In a blog post way back in October, I promised to write about toys that help children practice basic skills. And then, being kind of disorganized, I promptly forgot. I was looking back over last year’s topics this afternoon, and suddenly it jumped out at me — I had never done it. So here it is. Better late than never, right?
Small children love to learn. They want to be able to do things, to get better at things. Anyone who has watched a baby learn to sit up, then to stand, then to crawl, then to walk and run and hop, knows this. Small children have a single-mindedness that is quite amazing: they will try and try and try to master some skill. Sometimes the skill comes more easily, and the child can move smoothly on to the next challenge. Sometimes it does not, and the frustration this causes may emerge as tantrums or mulish obstinacy.
Toys can help children practice all kinds of skills. Some skills are more concrete, such as gross motor skills like walking or fine motor skills like placing puzzle pieces. Other skills are more abstract and intellectual, such as colour recognition, reading, counting, and problem-solving.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. Toys will not teach your child to walk or to read. The learning does not arise from the toy, but rather the toy helps the child make the effort to learn, by helping to make the process enjoyable.
There is a sort of feedback loop involved, where the action of play is gratifying and the child wants to repeat the action in order to re-experience the gratification. (We’re not really that different from those Skinnerian lab rats, are we?) The repeated actions are what produce mastery of the skill. Have you ever watched a kid dribbling a basketball or shooting baskets in his driveway? It’s not the basketball that produces the skill, it’s the practice.
In fact, there’s a theory floating around (popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell, and based upon the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson) that an average of 10,000 hours practice is required to become a world-class anything — musician, mathematician, what have you. The upshot seems to be that a whole lot of single-minded and dedicated practice is needed, and repetitively practicing a skill can sometimes be, well, boring.
And that’s where the toys come in. They make the practice fun.
So, without further yakkity-yak, here’s a short list of basic skills that children often have some trouble mastering, and some suggestions for toys that can help.
Gross motor skills (walking, running)
- push or pull toys help motivate children to stand up and walk. Push toys like the Block and Roll (Hape) can be extra helpful as they often provide a measure of balance to wobbly toddlers
- ride-on toys like the PlasmaCar help children find their balance while giving them a speedy thrill as they zoom along
- stilts and pogo sticks are great for developing greater balance and poise
Fine motor skills (writing, feeding oneself, drawing)
- Simplified utensils (fork, spoon, and “pusher”) such as the Constructive Eating series help small children learn to eat by themselves
- Puzzles train children’s hand-eye coordination, starting with big chunky pieces and progressing to abstract, traditional jigsaw puzzles
- Unbreakable crayons that can be easily gripped in a toddler’s fist let him practice making the lines and scribbles go where he wants them (Mommy wants those lines to stay on the paper!)
- Learn-to-dress dolls and stuffed animals help children master the intricacies of buttons, zippers, Velcro, and laces
- Blocks of all kinds develop spatial skills
You may have noticed that there is a lot of overlap between the kinds of toys mentioned here, and those listed on our Top Ten Toys list. If you recall, the Top Ten Toys scored high in open-ended learning potential, in creativity, and in value — and these are precisely the attributes that make a good learning aid. If children want to use the toy, if they can use it in many different ways, and if they will be able to use it for a long time, then it will help them learn.