There are hoards of “educational” toys on the market, from pens that promise to teach your child to read, to robots that introduce simple coding to brightly coloured wooden puzzles meant to boost the IQ of every baby who encounters them. While some of these toys might be rather useful, some of them not so much and most of them cost a ridiculous amount.
Looking for a few ideas to rev up the learning potential in your playroom without taking out a second mortgage? Here you go:
Well, don’t actually throw them away - just take them away and stick them in that drawer where you keep the instruction manuals for your slow cooker and DVD player (When was the last time you used that thing?). Allow for some creativity by encouraging kids to play with things their own way. Take away the blue print for a Lego set, and just let your kids create. Lose the rules for a board game and urge kids to make up their own. Try mixing up the pieces and cards from a few board games and see what they can come up with. There’s nothing wrong with following the conventional way to play a game or make Playdoh cupcakes, but creativity flows best when your kids step off the typical path.
This is especially effective for kids eight and under. Old toys look new again once they’ve enjoyed a hiatus. Take a big box and hide some toys, games and books in the basement. In a month or two, bring them back out and fill the box with more current playthings. Obviously, you don’t want to take your child’s favourites, but those tired puzzles that seldom seem to make it out of the toy box? You’ll be amazed the new life they take on after a toy vacation. In my house, there are a dozen or so books that get put away with the Christmas decorations and then come out every other day of the advent calendar the following December. My girls are always excited to their old favourites once again and read them as if they are new.
Seriously, I can’t say enough about empty cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes and even outdated electronics. Little ones love them! Since I order diapers and other bulky items online, I get these lovely big boxes my daughter goes nuts for. The boxes have been turned into houses, castles, vehicles and more. Here's a space suit we made with two simple paint colours.
Paper tubes are always a hit and get turned into fairy wands, drumsticks and telescopes. Older kids may enjoy making sculptures out of discarded wood or using using an old camera phone to take pictures of nature. Even let them take apart an old vcr or radio and inspect the parts. Let your kids explore the cleanest, most interesting parts of your trash before it goes curbside.
Ever notice how toddlers love cell phones, remote controls and mixing bowls? And your preschooler likes to use the broom and always tries to pick up the baby? Kids like to copy adults. It’s imprinted in their brains and it’s a great teaching tool - whether you like it or not, they learn a ton from watching and imitating you. So, while this could mean dropping loads of cash on replica kids toys that mimic adult tools, why not just let them experiment with the real things (safely and with supervision, of course). Teach your kids how to use knives in the kitchen. Show them how to handle the blender. If you are a crafty sort, let them learn your hobby. Teach them how to use sports equipment, vacuums and screwdrivers. Whatever you are into, that’s an educational tool for your kids. Now, I’m not suggesting you stock the playroom with hammers and cheese graters. I’m saying cut the kids in on your everyday chores and hobbies. Not only are they learning and feeling responsible, but also you may find they are willing to help out with less exciting chores. You’ll be surprised by how much kids can do.
Sometimes, boredom can be the ultimate teaching tool. Kids are born with excellent imaginations and their brains busily create stories to be acted out. Who hasn’t seen a young child making up a dramatic play scene populated by sugar packets and cutlery on the restaurant table? Maybe boredom is the true mother of invention. Turn off the screens, direct the kids as little as possible and notice what kind of play they come up with. Make sure there are a few creative materials that the kids can easily access and let them fill their own time. Once in awhile, let your kids stare out their window on a car ride and just see where their mind takes them. Allow them learn how to entertain themselves from time to time, without relying on your intervention.
Childhood is a magical time. My advice is don’t overstuff it with stuff. Keep things simple and creativity, problem solving and learning are all sure to follow. Sure, sometimes it’s good to encourage your kids to colour in the lines and follow the rules - just be sure to once in give them a blank canvas and some glitter glue and see what happens. Keep their imagination alive!
Every time the educational system takes a step forward and alters how teaching was done in the past, there is a faction that argues a return to the old ways. Often, adults look back to their own time in grade school and declare “If it was good enough for me…”
But, the world keeps moving forward. Once upon a time, learning to chop wood or knit your own sweater was vital for every student. Today, such skills are obsolete in the school system. Now before you take up your axes and knitting needles against me, I’m not saying that such skills can’t be valuable. I enjoy a handmade cardigan as much as the next yarn-clad fellow, but it is not a necessary skill to be part of the curriculum.
Such is the case with cursive handwriting. I loved learning that loopy writing and felt like I was mastering a secret grown up code. Sure, those little grade one kids might be able to read printing, but I could read handwriting - I rocked. But, just because I enjoyed it, doesn’t mean cursive should be taught in today’s school. I also enjoyed learning to use the old electric typewriter and my mom’s sewing machine - both of which have migrated to doorstops.
The curriculum must reflect the skills educators believe kids will need in the future. Now, obviously there is some wiggle room there - seriously, I have never used a lay-up, nor the quadratic formula in my adult life. Sometimes learning is just for the sake of training your brain. It is valuable knowing how to master a new skill, even if that skill does not come into play in your future.
However, our curriculum is crowded and at some point, some skills have to fall away to make room for new teaching. So much of our world is computerized. It is far more beneficial for a child to master typing than handwriting. I’d much rather see programming taught to kids than handwriting.
Oh, I hear you die-hard cursive lovers shouting fine-motor skills! Yes, absolutely, kids need to learn and practice how to make micro-movements with their hands, but that can be achieved through so many other activities - artwork, using tools, building puzzles and models, and so forth.
And creating a signature? I’m pretty sure kids can come up with a signature without an extensive study of cursive. And, despite my many, many years of signing my name in my well practiced handwriting, my signature still looks like a six year old did it when I have to sign for a package on that touch screen. I'm sure it won’t be long before we all sign things digitally with a thumb print anyway.
If you want to cover cursive with your kids, I say go nuts. It’s not going to hurt them. There’s value in cursive, just as there is value in learning to fly a plane. If your kid loves it, let them take on calligraphy and script their favourite quotes all over your walls. I’m a big believer in exposing children to all sorts of activities and letting them follow their passion.
However, it can’t all be the school’s job. Schools may introduce kids to a particular style of dance or a certain sport, and then they pursue that passion extracurricularly. Schools try to foster appreciation of art or music, but mastery of these fields falls outside the scope of everyday education.
Handwriting may be a fun art class for a week or two, but it no longer belongs cluttering up our writing curriculum. Let’s make room for skills kids really need. Sorry to my mom, whom I know prides herself on her perfectly formed scripted letters and excellent short-hand notes, but I say let that cursive go!
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