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5 tips to follow when choosing educational toys for your child

Learning through play

Learning through play

As the trend to label toys as “educational” continues to grow, parents may wonder if the hype associated with these types of toys is true and if they are worth the money. Here are five tips from education and toy experts on what to consider when picking an educational toy for your child:

Remember low-tech

The tie between education and toys has always existed but with the ongoing wave of high-technology educational toys, many of the toys teachers and parents used to associate with learning may no longer be recognized for their educational value. “The best toys are simple and open-ended,” says Ellen Wild, chairperson of the Early Childhood Program at Dutchess Community College.

Wild suggests giving children crayons, markers and plain paper, along with envelopes and stickers to encourage thinking about writing. She also points to blocks, Legos, and manipulatives (think: stacking toys, shape sorters) to help develop small muscles in the hands and fingers in anticipation of writing and to help with perceptual motor skills. Wild says that she does see children that have been entertained too exclusively by electronics and toys with “bells and whistles”. “Many of these children have not learned persistence, an ability to focus without being entertained,” says Wild, “(They) have not enjoyed being creative on their own and are not excited by books and learning.”

READ MORE: The debate on educational toys

Individualize your approach

“Toys are tools in creating the learning environment,” says Natasha Kravchenko, representative of Educational Toys Planet, an online retailer since 2002. Kravchenko says it is important to choose the right toy for your child’s particular age, interest or stage. And not to buy what you want or what you wanted as a child but to buy the toy that suits your child’s personality. She suggests thinking about which toys will make your child want to discover something new, improve their skills, and encourage independent learning. “You can check consumer’s reviews and manufacturer’s age recommendations, but your choice should mostly depend on your child,” says Kravchenko, “not other people’s opinion about the toy.”

Visit the land of make believe

“The best toys are ones that foster creativity and pretend play,” says Nancy Werner, Kindergarten teacher at Traver Road School in Pleasant Valley. “These toys also grow with the child and they can use them for many purposes.”

Werner, who has a four-year old, suggests dress up clothes, play food and dolls to foster imagination, creation of stories and language which lead to reading comprehension and writing skills. She also recommends creative games that be played with adults or other kids, like Candy Land, for developing counting, cooperation, turn taking and problem solving.

READ MORE: Toys to encourage learning

Be realistic

Parents should be cautious about the promises made by educational toy advertisements. “Children’s development can’t be accelerated,” says Jim Taylor, Ph. D, Psychology, author of "Your Children are Under Attack: How Popular Culture is Destroying Your Kids’ Values, and How You Can Protect Them." “Children can only develop at the pace they are capable.”

Taylor says that trying to speed up a child’s development can actually slow it down because kids are forced to do things for which they are not developmentally ready. The result is that children are prevented from doing what they should be doing at their stage of development.

Be your child’s first educational “toy”

“It is more important to have conversations with children and ask them questions to help them explain and think than to spend hundreds of dollars on a toy or video that will be only a one way ‘conversation’,” says Werner.

Werner and Wild both point to books, either bought or borrowed, as being one of the best educational assets your child can own. And one of the best tools parents can use to teach their children. “One of the best educational ‘toys’ for a child is an adult who spends time talking, reading, and enjoying the wonders of the world with (them),” says Wild.

Janine Boldrin is a freelance writer who lives in West Point, NY with her family.