Tag Archives: educational games

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!

Play Games to Feed your Brain… and the World!

Are you a fellow word lover?  Growing up with a grandma who kept an Official Scrabble Dictionary in her trunk at all times, I think it’s in my blood!  Still today I get a Word of the Day email and do my crosswords in pen (ok just early in the week– by Thursday I usually switch to pencil!), and editing ThinkFun’s What’s GNU? online dictionary was no small thrill icon smile Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!

freeRiceLogo2 Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!As a self-professed word nerd, I was thrilled to learn about the Free Rice initiative!  If you are looking for a fun way to beef up your vocabulary… and do some good for the world while you play, check out www.freerice.com. Take a vocabulary quiz (no need to sign up/register), and for every answer you get right, FreeRice donates ten grains of rice to the World Food Programme!

freerice 300x125 Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!

Feed your brain and the planet– what could be better!?

Take a moment to play a quick round… and leave a comment using your new word in a sentence (I know… once an elementary school teacher…) icon smile Play Games to Feed your Brain... and the World!

Using Games as Therapy Tools

One of the highlights of my job are the emails and letters I get from teachers, specialists, parents, even kids, sharing their game experiences!  The following post is from a Child and Adolescent Therapist in Texas who emailed me her story of using Rush Hour as a therapy tool, neat!RushH 5000 HiResSpill 300x300 Using Games as Therapy Tools

Finding New Uses For Rush Hour In a Therapy Practice

Jennifer S. Berliner, Child and Adolescent Therapist
Austin Travis County MHMR Center, Austin, Texas

I’ve been using Rush Hour in my therapy sessions with families. I discovered this game in a local training by a therapist who is doing research on the use of games with at-risk youth. The game Rush Hour is helpful diagnostically to observe problem solving skills and patterns of communication between a teen and parent or between siblings. Do they argue? Share? Work together or in competition?

With Rush Hour, I set up a puzzle and tell them the object is to get the “red car out of the grid lock, you make up the rules…there is only one rule: cars must stay on the road/track they are currently set up on.”

Some observations my colleagues have noticed, anecdotally speaking, are that adolescents seem to be the group that tries to “cheat” by lifting the cars off the road and moving them! Also, overwhelmed parents tend to give up and throw in the towel and disengage before teen (Mmm, telling information for the teen that keeps running away from home, skipping school, etc.).

Interestingly, the game Rush Hour is also a GREAT metaphor for parents/teens:

  • Does the teen like to break other rules or take short cuts?
  • Siblings (or team members in a class), what was it like to “establish the rules of the game?” Where the rules fair? Did you all agree on the rules?
  • What are the house (or classroom) rules?
  • What (if anything) happens when you break a rule?
  • (If a parent ‘gives up on the game’): Have you, the parent, ever walked away when your teen gets into a complicated jam?
  • Have you ever been in a jam?
  • Did you get out of the jam on your own?
  • Have you been helped out of a jam?
  • Have you helped others out of jam?
  • What did you do to get out of a jam?

Social-emotional skills are vital to development, yet often overlooked because they are learned mostly by observation and modeling. Social-emotional skills include tasks such as sharing, taking turns, waiting your turn (very difficult for kids with impulse control & ADHD), and reading non-verbal communication cues. Also, playing Rush Hour promotes team work and problem-solving together rather than in competition.

The ThinkFun Education site is great and I look forward to the newsletters! You might consider putting together some activities around the social-emotional education that ThinkFun games offers players! Keep up the GREAT work!

Games bring GNU learning opportunities to homeschoolers!

I’ve recently had the pleasure of working with Angie Knutson, whose My Four Monkeys blog reviews products through her unique lens as both mom and homeschool educator.  Angie’s support of ThinkFun games as teaching tools and eagerness to explore  new education initiatives led to her oldest daughter participating in a test of our yet-unreleased Brain Lab program! Caitlyn proved a fierce competitor, beating over 400 entries to win the Rush Hour Tournament 2 weeks in a row!  Below, Angie shares the creative ways she’s used the updated What’s GNU? game in her homeschool curriculum to build language skills. ENJOY!

Whats GNU review 300x225 Games bring GNU learning opportunities to homeschoolers!

Learning with What’s Gnu? from ThinkFun

Homeschooling and educational games go hand in hand. It can be quite the challenge to make learning fun when the teacher is also the mom. To be honest, the kids get tired of listening to you day after day, all day long. So to make our school time less monotonous, we interject educational games and field trips to do the trick. Since we can’t afford to go on field trips everyday or even every week, educational games have become a very important resource in my bag of tricks.

