Wednesday, September 30

Why I Dislike "Educational" Toys

Our website talks about how we sell "educational" toys. Indeed we do. But I still dislike that phrasing.

Why? I think talking about "educational toys" brings a very limited type of toy to mind. It brings to mind toys that teach letters or numbers or spelling or math facts. Don't get me wrong. Such toys can be great. We have ABC puzzles, Math dice, a game about U.S. facts, etc. All fun, all fine.

But we have many other toys that teach other skills, make other brain pathway connections that rarely get credit as being "educational." For example, one of my kids' favorite toys is this pizza set. At a first glance, it looks just like a toy, not an "educational" toy. But it teaches so many different things!

First, the pieces of pizza and toppings connect using velcro. So from an early age, kids are getting tactile sensory input. To state it another way, their brains learn to sort the soft side of the velcro from the rougher side. From there they must figure out that it takes one rough piece and one soft piece to get them to stick together. Although this is an easy task for adults, it truly takes great problem solving and learning for a toddler to figure this out for the first time. It also improves their fine motor skills as they manipulate the toppings and practice cutting and assembling the pizza.

Then there's sorting. With three different topping choices, the sorting and patterning practice they engage in is endless. For instance, when putting the toy away, the child can be encouraged to put a different topping in a different compartment. Or while building a pizza, the child can build a pepperoni piece, then a mushroom piece, and then a pepper piece, then continue the pattern on the next piece. And later, counting while doing these activities takes learning a step farther. Mom simply just has to order a pizza with 5 pieces of pepperoni, or three slices with mushrooms.

And as they get older, they begin to learn fractions from this simple toy. Just by mom being the customer and ordering a half perpperoni, half mushroom pizza, the introduction to fractions begins. Moreover, the introduction to this mathematical concept is concrete and hands-on, making it easier for kids to understand and remember.

Do the kids realize how much they are learning while playing pizza shop? Probably not. But that doesn't mean they aren't learning. It simply means you've found a great brain-building toy that kids will want to play with again and again.

Friday, September 18

Thing-A-ma-Bots, Fun for the Whole Family

A few Thursdays ago, I found myself dreading our family game night. Just seeing my six year old bring out the Chutes and Ladders box made me go into cold sweats. I wanted to run, wash dishes, clean the cat's litterbox, do anything, I mean ANYTHING but play that game again. I don't mean to be so rough on Chutes and Ladders; we have had some fun with it as a family. But let's be honest: It's really pretty boring for adults. Candy Land? Not any better in my opinion. I'm forever stuck in the molasses.

It's a challenge to find a game that you can play with your kids that you both really enjoy. Typically, the games parents like are too complicated, while the ones the kids can play are not the least bit interesting or challenging to adults. Add in a mix of readers and non-readers in the household, and it becomes even harder to find a fun family game.

Well, I finally found a game that we love in our household. It fosters creativity, builds memory skills, and makes you laugh! We all can play, too, since it doesn't require any reading or number recognition. And it plays pretty quickly (unlike Chutes and Ladders that can drag on and on as you keep falling down those chutes!). It's a little card game called Thing-a-ma-Bots.

To play, you deal out the cards and leave them in a stack in front of you. At the beginning of a new round, each person flips one card face up in the middle of the table for all to see and names it. You can name it anyway you'd like: Charlie, Chunk-Chunk, Stella, Zazzapants, 05673 UK. Each player takes a turn flipping a card and naming the funny character. When you see a match, the first person to remember the name and shout it out claims all the cards. Then a new round begins!

As characters are matched and claimed, they become Thing-a-ma-Bots and can help you steal piles from your opponents if you shout it out first. But if you're wrong, you lose a card, so be careful!

Sounds simple, right? It is simple to learn and get started, but trust me, you'll be laughing so hard at some of the names your kids come up with that it will be hard to concentrate. Plus, as rounds go on, it gets more and more difficult to remember which name was from which round and which character is now a Thing-a-ma-Bot. Got all that? Good, now try it and have some laughs with your kids!

Thursday, September 10

Play: The Way to Good Grades

The pools are closed and the parks are empty for the most part in the middle of the afternoon. Yep, school is clearly back in session. Schedules are packed for the kids and parents alike. Budgets are strapped from all the new clothes, binders, and backpack purchases. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. I just want you to know that I "get" it. I used to teach at a public high school for seven years, and now I have three kids of my own. So I understand what this time of year means for families.

It means homework, and dinners gobbled down minutes before sports practice. The last thing on anyone's mind is buying a new toy. So I'm not going to highlight a toy or a game this week. Instead, I want to ask parents to find time for their kids to play, really play, for a little each day. No fancy toys with batteries needed. No team uniform to pay for. No purchase necessary.

Why am I asking parents to find time for one more thing in their schedules? Because I believe it's important. No, make that critical for kids' happiness and their academic success. This opinion isn't just my own: It's the opinion of many educators and researchers. And when we find a quiet time to think about it, it's just common sense.

In Alix Spiegel's report "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills," he comments how children's environments have changed drastically over the past 50 years. More time is spent indoors; more time is spent doing structured, adult-led activities and sports. Less time is given to allow kids to do imaginary, self-regulated play. So what? According to the experts, playing make-believe helps children develop a cognitive skill called "executive function." As the article explains, "Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ."

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with the importance of unstructured, imaginitive play for brain development. In fact, they are so concerned that children aren't getting enough of this type of play, that they wrote an entire report on its importance and tips for parents and pediatricians to help make sure kids are given opportunities for this type of play. Their report also points out how parent-child bonds can be strengthened during play together.

But I know that we as parents are already aware that playing is good for our kids. But I also know that there is a lot of pressure to push our kids hard and at a young age. Well, let's push them. But let's consider that one of the best ways to "push" them is to make sure they play each with something that doesn't have a screen or blinking lights.

Instead, encourage them to play with a set of blocks. Your old clothes and shoes for dress-up. Games that encourage them to talk to themselves or each other, like playing house or superheroes. Anything where they get to make up the rules and let their imaginations soar. Chances are their school scores will soar, too.