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Every Toy is Educational: Pay Attention to What it Teaches

Tips for buying better toys this season, part 2 of 5

The amazing, inspiring, and humbling thing about kids is that they are always learning. Always. They have to be. That is how they were born only able to eat and nap, knowing nothing about the world, and, in three short years, teach themselves a language (or two) complete with grammar rules, several laws of physics, optional grooming skills (such as how to comb their hair), and the best ways to manipulate their parents into that one extra cookie after dinner.

It is amazing because they learn much of what they know entirely on their own. No one explicitly told them that objects fall to the ground when you release them, but repeated experiences dropping their fork, your keys, your iPhone, and their sister’s favorite toy onto the floor (and in the case of one iPhone, into the toilet) have taught them physics. Without explicitly teaching them grammar rules, they learn that they can say, “Daddy hit” to get Daddy to hit a ball and they can say, “hit Daddy” when they hit Daddy on the head with a pillow. No one ever taught them this. I think I can speak for all parents when I say no one sits their child down and says, “When a noun comes before the verb, the noun is the subject that does the action. When a verb comes before a noun, it means the noun is an object to be acted upon.”

They can do this because they are always paying to attention to your subtle behaviors, always picking up on cues in the environment, looking for patterns in the world, and extrapolating broader meaning from the snippets of life that they have seen.

Considering these remarkable feats, it shouldn’t be surprising that children also learn from the toys that we provide for them. Toys that are labeled “educational” are simply the result of a marketing meeting.

All toys are educational, in that all toys teach. We may not, however, be paying attention to WHAT they are teaching.

This season, think about what values new toys are teaching your children. What message does a gun toy teach? What value does a baby doll promote? I know guns are supposed to be simply fun, but children learn from their fun. A great book, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, points out how children learn through play. Guns show that aggression and hurting others is fun. Baby dolls teach that taking care of others is important. This is a valuable lessons for both boys and girls. Barbie dolls teach that dressing up and looking good (and thin) is important. Not a value I want to perpetrate.

This issue transcends gender stereotypes, however. Nerf has a new gun toy marketed to girls-a pink version called Rebelle. The values lesson is not a message parents probably want their children to pick up. Guns kill people (even if you think people kill people, it is still people holding guns). Nowadays, those guns are often being wielded by children. Why should I want my daughter to play with a toy that simulates killing? I wouldn't want my sons to do that. Regardless of people's opinions about gun control, it seems this type of play and "fun" should be a shrinking trend, not a growing one.

What values and skills do we want to teach our children? Nurturance and care-taking (buy a doll), skilled with tools (buy a tool set), strong spatial skills (buy a Lego set or Lincoln Logs), strong verbal skills (buy books and journals), an appreciation of art (buy art supplies), a love of science (buy a volcano kit, a detective kit, a microscope or telescope), turn-taking and good sportsmanship (buy board games), or an appreciation of being healthy (buy an outside toy, balls, pogo sticks, or riding toys). These are important skills all children should develop, boys and girls alike.

The take home lesson: Think through the values and lessons you want your children to learn. Make sure the toys you buy this season support and reinforce those values.

More from Christia S. Brown Ph.D.
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