Educational Toys?

In Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food", he advises that any food designated by the manufacturer as nutritional -- "low fat", "high in anti-oxidants", "high fiber" -- should be avoided. The more they boast the product's benefits, the more likely it is to be empty over-processed calories. No one places the same claims on an apple or a head of spinach.

Treat children's toy claims with the same skepticism. "Educational toys" tend to be battery-operated, include letters or numbers or science facts, and fit one of two categories: 1. repackaged noise-makers or video games with letters folded in to appeal to parents and grandparents or 2. dull, uninspiring toys unlikely to be chosen by today's toy-rich and toy-savvy children.

So what toys are educational? Not the ones that teach letters and numbers. Here is a list of toy types that DO build children's brains:

Active, outdoor toys like balls, bikes, pogo sticks, skateboards, swimming pools

Benefits: social development, small and gross motor development, perception, confidence, increasing blood flow to brains

Construction toys like Legos, building kits, pipe cleaners, raw materials for building (socks for puppets, wood and nails)

Benefits: problem-solving, trial and error, planning, creativity. Note: with the trend to building kits that make a particular spaceship or character instead of leaving the creation up to the child, the temptation is to build the thing once and never again. A big box of building blocks stretches the brain more than following directions for a custom made toy.

Board and card games -- too many good ones to name! Though there are some helpful ones, generally avoid the electronic and video varieties and limit children's time playing handheld, video and computer games as you would television time. A great source is in Ashland, Oregon.

Benefits: social development, skill development, creating sets and concepts, taking turns, language development and more, depending on the game

Imagination toys -- the best are child-created from raw materials but dolls, stuffed animals, motor vehicles and train sets are good too in moderation (nothing inhibits imagination like too many toys)

Benefits: social development, story-telling and literature development, language development, cause and effect, imagination

Puzzles like jigsaw puzzles, Rubik's cubes, and buildables like the great wooden ones by Creatology

Benefits: problem-solving, confidence in taking on challenges, visual and fine motor skills

Memberships in lieu of toys like zoo passes, children's museum memberships and swim lessons

These are my personal favorites in our time of toy abundance. Instead of another thing to store and maybe play with, give a year's worth of opportunities to go with the family to one of the great local children's attractions in your area. Costs are surprisingly reasonable -- zoo passes for a family for a year typically run around $75.

Bottom line: if you wouldn't want to play with it, your child probably won't either. Any claims to educational value should be regarded skeptically. Children don't become academically adept from seeing shapes, letters and numbers on their baby toys. They become ready to learn by developing all of the complex skills that come from normal play and interactions. Get them moving, thinking and interacting and ignore the manufacturers' claims.

Happy holidays, everyone!