The Most Educational Toys are Completely Free, Or Mostly

Published by — The best, most educational toys don’t always need to plug in, have a micro-processor or cost a fortune.


Ah, the quiet week, the post-holiday pause. The gifts have been purchased, wrapped and unwrapped. The house is returning to normal. Most of the nation’s children are busy with new goodies from under the tree. Most will spend their vacation downtime hunched in front of some sort of screen. Some might actually be physically active, using a Wii to simulate an outdoor activity in a messy bedroom.

Consumer Christmas jumped to light speed with TV, of course. Before then Christmas was a time to spoil the children A LITTLE BIT with a doll or a toy car, chocolates, and a sweet collection of myths and magic. Solstice, Hanukkah and the Nativity are all celebrations of the waxing of the light as we face the dark of the season. But who notices that anymore? The season’s holy days are now fully transformed into a toy orgasm, in a triumph of mass advertising over cultural tradition.

So let’s head over to the Geek Dads column in Wired Magazine to see if your kids got the hottest must-have item. The columnists home-test toys with their very own children, or geeklets. These tech-heads know whereof they e-speak.

Jonathan Liu puts it right out there with “The 5 Best Toys of All Time.” And they are:

Stick, box, string, cardboard tube and dirt.

Hmmmmm. Not exactly sophisticated, cool, “the latest,” or advertised as educational.

Some readers objected to his priorities, so Liu included a few more in a subsequent column. They are:

Bubble wrap, rock, ball and water.

Once I got over the shock of the refreshing lack of batteries needed, I wanted to add doll, sand and clay.

But whatever. For once I am at one with hip, young super-sophisticates. Liu acknowledges that his choices involve a bit more risk than video games, and thus need some unintrusive supervision. But adults should be doing that anyway.

Still, the contrast between super-absorbing electronic entertainment and the traditional elements of play raises the question: What is a toy?

While researching children’s play and its relationship to academics, I found this oft-repeated saying: A good toy is 90 percent child and 10 percent toy.

A video game, or a movie-character doll, have plot lines already laid out. A kid “plays” by doing the plot correctly – finding the right pre-made path through the video adventure, or following the movie character’s story line precisely. Zero creativity.

Three important qualities characterize traditional play materials. (Ropes and blankets that make up indoor forts are hard to call toys, exactly.)

First, a good toy brings out the personality and passions of the child. What does he like to do? What does he repeat so he can get better and better at it? Is he a builder? Game-player? Adventurer? Pretender? Children are always telling us what skills and interests they want nourished, if we listen.

Secondly, traditional playthings are the way the child’s brain uploads the features, benefits and liabilities of the world around her. Sticks, for example, can be anything. (Which is why forbidding toy guns always seems to me like a losing proposition.) They can dig, be weaponry, scepters, farm tools. But they can also poke, hit and hurt. They come from trees, which are giant jungle gyms when frightened adults aren’t looking.

In a video game, the weapon in the avatar’s hand has no weight, length or other properties that might inform a kid’s later encounter with, say, tools. Playing with play stuff gets the kid ready to handle real stuff.

Because third – and this is a point almost entirely lost on adults – play is a way of getting ready for work. As kids get older, their traditional toys increasingly mimic adult work. Kids like to pretend to be adults. They want to tinker, build or cook, like the adults. Cars and roadways are dangerously adult, but kids can reproduce them in a sandbox.

On a fact sheet, The Alliance for Childhood recommends that you “bring back the art of real work. Believe it or not, adult activity – cooking, raking, cleaning, washing the car – actually inspires children to play. Children like to help for short periods and then engage in their own play.”

This is huge. If children learn to work through their play, later when they’re adults, they’ll look for work that has an element of play in it for them, hopefully. If play is just about being passively entertained, even with “interactive” features supplied by a keyboard, then work and school will just be boring drudgery because they’re not entertainment. Lots of essential work is tedious, but playful people can find the game aspect and make it work for them.

Honestly, I believe that the key reason we’re struggling to raise our kids’ academic achievement is that we’ve sucked play out of learning and work. Our work can look like such a drag to kids. We come home, plotz in front of the TV, and make it seem like there, on the screen, life finally has some juice.

Surely Geek Dads get their fill of playing with screens when they work. So no wonder that when they get playthings for their kids, they want to go retro with dirt, water, and totally fun cardboard boxes.

But theirs shouldn’t be the only such lucky kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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