So many toys are advertised as educational, but which ones do actual teachers recommend? We asked some of our faculty and staff, whose job title includes parent, which toys would fill their carts this holiday season.
This classic toy, which can be homemade or bought as Play-Doh, is great for fine motor skills as well as imaginative play. It is not messy and is easily cleaned up. Play-dough is a fun, rainy day activity for home or school. It can be used for practicing and building letters or just shaping a pizza or snowman. I have also used ingredients to “cook” our own play-dough in Kindergarten. Play-dough is best suited for preschool-3rd grade.
Laura Bernick, 1st grade teacher
2. Snap Circuits
This is a good starter kit, but there are many others, too! It says age 8+, but I’d say from at least age 6.
Rachel Plucker, Middle School Math Department Chair, 6th Grade Math
"LEGOs are always a big hit with my kids!" says Mrs. Plucker. And 8th Grade Science Teacher Karen Van Bebber agrees, citing LEGO, Lincoln Logs, and puzzles as good toys to help children learn to think spatially, problem solve, and be creative. Mrs. Van Bebber also sees the benefits of non-toys: "Popsicle sticks and boxes can turn into anything that can be imagined. Craft supplies also let children be creative and explore what can be made and the limitations of materials. A deck of cards or a box of dominoes can also be good materials for constructing a house or just seeing what can be built.
4. Lincoln Logs
Mrs. Bernick and Mrs. Van Bebber both like this classic construction toy. No instructions or steps to follow; all imagination. These can be used at home or at school, for school projects, and for imaginative play. Each time a child explores with Lincoln Logs they can create something new or add more to a previous idea. Best suited for students in grades K-4.
Melissa S. Tucker ’04, LS Technology Integration Specialist
6. Magnetic tiles
These are like flat plastic blocks with magnets that hold each other together. Here’s an example. They allow kids to make more complicated objects than traditional blocks. (Although my kids love the old-fashioned kind, too. They’ll often combine the wooden blocks and the magnetic tiles.) They encourage fine motor skills, spatial reasoning, and creativity while being a lot of fun. Magnetic tiles are best for preschool and up, my youngest loves them and I’ve watched my older nephews (8 & 10) build with them, too.
Deb Brink, Director of Information Services
7. Play food and kitchen tools
Children like to model what they see adults doing. My husband and I cook almost every day, so my kids enjoy pretending to do the same. They’ll make us pretend coffee in the morning, serve each other cupcakes and pizza, or pretend they are running their own restaurant or grocery store. Like any open-ended pretend toys, they encourage imaginative play and communication and negotiation skills between the children playing with them. Best for preschool and above. This is another type of toy I’ve seen my older nephews play with.
Deb Brink, Director of Information Services
8. Play kitchen and cash register
Our favorite toy of all time was a play kitchen with a cash register. We would go to the “store” and ring up our food. It was a great introduction to money, and then we would make the food and serve it. We could talk about healthy choices and what a balanced meal looks like through play. This would, of course, be geared towards younger students. Toys I wish had never been invented? Marshmallow guns, Nerf guns, anything like that. Best non-toy ever? Playing cards. The 5th and 6th grade boys love them. Wonderful mathematical practice.
Shawna Schmitz, Middle School Office
9. Fitbit Ace Kids Activity Tracker
While the Fitbit might be more of a gadget than a toy, it promotes running and healthy habits! It provides encouraging messages and challenges to keep a child motivated.
Laurel Shockley, Assistant Head of Lower School
10. Magformers Magnetic Construction
"No batteries, lots of imagination, and design," says Mrs. Brink. "These toys spark lots of creativity as a child uses magnetic shapes to build or create. It also presents some science with the magnetic parts. Any time I have seen a child use these it holds their attention for longer than 10 minutes, which is amazing for parents at home!" Best suited for students in K-5.
It's not about what the toy can do, but what your child can do with it.
Mrs. Shockley recommends open-ended toys that promote creative play, such as for construction or pretend play (kitchen, animal figurines, dress up, etc.). "My own children’s favorite imaginary play activities were 'store', 'library', and 'doctor’s office,' so we were forever buying toy cash registers, pretend food, grocery carts, library date stamps, books, and doctor kits." Her favorite online toy retailer is Hearthsong. And she offers the following article for for additional reading on the true purpose of toys and what parents should expect from them: “Parents are Buying Their Kids All the Wrong Toys."
And Mrs. Van Bebber adds real kitchens to the list, saying she wishes students would learn to cook. "Parents could plan something age-appropriate and either let the child make it or make it together. This teaches measurement, how to deal with heat for older children/teens, and how to follow directions."
This holiday season, and throughout the year, the best gifts we can give are our presence in our children's lives!