Probably our favorite site for educational games, ThinkFun has become a household name here and we have such favorites as Rush Hour, Zingo! 1-2-3, and Clever Castle. We recently received a copy of What’s Gnu? to review, and I discovered just how helpful this game is for kindergarten aged children. What’s Gnu? is played similar to the Zingo line of games, and consists of 36 Word Starter Cards, 72 Letter Tiles (vowels are colored red), and a Letter Getter. The game is geared toward ages 5 and up, and you can play with as many people as you’d like. What’s Gnu? was created to develop skills including spelling patterns, reading, word recognition, focus, and concentration. The game was recently redesigned to better meet the needs of the parents and educators using it, and they did a fabulous job! The game now includes two sided cards that allow for two difficulty levels, and the three letter words are perfect for beginning readers.

Over the course of the last several weeks, I have played this game with my Kindergartner and my First Grader several times and have created several different ways to use What’s Gnu? as a learning tool. Playing by the rules is great of you have two children to play, but what if it’s just you and your child? Here’s some ideas for how to use What’s Gnu? in a fun and new way: Games bring GNU learning opportunities to homeschoolers!

Rhyme Time: Lay out all the letter tiles in front of the child. Pick one card at a time and see how many rhyming words they can create with that one card using the different letter tiles. When they run out of ideas, move onto another card. The green side of the Word Starter Cards(with one missing letter) works great for my 5 year old, and the Orange side (missing two letters) works perfectly for my 7 year old. Word Starter Cards without a missing first letter don’t work well with this exercise of course.

Hurry and Spell: My kindergartner loves to play this version of What’s Gnu?! I stack the cards in a pile and then lay all the letter tiles out on the floor. I give him a certain amount of time and he sees how many words he can create in that amount of time. How much time you give them should depend on their ability, but 2 to 3 minutes usually works well for us. When we’re finished, he often wants to play again and see if he can break his record!

Read To Me: Spelling is fun, but reading the words is important too. Sometimes we just sit down with the game and do some reading practice. The Word Starter Cards are great for creating multiple words to have your child read. Kind of like flashcards, but a little more fun. Just use the Letter Tiles and the Word Starter Cards to create a word and see if your child can sound it out. If they do, reward them with a small treat. We use fruit snacks for this exercise and it’s like a snack and lesson all in one!

Casual Learning Time: It doesn’t always have to be about a game. My kids can often be caught just playing around with the Word Starter Cards and Letter Tiles creating words and trying to read them. Sometimes they will create words that aren’t real words and try to figure out how to pronounce them. This process is educational for them and relaxing. There is no pressure to perform, and they can go at their own pace. Don’t forget that a game doesn’t have to be played at a table or desk to be educational. We often play the games on the floor. The kids are more relaxed and comfortable, it seems more like playtime rather than school time, and it allows me to give some attention to my energetic toddler at the same time.

Want more?  Angie has also reviewed Zingo 1-2-3, Clever Castle, and Rush Hour!

How have YOU used games to enrich your homeschool instruction?  Please share your ideas!

S’Match Supports Speech Therapy Sessions (say that 3 times fast!)

The following post is by speech-language pathologist Sherry Artemenko, featured on her Playonwords blog

smatch playing275 206x300 SMatch Supports Speech Therapy Sessions (say that 3 times fast!)

Strengthen language skills through play!

SPEECH THERAPY GAMES: S’ MATCH BY THINKFUN

I use fun commercial games for speech therapy all the time. Some are valuable as a reinforcer after a turn of saying a sound, practicing a language structure or using appropriate social language. It is helpful if they are fast paced and turns are quick to keep the session going. But some games have a bit of language learning embedded in them too. I have blogged about Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Mystery Garden for learning association and categorization.

A new game that just came out, S’ Match, by Thinkfun, can be used as a reinforcer or to learn language categories. You have to know the story behind the invention of this game. When I was at the Toy Fair, I spoke with Thinkfun’s Education and Curriculum Specialist and she said the Staples Easy Button and a salad spinner inspired the pop up spinner kids love that turns the dial to point to one of three attributes: color, number or category. Players turn over two cards and try to match images according to the attributes, making this a more complex memory game.

I first used the game with a little girl working on her /s/ sound. Every time we got a match we said, “S’ Match!” and each time we spun the wheel we said, “Spin the s’match.” When it stopped, we said, “I spun color, or category.” Interestingly enough, when kids didn’t make a match according to the spinner, they still called out the kind of match they got. For instance, if they had to match by category but uncovered two orange cards, they would say, “Smatch for color,” making a verbal note of where to find that match should they need it in the future. To reinforce categories, we would say, “a s’match for vehicles,” naming the category. Each sturdy cardboard card has the image as well at the words to encourage literacy.

Don’t forget to always look for a little language in a game.

