Christmas shopping means that around this time of year you may find yourself reading the blurb on toy packaging more than is usual. If so, you’ll have noticed manufacturers often like to make claims about a toy’s educational value. Statements such as ‘promotes fine motor skills’, ‘promotes language development’ and our favourite: ‘teaches cause and effect’, are used to sell the product.
Pick these statements apart even slightly, and you begin to realise they are nonsense. Is there any object in the universe that doesn’t teach cause and effect? And doesn’t language development come from speaking and listening? A child who talks as they play is developing language skills, especially if that play is with someone else. A child mutely pressing buttons on an electronic alphabet game is not.
There are lots of apps and devices that purport to teach children maths, but how many can convey the meaning of '6 divided by 2' better than two friends sharing out sweets. One for you, one for me, one for you, one for me... Use numbers in everyday situations like this and you'll never have to buy another electronic maths toy again.
It’s our belief that so many of today’s 'educational’ toys make children passive consumers of content. They require very little of the child other than to be entertained, rather than putting the work into inventing a game of their own.
The truth is, anything can be educational, from buckets and stones to puzzles and iPads. It’s not the toy that’s educational, it’s how you use it.
For example, you might buy a child a Hot Wheels loop-the-loop race track and they’d probably love it. But what is it they really love about it? It’s throwing something down a ramp, because they’re investigating speed, and how things accelerate downhill. You’d get the same level of play and engagement from propping up a plank and giving them items to roll and slide down. The bigger the range of items, the more scope their experiment has. Use anything from a car or a ball, to a rolling pin or a lump of play-dough. You could then move on to creating waterfalls and even rolling themselves down hills and sand dunes.
If something feeds a child’s desire to learn and matches their interests, it is educational. Just because a toy mentions fine motor skills on the side, doesn’t mean it does anything more for fine motor skills than threading pasta onto string.
How many 'educational' toys have you seen with the words, 'Promotes Fine Motor Skills' emblazoned across the packaging? How long did your child persevere with that toy before forgetting all about it? Yet how long would they spend trying to remove the clip from this bag of jelly babies? Exactly. If you're motivated to solve a problem you will try until you succeed - and learn a great deal in the process.
The best thing to do with all those educational toys is take them to the charity shop. Keep the boxes though, and use them to create a small world or build a robot. Forcing your child to use their imagination will make their games richer (and more educational) for it.