Doesn’t a child learn something from every “toy,” a word actually derived from the Old English word meaning “tool?” And don’t advertisers try to lure parents by throwing in the word “educational” to describe any old toy they’re selling? True educational toys are developed specifically to encourage certain skills in children while offering a high play value. Studies dating back to 1940 have shown that it is well worth a parent’s time and effort to research for a proper age-appropriate educational toy that can permanently improve a child’s IQ by more than 50 points. Here’s a brief overview that might help sift through the child development jargon and assist parents in choosing an educational toy that is the right fit for their children.
CHILD DEVELOPMENT TERMS
Gross motor skills and fine motor skills: Gross motor skills refer to whole body movements from the large muscle groups, including standing, walking, and running. Fine motor skills are small muscle movements or dexterity, particularly in the fingers, and are necessary for such activities as buttoning shirts, zippering, writing, and sewing.
Hand-eye coordination: The eyes provide information on an object’s size, weight, texture etc. and direct the hands to the target. Without this ability, even the simplest task of picking up an object would be difficult.
Cognitive/Intellectual awareness: how a child perceives and makes sense of his environment.
Social awareness: learning to build and maintain relationships, share, and cooperate with others.
Emotional awareness: a child’s sense of “self,” and his ability to understand and cope with his own feelings.
Creative expression: allowing children the opportunity to use their imaginations and express themselves. This can be offered either from a structured activity, such as a paint-by-number craft, that gives children a sense of accomplishment, or by simply setting a drawing pad in front of them and encouraging their imaginations to “run wild.”
EDUCATIONAL PLAY ACTIVITIES
Puzzles: help develop patience, problem solving, hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills
Dolls, dress-up and role play toys: encourage cognitive and social awareness, creative expression, and even fine motor skills (self-dressing)
Building toys: hand-eye coordination, creative expression, fine motor skills, patience, intellectual awareness, and basic principles of science, such as causal relationships, spatial awareness, and the effects of gravity
Board and card games: social awareness, hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills
Musical instruments: encourage hand-eye coordination, creative expression, and auditory skills. Music theory has also been proven to develop math skills.
Outdoor play toys: introduce children to social awareness and hand-eye coordination and develop their gross motor skills
STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT
It is very important for a parent to be aware of a toy’s recommended age bracket. Black and white toys appeal to very young infants. Babies four months and older will be more attracted to bright, primary colors and large surfaces. Older children will find smaller, more complicated objects more stimulating. Follow a toy’s age guideline, while allowing at least a two-year span for a child’s individual stage of development. If a toy is recommended for ages threeand up, it should be appropriate for a child three to five years old.
PLAY VALUE AND PLAYABILITY
No matter how many skills an educational toy may boast about improving, it can’t teach a child anything if it breaks easily or sits untouched on the shelf. The best toys with the most play value are often the simplest and most durable and cover a multitude of skill development opportunities that encourage a child to play with them again and again. Melissa and Doug’s Fish Colors Mix n Match peg puzzle, for example, is an unpretentious wooden peg puzzle that not only offers two-to-five-year-olds the benefits found in a typical puzzle for that age group, but also teaches children about colors, word recognition (by matching pieces with the names of colors), and creative expression (by interchanging pieces to create a different school of fish every time they play).
Games and outdoor toys that involve more than one player are especially desirable if they have high “playability,” meaning they can include and stimulate multiple players of varied ages. The popular dice game, Farkel, for instance, encourages math skills and engages all players from ages eight through adult.