Toys are tools: Minds make the magic
Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her research examines the development of early language and literacy as well as the role of play in learning. With her long-term collaborator, Roberta Golinkoff, she is author of 14 books and hundreds of publications, she is the recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Bronfenbrenner Award, the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Service to Psychological Science, the Association for Psychological Science James McKeen Cattell Award, the Society for Research in Child Development, Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development Award and the APA Distinguished Lecturer Award. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society, is the President of the International Society for Infant Studies and served as the Associate Editor of Child Development. She is on the Steering Committee of the Latin American School for Education, Cognitive Neural Science as well as on the advisory board for Vroom, The Boston Children’s Museum, The Free to Be Initiative and Jumpstart. Her book, Einstein never used Flashcards: How children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less, (Rodale Books) won the prestigious Books for Better Life Award as the best psychology book in 2003. Her recent book, Becoming Brilliant: What the science tells us about raising successful children, released in 2016 was on the NYTimes Best Seller List in Education and Parenting. Kathy received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is a frequent spokesperson for her field appearing in the NYTimes, npr and in international television outlets.
Jennifer M. Zosh, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at The Pennsylvania State University’s Brandywine campus. As the Director of the Brandywine Child Development Lab, she studies how infants and young children learn about the world around them. Her areas of expertise and publication include playful learning, the impact of technology on children, working memory, mathematical cognition, and language acquisition. Notably, she was co-lead author on a recent (2015) publication in Psychological Science in the Public Interest about putting education back in educational apps through the application of research in the science of how children learn. She presents regularly at professional meetings including: the Society for Research in Child Development, International Congress on Infant Studies, National Academy of Sciences Children and Screens colloquium, International Mind Brain and Education Society, and others. A major driving force in her career is dissemination and translation of scientific discoveries to the public via blogging and media appearances. This translational work has appeared on The Conversation, PBS Parents, The Huffington Post, the Brookings Institution, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, NPR Radio Times, and beyond. She is also involved in the dissemination of developmental research through her involvement with Living Laboratories embedded in children’s museums and her roles on advisory boards for organizations (e.g., Ultimate Block Party, Urban ThinkScape). She received her bachelors degree in Psychology from the University of Delaware and her Ph.D. in Psychological and Brain Sciences from Johns Hopkins University.
- Keep an eye out for toys that have multiple solutions so children can vary play each time they play with the product.
- Look for toys that enhance the playing experience. While toys with a lot of moving parts can be interesting, you don’t want the features to distract the child from playing.
- YOU play a key role in your child’s play. Guiding them through play by asking different questions, or comparing make-believe to real life will help them get the most out of playtime.
The magic was undeniable. When I pulled out my favorite building blocks (that one set that was perfectly sized and felt just right in my tiny hands), the world was mine. Should I build a tall castle complete with a moat? Maybe a playground with the world’s best carousel or a schoolhouse where my little plastic people would learn, or even an underwater obstacle course for a mermaid? These special moments did not come from the blocks themselves but from the experience of playing with those blocks.
“These special moments did not come from the blocks themselves but from the experience of playing with those blocks.”
Think back to your favorite toys. What comes to mind? Do you remember the colors and sounds? Or, do your memories center around what you did as you played with, tinkered with or dreamed up what you could do with the toy? Blocks could become forts or shields, ice cream shops or just tall towers to test how high a skyscraper could go before collapsing. You likely remember the thrill of discovery or the pretend play scenarios that captivated your interest and imagination for hours. And looking back now, you realize that playing with some of those toys helped you learn key lessons about communicating with others, thinking creatively, and building your confidence. The sense of joy and awe did not come from the toy per se, but about the experience that the toy supported. Toys are platforms for play – not directors of play.
Over the last few years, research findings from the Science of Learning – a inter-disciplinary approach to studying how humans learn – repeatedly find that this magic that happens when you, the child, took charge and were supported by, rather than lead by, a person, toy, or experience actually leads to increased learning. Guided play is a concept that is gaining more and more traction in the field and refers to a type of play in which children are in charge of a play experience but an adult helps support their experience. Contrast this to free play in which children are given no outside support or guidance or direct instruction in which adults take over and lead the experience themselves.
The thing to keep in mind, however, is that toys themselves can play a key role in guiding play – so when it comes to selecting (or developing) toys for learning, it is important to think about the role the toy plays in the experience. Below we offer a few tips on how to select toys the not only will be fun but also provide meaningful opportunities for learning:
- Look for toys that support rather than take over: Does the toy take charge and lead the experience? Does the toy play sounds or create limits on what your child can do? Think about the experience your child will have – is your child central or is the toy?
- Don’t be fooled by chocolate covered broccoli: In the Science of Learning, the term “chocolate covered broccoli” is a popular one. For example, when you make a worksheet look more fun by putting it on an app and adding bells and whistles, it might masquerade as an educational toy – but it is really just a worksheet in disguise. Don’t be fooled by outer appearances—or even what appears on the box.
- Look for toys that don’t have just one right answer: Toys like puzzles typically only have one right ‘solution.’ But most good construction toys allow children to experiment with spatial rotation and alignment in a more combinatorial way—making and remaking something different with the same old parts. One of the reasons that the box of a toy is sometimes more popular than the toy itself is because the box is open-ended. Today it can be a rocket ship, tomorrow a schoolhouse, and the next day an amusement park. Don’t get us wrong, puzzles are GREAT and have been shown to support spatial skills, but it is also important that your child have open-ended products in that playroom as well.
- Look for toys that promote a fun experience and are not about bells and whistles: It is easy to be impressed by technology. A baby monkey that blinks and takes a bottle, a doll that can talk with your child, or books that ‘come alive’ through spoken narration, songs, and interactive features are just a few options that accessorize the modern day toy. While there is nothing inherently wrong with technology or added features, it is important to make sure that these bells and whistles are enhancing rather than distracting your child from the play experience. More and more research from the Science of Learning finds that children are particularly susceptible to distraction and that learning is easily disrupted by distractions as simple as pop-ups in books, hot spots in apps, and even background music. This doesn’t mean that you should only have cardboard boxes and wooden blocks, but it does mean that you should think about whether or not the enhancements make sense (e.g., in an e-book where the text is about the wind blowing through the trees and your child is shown how the leaves move and the air blows) versus distracting (e.g., in an e-book about a dog going on an adventures, a game pops up where the dog has to eat as many treats as possible).
- Don’t be fooled – YOU play a key role in playing and learning. Between “educational” apps and toys, it is easy to outsource the learning. Surely an educational toy is better for your child than you are. Not so! YOU, the parent or caregiver, play the primary and, in our minds, most important role. You are the one who can remind your child of that time a seagull stole your French fry when you are playing with a pretend food set. You are the one who can point out all the other triangles in the room when you are playing with a shape sorter. You are the one that can ask your child about how she felt when she went down a slide when reading a book about a playground adventure. You are your child’s best resource and can easily transform a play experience, do not undersell your own importance!
Navigating through tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of choices when it comes to toys/apps/electronics for your child can seem overwhelming, but by thinking more about the experience and less about the toy, you will quickly begin to separate fact from fiction when it comes to fun, educational, meaningful toys versus fads and chocolate covered broccoli.
Jennifer M. Zosh (Penn State University, Brandywine)
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University, The Brookings Institution)
July 24, 2017