When we think of toys we do not usually associate them with academic learning but with fun and whimsical times. However, toys can support learning and development. Below are some examples of toys and how they can be used to enhance academic learning.
Building toys are often classified as examples of STEM toys. STEM involves Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and STEM education involves training students in these areas together to be equipped for real-world jobs and careers. For more information read Richard Myhill's post on "What is Stem Education?" (Myhill, 2020)
Lego is probably one of the most popular building toys around. Lego Education believe Lego should be used, even in schools, to educate through play. As the country is currently in lockdown why not utilise Lego at home? As Marbina, Church and Taylor point out "Learning through play supports the development of early literacy and numeracy skills in an integrated approach, while also cultivating children's emotional, physical, and creative skills." (Lego Education, date unknown). Lego comes in a range of styles for different ages from Duplo to Lego Technic there is something for all ages.
Other STEM building toys include marble runs, Meccano, and K'NEX. K'NEX educational STEM products are advertised as developing physical dexterity, fine motor skills and spatial awareness supporting problem-solving, discovery, exploratory learning and critical thinking (K'NEX Education, 2021). Marble runs help with all these skills too and teach perseverance and patience. Meccano teaches coding, robotics and construction (Meccano, 2021).
Building toys don't need to be expensive. It could involve collecting objects (e.g. tissue boxes) and getting your child to build towers. You could even encourage your child's creativity and get that to make their own DIY toy from kites to Flexicubes (check out Babble Dabble Dos "40 of the best DIY Toys to Make with Kids").
Sometimes it’s the timeless classics that are the best. The bike, for example. Invented in 1817 it is still going strong. Bicycles improve a child's fitness level, boost positive mental attitudes and tones muscles. It strengthens bones, builds stamina and improves coordination and balance. It gives a child a sense of achievement learning and a knowledge of road safety.
Other outdoor toys like paddling pools and sand pits can teach young children social skills such as sharing and open them up to sensory learning and play.
There are a lot of board games around - Monopoly, Scrabble, Memory, Chess, Checkers etc. and each incorporate different skills. Monopoly teaches business and money handling, Scrabble spelling and improved word recall, Chess logic and problem solving. Generally, board games exercise brain function aiding memory formation. As Scholastic points out through Beatrice Tauber "Strategy games are useful in helping the front lobes of the brain develop…Those frontal lobes are responsible for executive function skills which include planning, organizing and making good decisions." (Scholastic, 2019) They teach patience and can improve self-confidence (Bucks County Free Library, 2019). They improve language and social skills such as teamwork. Plus board games are fun for all the family building on family relationships particularly during Covid.
When we think of creativity we usually think of paint, paper, drawing etc. But toys can be creative too. Look at Play-Doh for example. You can sculpt with it and usually find it in some form at nurseries. It supports children's development in creativity and imagination. It can be used to explore the senses (e.g. Is it lumpy, mushy?) and improve communication. For your own play dough recipes visit NAEYC Playdough Power.
Craft toys such as sewing kits and jewellery making can teach children hobbies, improve motor skills and develop an interest that could continue into adulthood. Easels can be used to teach subjects in a visual more creative way. They can encourage interactivity between the adult, child or children. It can encourage confidence in forming ideas and help support numeracy and literacy.
Toys are fun and education should be fun. Development is not simply about sitting in a classroom or if remote learning sitting in front of a computer screen. It is about engaging your child and developing them holistically through social, physical, intellectual, communicative and emotional development. Although trickier during Covid-19 times it may simply require thinking outside the typical box and thinking what's inside the toy box instead.
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