Sherry Artemenko, MA-CCC, is a speech-language pathologist with more than 35 years experience and founder of Playonwords.com. The opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the author. “S’Match” was provided for review by Thinkfun.

How to Spice Up an Algebra Class? Just Add Games!

This post is courtesy of Lisa Kosanovic, a Math Teacher at Holyoke High School, Holyoke, Massachusetts

*Note: The GridWorks game referenced here is the precursor to the current Chocolate Fix game!

Lisa Kosanovic 300x225 How to Spice Up an Algebra Class? Just Add Games!
I teach high school math in the sixth poorest community in the nation, and for us, math class is too often about passing our state’s standardized tests. While many of my students lack basic skills, I often see a high level of reasoning and problem-solving skills that I want to develop and encourage.

Several years ago, I bought ThinkFun’s GridWorks game (*now Chocolate Fix) for my own children, who loved it. Soon thereafter, I was working through a state test problem with one of my Algebra I classes, and I realized that the problem drew on exactly the same skills that GridWorks did! After several attempts to recreate the game using overhead transparencies, I contacted ThinkFun and asked if they could send me sets of the GridWorks pieces. I knew that if I had a set for each student, I could simply put the challenges on the chalkboard using colored chalk, and my students could work the problems at their desks.

What a success! Even the most reluctant of my students enjoyed using this game, and several came up to me after class to talk about it. One of my Pre-calculus students said she was pleasantly surprised by how much she had to think on the most challenging puzzles (I put 10 challenges on the boards around my room, including the two most difficult), and by how much fun it was to think hard in that way. Another student with serious attention issues insisted on starting with the most difficult problem, and he worked diligently through an entire class period. When he did not finish the problem, he asked if he could come back during the next class to finish, and when he returned, he stayed with the problem until it was completed correctly!

My only regret is that there are not books and books of GridWorks challenges! With GridWorks, I saw many otherwise-unengaged students using math skills to solve problems, and enjoying themselves at the same time. I will use this with my students every year to teach them problem-solving skills and show them that math can be fun!

*Read how another innovative High School math teacher took this same game, now in Chocolate Fix form, and used it to teach his students to make geometric proofs!

Zingo!… adored by preschoolers and dinosaurs alike!

Proof that Zingo! truly is a game for everyone… young, old, even extinct!

Dino Zingo 225x300 Zingo!... adored by preschoolers and dinosaurs alike!

Looks like Stegosaurus has some catching up to do...

Doggie Zingo 300x225 Zingo!... adored by preschoolers and dinosaurs alike!

Wonder who will be the first to cover the "dog" image!?

Check out the new updates we’ve recently made to improve Zingo! game play!

Do you have a Zingo! lover at home?   Email me your photos, and I’ll feature them in an upcoming post icon smile Zingo!... adored by preschoolers and dinosaurs alike!

Revisiting the Classics…

Need inspiration to start your spring cleaning?  Here’s a great reason to dust off that old collection of classic board games!

A recent article from KnoxNews takes a look at how classic games like Monopoly and Scrabble can serve as powerful learning aids!  In the hands of a creative teacher (or parent for that matter), a game like Candy Land is transformed into a tool to reinforce number sense, early math, and critical thinking skills!

Monopoly 300x198 Revisiting the Classics...

This teacher uses Monopoly to teach money management skills like budgeting and making informed spending decisions.

This article shares results from a 2007 study by Carnegie Mellon University, in which disadvantaged preschoolers played a simple numeric board game four times for 15-20 minutes at a time over a two-week period.  At the end of the two weeks, researchers found students’ knowledge of math greatly increased in four different areas of number sense!

School Counselor Vicki Hill uses games not only for academic support, but also to build social skills. “I use Candy Land for a self-esteem building activity,” Vicky describes, “If the student gets a double color card, he must tell something good about himself. ”  Similarly, with the game Sorry, “if the student has to send someone back to start, he must say something positive to the player that gets sent back.”

Have ideas for ways to revive an old classic as a learning tool for your children?  Please share!

Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

Here’s a photo of a real-life Rush Hour traffic jam sent to me by Laura Efinger, a pediatric occupational therapist (and big Rush Hour fan!) in Cairo, Egypt.  Laura writes, “I have attached a picture of some Cairo traffic, which may explain why we love Rush Hour in Egypt! icon smile Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!  Some is parking and some traffic, but it probably is the worst in the world, and no one follows the lines in the road and rules!”

cairo traffic jam Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

A Real Life Traffic Jam in Cairo, Egypt

All that’s missing is the Red Car!

Picture 24 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

A much more enjoyable "Traffic Jam" challenge!

