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Toys that Inspire Quality Play
February 2, 2023
When some folks agree with my opinions, I begin to suspect I'm wrong.
-Kin Hubbard

recent story in the Guardian notes, “One of the ironies of many so-called educational toys is that they don’t leave much for children to do or figure out on their own. You spin the arrow, pull the cord, and a pig oinks, end of story. ‘The way I like to put it, the best toys are 90% the kid, 10% the toy,’ said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University, who has led some of the most widely cited research into the effects of play on child development. ‘If it’s 90% the toy, and 10% the kid, that’s a problem.’

In a decade-long study researchers at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University looked at the sorts of play elicited by different kinds of toys. “Back in 2010, when we started this, there wasn’t a lot of research on toys,” said Julia DeLapp, Centre Director.

The Guardian notes, “After watching kids play with more than 100 different types of toys, the researchers concluded that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts, like a random assortment of Lego, inspired the highest-quality play. While engaged with such toys, children were ‘more likely to be creative, engage in problem solving, interact with their peers, and use language,’ the researchers wrote. Electronic toys, however, tended to limit kids’ play: ‘A simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling – but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.’”


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Comments (2)

Displaying All 2 Comments
Kirsten Haugen · February 07, 2023
Eugene, OR, United States

Good point, Frances, yet I do think there's something to how different toys elicit different kinds - or qualities - of play, and I personally live by the phrase 'who's doing the thinking?' That applies not just to toys, but to how we interact with children, especially in how we support them through conflict and challenges. I took a look at your article. So glad Articles on Demand makes that so easy. It's a great list that stands the test of time. I wonder if you'd add or change anything on it 30(!) years later? http://exchangepress.com/article/criteria-for-selecting-toys/5009443/

Francis Wardle · February 02, 2023
University of Phoenix/ Red Rocks Community College
Denver, Colorado, 80222, Colorado, United States

When children play with objects (i.e., toys) they generally follow a fairly specific sequence. First, they explore the properties of the object. Is it smooth or rough, heavy or light, flexible or rigid, one dimensional (i.e., string) two dimensional (paper or tiles), or three dimensional (a stone or piece of wood). Next, they determine its function: does it roll, bounce, stack, sick in the soil like a flag, hold up under weigh, is waterproof, etc.? Then they determine how objects can be used together, i.e., a ball rolling down a ramp; a piece of string tying sticks together, etc. For each of these stages a child engages in lots of play; further, each stage is as important as the other, and of later stages. Thus, a child bouncing a ball repeatedly to determine its function is of equal quality to a child pretending to fry a hamburger on a toy stove. Neither is of "higher quality". Let's not define play by adult ideas of quality! Interestingly, Exchange Magazine published an article I wrote, Criteria for Selecting Toys (Exchange, 43-44) in November of 1993.

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