u­ca­tional pur­pose,” ex­plains Janet Buck, a Grade 0 and lit­er­acy teacher in Jo­han­nes­burg. “They need to pro­vide chil­dren with the op­por­tu­nity to grow in spe­cific de­vel­op­men­tal ar­eas.

“It takes a trained and skilled teacher to buy the cor­rect toys and also to set up play ar­eas that pro­vide ex­cel­lent learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Joburg-based Louise Stof­berg, an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist with a spe­cial in­ter­est in pae­di­atrics, agrees.

“While most toys are ed­u­ca­tional, those that en­cour­age chil­dren to use their imag­i­na­tion, stim­u­late cre­ativ­ity, prob­lem-solve, de­velop mo­tor skills, so­cial skills and/or vis­ual per­cep­tual skills, and al­low chil­dren to ex­plore and use them in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent ways are the most valu­able,” she says.

“Play is the work of chil­dren, but toys also need to be fun and ageap­pro­pri­ate, oth­er­wise they will not sus­tain the child’s at­ten­tion and will by that very na­ture not be ed­u­ca­tional.”


Both ex­perts, how­ever, also point out that so­phis­ti­cated toys (or any toys) are not es­sen­tial to de­vel­op­ing life skills.

“I do not think that toys are es­sen­tial to play,” Janet says. “Some of the best and most valu­able play ex­pe­ri­ences are gen­er­ated with­out toys.”

In fact, if the toys are too pre­scrip­tive, not age-appropriat­e or bor­ing, they can also ham­per de­vel­op­ment.

“This is ab­so­lutely true. Ver­sa­tile, non-pre­scrip­tive toys are the best,” Louise says.

“They stim­u­late imag­i­na­tion, prob­lem-solv­ing, cre­ativ­ity and de­vel­op­ment of mo­tor skills.”

Louise says a sim­ple toy car can be used more cre­atively than a bat­tery­op­er­ated train that is de­pen­dent on a spe­cific track to op­er­ate.

“Two sticks and a pot could be­come a drum for one child, a wizard’s

Two sticks and a pot could be­come a drum for one child, a wizard’s caul­dron for an­other, while an­other may strug­gle to en­gage with th­ese tools cre­atively

caul­dron for an­other, while an­other may strug­gle to en­gage with th­ese tools cre­atively,” she ex­plains.

An­other in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple, she adds, is Lego.

“A box of Lego could be con­sid­ered an ed­u­ca­tional toy, as chil­dren learn how to build struc­tures, ve­hi­cles – just about any­thing they want – cre­atively by piec­ing to­gether dif­fer­ent blocks through trial and er­ror.”

How­ever, build­ing a spe­cific Lego set is more prob­lem­atic, as the child is just fol­low­ing in­struc­tions and cre­at­ing only one pos­si­ble out­come.

But many feel that claim­ing a toy as “ed­u­ca­tional” is purely a mar­ket­ing ploy aimed at pulling on the heart (and purse) strings of par­ents.

The ar­gu­ment here is that all toys have in­her­ent ed­u­ca­tional value, and of­ten it is play it­self that is ed­u­ca­tional, not nec­es­sar­ily the toy with which the child is play­ing.

South Africa’s first mu­seum ded­i­cated to play, Play Africa (at Con­sti­tu­tion Hill, Jo­han­nes­burg), ex­plains that, “For young chil­dren, free, self-di­rected play is an in­te­gral part of early learn­ing and healthy de­vel­op­ment – it sparks imag­i­na­tion, en­hances cre­ativ­ity and prob­lem­solv­ing ca­pac­i­ties, pro­motes team­work and in­stills em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion for oth­ers.”

This view is part of a global move­ment al­low­ing chil­dren to learn by touch­ing and play­ing with ob­jects – any ob­ject in their en­vi­ron­ment.

Toys that chil­dren can hold and touch (not a touch screen) stim­u­late learn­ing by en­cour­ag­ing chil­dren to ex­per­i­ment. Th­ese toys also give them the chance to play on their own, at their own pace and to use their cre­ativ­ity.


For many, it is not the phys­i­cal toy that makes play­ing ed­u­ca­tional, it is also the time you spend with your child, play­ing.

“Al­most any toy can be­come ed­u­ca­tional if you sit down with your kid and join in the fun,” ex­plains Ni­cola Yel­land, a pro­fes­sor of early child­hood stud­ies in Aus­tralia.

“It is not the toy per se that boosts your child’s brain, it is the qual­ity of the in­ter­ac­tion the child has with the adult that does the trick.”

Ed­u­ca­tional toys of­ten claim that they will give your child “the edge”. In fact, th­ese toys are ex­pen­sive and of­ten lim­ited in scope un­less par­ents in­ter­act and teach their chil­dren the as­so­ci­ated skills and con­cepts, Prof. Yel­land says.

“Al­though I still think the ac­tual toys are rel­e­vant, chil­dren do of­ten need the teacher or care­giver to model or ex­plain the func­tion of a toy or even play with it be­fore they get the best use out of it,” Janet con­curs.

The way to give your child “the edge”, says Prof. Yel­land, is to talk to them – and that doesn’t cost any money. And be­sides, she adds, it’s fun.

“You don’t need to in­ter­act with your child ev­ery time they play, but ev­ery now and then, start a pat­tern of talk­ing to them about what they’re play­ing with,” she says. “It helps them learn by them­selves.”


With all toys hav­ing some in­her­ent ed­u­ca­tional value, we then need to think care­fully about what ev­ery toy is ac­tu­ally teach­ing.

“All toys are ed­u­ca­tional in that all toys teach some­thing. We may not, how­ever, be pay­ing at­ten­tion to what it is they are teach­ing,” writes psy­chol­o­gist Chris­tia Brown in an ar­ti­cle for the US mag­a­zine

Psy­chol­ogy To­day.

Chris­tia ex­plains that when choos­ing a toy, you need to think about the val­ues and skills you want your child to learn and de­cide if a par­tic­u­lar toy al­lows for that.

For ex­am­ple: play­ing with a doll can teach es­sen­tial nur­tur­ing and care­giv­ing skills, while play­ing with a gun can teach that killing and ag­gres­sion are fun and ac­cept­able.

In the end, play is what chil­dren do – and your child will find some­thing to play with.

So, as Sarah Bald­win, Wal­dorf teacher and toy seller, ex­plains: “I’ve tried to stress to par­ents over the years that choos­ing toys is not about ‘good toys’ ver­sus ‘bad toys’. Rather, it’s about bring­ing new con­scious­ness to se­lect­ing chil­dren’s play­things.

“Is it beau­ti­ful? Does it feel good? Does it leave room for the imag­i­na­tion? Will it in­spire im­i­ta­tive play?

“If you can an­swer yes to th­ese ques­tions, you’ll be pro­vid­ing your child with all the tools needed for years of healthy play!”

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