For several years, Laura has used many ThinkFun games, including Rush Hour (which she reports is the hands-down favorite!) in her occupational therapy sessions with children in  Cairo, Egypt.  Laura writes, “I love them [ThinkFun games] as they develop the children’s visual motor/perceptual skills, fine motor, memory and planning skills.”

At a 2008 Occupational Therapy Conference, Laura presented a therapy-based workshop called “Recipes for Fun” in which participants were shown ways to use games like Rush Hour as tools to help children develop academic and sensory motor skills.  Looks like fun was had by all!

Cairo RH 300x225 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!Cairo RH2 300x225 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!Cairo RH1 225x300 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!Cairo RH3 300x280 Rush Hour in Cairo Egypt!

Laura is preparing for this year’s Conference which will take place at the end of the month. Here she plans to host a workshop focusing on the benefits of using card games to help children with skills such as attention, sequencing, memory, fine motor, etc.   Stay tuned for an update!

For more on Laura and her work, please visit her Occupational Therapy in Egypt blog!

Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Here’s PROOF!

The following is a post by guest blogger Sean Gregory, a math teacher at Napa High School, Napa, CA

fix 006 300x199 Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Heres PROOF!Games are a normal part of my classroom. I have always loved games personally and believed that I would be a better teacher if I put a part of myself into my teaching. My students from the past 20+ years will remember playing all sorts of gambling games, Jeopardy!, and treasure hunts. I’ve even adapted several off-the-beaten track games like PitchCar, Hamsterolle , and Elchfest into full-room class activities. While these games were vehicles for fun, they were more a source of diversion from the mathematics problems that I loaded the play with.

As a teacher of mathematics, I know that some games come with built in traits that I would love to exploit in class. So, like many others before me, I have incorporated games like Mastermind and Clue into my room to build my students’ deductive skills. I was pleased by the opportunity that I gave my classes with these games, but I also felt that the games did not play well given my restraint on time and my large number of players.

fix 004 200x300 Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Heres PROOF!I wasn’t really looking to replace Clue or Mastermind when I went to the ThinkFun workshop at the 2009 NCTM National Convention but that is exactly what happened. ThinkFun’s Chocolate Fix puzzle was a clever, compact, pure deduction puzzle. While its appeal to most people might be the fun that they would have with cute little plastic pieces of chocolate, I saw my opportunity to use it as an aid to my Geometry students who believed they could never produce a deductive proof.

Perhaps I would have seen Chocolate Fix’s application to my class on my own, but the workshop offered  ideas on how to implement the puzzle in a classroom. The activity that spoke the most to me was ThinkFun’s idea that we should not only complete the puzzle, but also share the order in which we used the clues to figure  out the solution. Suddenly I wasn’t playing with a puzzle but was seeing a plastic chocolate manipulative that could help my students prove triangles congruent.

People are natural problem solvers, but in a math class students suddenly lose their confidence, ability, and desire to work things out. Surely if I can finish a Chocolate Fix puzzle and know that I used the clues in the order 3-5-2-1-4, then I can form a geometric proof with vertical angles, SAS, and CPCTC. I was determined to convince my classes that the puzzles they were completing in Chocolate Fix were harder than many of the proofs that they could barely start.

fix 005 300x199 Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Heres PROOF!

From 9 plastic chocolates, a mathematical proof emerges!

I had no money to put into buying Chocolate Fix games, so  I passed out scissors and had the class cut out pieces to make their own games. It is a tribute to the kids’ desire to play that they eagerly cleared all these hurdles without complaint! The class finished their hour happily working the puzzles.

The next day, I encouraged the students to solve the puzzles with their cut-out pieces. About half the class gave up on the pieces and just made it a pencil and paper thing. Towards the end of the day, desiring some product, I challenged the students to pick a puzzle and share the order that they used the clues AND write about why they made their choice.

kelty1 197x300 Can Chocolate Fix Teach Geometry? Heres PROOF!

A student's written proof provides a map of his problem solving steps!

After school I was shocked at the quality of the written explanations (often with diagrams) I had collected. My Geometry classes do push written explanations but I had never seen such quality so early in the year. It was clear I was on to something.

The class’s excitement for the puzzle grew and grew. They looked forward to our days with it and showed their enthusiasm by giving me frequently spectacular written explanations of their puzzle solving. I put Chocolate Fix questions on exams. I dazzled the class with my own (real) set of the puzzle, and by the end of the first semester had convinced the school’s parent club to buy a class set of 36 puzzles.

As the semester ended, I put my last Chocolate Fix problem on the final exam right next to questions about trapezoids and triangles and nobody seemed to think it out-of-place. I know that I have found the game that will be part of my deductive math classes for the rest of my career.

Three months later my students and I think of Chocolate Fix as “our puzzle,” a game we enjoy playing in class knowing that other math students are not so lucky.