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5 Rules For Evaluating So-Called Educational Toys

The following post is by Wendy Smolen.  Wendy is a regular guest blogger at Toy Whimsy and co-founder of Sandbox Summit®, a series of conferences that explore the synergy between play and technology.

The ABC’s of Educational Toys

abcs 300x225 5 Rules For Evaluating So Called Educational ToysIt’s almost unavoidable. Every toy in your toddler’s playroom, from cell phone-shaped rattles to push toys to stacking blocks and caterpillars, seems to be decked out with alphabets. Is this part of our obsession to make kids smarter, faster, sooner? Should you specifically look for toys with ABCs? Or should you leave them on the shelf?

I talked to experts Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Professor in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less (Rodale Books) and Dr. Alice Wilder, Ed.D., Chief Content Officer for Kidos, Co-Creator of Think It Ink It Publishing, and Co-Creator and Head of Research and Education for the PBS show Super Why!

Based on their insights, here are 5 basic rules to educate yourself about so-called educational toys.

1.Having the alphabet on a toy doesn’t automatically make it educational.
PLAY IS HOW KIDS LEARN. Do I need to say it louder? Every toy has a purpose. A ball, a drum, a stuffed animal, a picture puzzle — they all teach. Sharing, cause and effect, nurturing, motor skills, spatial arrangement– these are the childhood basics. Whether a ball has the alphabet written on it or the teddy bear recites a poem is secondary to the play value of the toy itself. As kids age, alphabet recognition becomes more important as a pre-reading skill, but it should be fun, not work. And you should know what’s realistic for a kid to learn at each age and stage of development. “Children don’t really need to master letter recognition and letter/sound connections until kindergarten,” explains Dr. Wilder.  “Having said that, surrounding children with books and words, playing with words and letters through games, songs, oral storytelling, and writing to communicate messages will all build the foundation for pre-reading. Preschooler’s toys should stimulate their curiosity and imaginations to explore the world and draw connections so what they are playing becomes a richer, deeper learning experience.”

2. A “pretend computer” with a qwerty keyboard is not necessarily better– or worse — than an alphabetical keyboard.
I’m all for tech preparedness. Kids in the 21st century need to know how to master the technology that makes up their world. I guarantee kids will see and recognize qwerty keyboards long before they’re able to start texting. But when they are first learning letters and sounds, an alphabetical keyboard may have some advantages over a qwerty. “There isn’t a lot of research on qwerty keyboards, “ explains Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. “Since young kids initially learn their letters in order, both by seeing them and singing them, an alphabetized keyboard at first seems more logical.  Once kids recognize the letters, followed by the sounds they make, using a qwerty keyboard presents a realistic challenge. Then you can encourage them to, ‘find an A,’ which isn’t at the beginning of the keyboard. Think of an alphabetical keyboard as level one, a qwerty as level 3. It’s all about readiness.”

Dr. Wilder believes that young kids will be able to adapt their knowledge to a new way of presenting information without much difficulty and learning in the context of real life objects or technology makes a lot of sense.   “Learning the order of the alphabet is less important than knowing each letter, the sounds each letter makes and the fact that letters come together to make words that have meaning. The way that I see it is that I know how smart children are and they can learn anything if given an appropriate context and motivation.”

Bottom line: you need to know your own child’s level. As adults, our “toys” have both types of keyboards: alphabetizing on phones; qwerty on computers. Somehow, we’ve been able to adapt. Our kids will too.

3. Don’t expect a one-year-old to read.
“It all depends on how one defines “read,” laughs Dr. Wilder. “Children are learning literacy from the day they are born. Before they know and can understand language they can ‘read’ body language, tone of voice, and they begin to associate symbols for things that they want or need and respond accordingly.”

Learning the alphabet and letter/sound correspondences are certainly key steps every child needs to master to learn to read. Making the connection between letters and words is another critical leap. However, kids do this everyday by observing the world around them. Sitting on your lap while you read a book, riding in a car and seeing road signs and bill boards, recognizing a McDonald’s logo—these are all ways kids prep to read.

“Encouraging strong language skills is one of the most important lessons you can teach your young child,” stresses Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.  Reading, telling a story, or carrying on a narrative about what you’re doing are the most natural ways to do this. One-year-olds may love to look at books and turn pages, but very, very, few can actually read “words.”

4. Any toy that sings the ABCs is good.
“Singing songs, understanding the words sung in a song, and associating the words with meaning are the important components of singing any song,” says Dr. Wilder. When kids imitate their stuffed animal or toy truck singing the ABCs, the song is a mnemonic for remembering the letters. In that context, any toy that encourages singing is good. Most three-year-olds, and many younger kids love singing the Alphabet Song. “But we need to take the alphabet out of the context of order to help kids understand the real meaning of the song.”

5. Playing together doubles the fun — and learning.
You — the parent, caretaker, or grownup– are your child’s best (and probably favorite) toy. Of course you want him to learn the alphabet, read books, and be able to navigate technology in all kinds of ways. Toys that encourage kids to practice these skills are welcome additions to any playroom. Just don’t forget about the simple bouncing balls, baby dolls, blocks and bikes. These are just as necessary as toys with words and letters. But most important of all, know that when you talk, laugh, read, pretend, and share everyday activities with your child you reinforce the basic skills he needs to interact with the world in an age-appropriate and fun-loving manner. And that’s exactly what an educational toy should do.

I am THRILLED to be attending the upcoming Sandbox Summit in May at MIT! Click here to learn more about this conference!

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