Toys That Teach

The FUNdamentals Of Play-Based Learning

Ever noticed how kids begin to play, ‘naturally’? They seem ‘born to play’ as it were. Why? Because play is the first learning process they adopt. It is how they discover this amazing world we brought them into, how they explore it and learn about all the sizes, colours, textures, shapes and sounds. It is how they come to know, to differentiate, to anticipate. It’s amazing!

Toys have always been learning tools. Did you know the word toy comes from an Old English word meaning tool? It starts with babies discovering their toes and playing with these, right? Next, before you can say ‘likity split’ every item in your home has become a ‘toy’; pots, pans and spoons for the musically inclined, your high heels and other clothes for those who have reached the imaginative play stage; your lipstick used by the budding artist to create a mural. Thank goodness we also have ‘real’ toys, designed to facilitate learning through play. These are generally safer for both your child and your home.

First Step Into Science

As a toy store owner I often hear parents say they want their children to learn, not just play. In my opinion, you really can’t separate the two. Let’s take ‘dumping and filling’. Big deal or not? Give a child a cup and a tub of water (or a laundry or wastepaper basket) and they will begin to play and learn, by dumping and filling. This is your child’s first step into science, into experiencing cause and effect, into creating, coordinating and controlling an event. The tendency for children to explore through this action is why we have so many toy products, like dump trucks and pails, which engage children in ‘dumping and filling’. Even toys that may not seem to be ‘learning’ games are inherently that.

Make Learning Fun

My 5 year old son and I like to play the Honey Bee Tree by International Playthings. It’s not a ‘counting game’ but we make it into one because it has multiple pieces. We count the pieces together. I might take away one piece and ask him how many are left, then several more and so on. When he was younger and learning colour recognition, I would ask him to tell me the colour of the game pieces we were using. In these ways we are learning and playing in a fun, not tiresome way.

There are lots of amazing toys today, specifically designed to facilitate learning and promote the development of skills in a fun way. Puzzles are a great way for learning shapes and colours and developing hand and eye coordination. These appeal to children from six to eight months and up. Fridge magnetic products that come in letters and numbers can become everyday play and learning toys. ‘Grab’ toys are wonderful for babies, appealing to all of their senses. The textures, colours, squeaking and crinkling give babies all kinds of pleasure while they discover.

Coordination Through Building

Building toys have remained popular for both toddlers who are ‘all about me’ and developing their coordination skills as well as pre-schoolers who are learning (not always successfully!) to share, engaging in co-operative and parallel play, building ‘big’ things like high towers, rocket ships and forts, together.

Learning through play is a big and complex concept. I think it is good for all moms to know that those of us who operate independent specialty toy stores spend a lot of time discussing this with our customers and we love to share what we learn with you. Don’t be shy about putting your questions to us and asking us for recommendations.

Patti Taggart is a Registered Early Childhood Educator, Part-Time Faculty at Algonquin College, Ottawa, and owner of Tag Along Toys, an independent specialty toy store in Ottawa. She is also President of Neighbourhood Toy Stores of Canada (NETS), a network of ‘little’ toy stores that make a ‘big’ difference by connecting parents to quality toys and games for fun and learning.

She has a five year old son Nicholas who is always teaching her a new way of learning through play.