Monday, May 25, 2009

What is an Educational Toy?


I do an occasional guest blog for TDMonthly. This week they asked me to write on the topic: What "educational toy" really means:

It happens very often. A customer comes in (often it is an aunt or uncle) and asks for an "educational toy for a two-year-old". My staff prefers it's not me they ask, because they know this is one of my "buttons". Depending on the length of my fuse, I may or may not spare them the lecture on why there is no such animal as an "educational" toy for a two-year-old. But who wants a lecture, so I show them something that has the alphabet printed on it, or it involves numbers, or colors. That's the reason they came in to my "Educational Store", they were told to get something educational, not to hear me spout.
So what is an educational toy? Our fall back criteria is the old BRIO credo, which formed their core philosophy, before they got lost in the woods. It's a child-centered toy. It doesn't play for the child, the child plays with the toy. It is open-ended and adaptable to all kinds of play. It lacks a built in-story (unlike say a SpongeBob figurine). Now this could be drawn into a flow chart, and applied to every toy, but we spend most of our time flying by the seat of our pants. We strayed from orthodoxy a long time ago, and a few popular items skirt close to the line of "not in the least bit educational". Nonetheless, when a customer is looking for "educational", we have to meet their expectations. They want a toy that "teaches" something. Going back to a visual chart, here's how I would represent an ideal educational toy: a Venn Diagram with three circles. The first circle is what I, as a life long educator and toy buyer would consider an "Educational Toy". The next circle encompasses what a customer with a specific idea of a toy that "teaches something" has in mind. The third circle is what a child thinks is a fun way to spend some time. A toy that can fit in the intersection of all three is an "educational toy" that I would gladly put on my shelves.
With some effort, I can usually convince the above aunt or uncle that a pounding bench is the perfect educational toy for a two year old. It teaches cause and effect, it does nothing if the child doesn't interact with it, and it's pretty fun to wail away at. As kids get older, a broader range of toys that will fit my diagram are available, and I can direct a customer to a toy or game that satisfies everyone involved.
But, you might be thinking, what about that D-Tech Smart Pad that speaks the alphabet in 10 languages and provides both visual and auditory feedback - that must be an educational toy! Oh, don't get me started!

1 comment:

toysandbooks said...

John, this is a great post!! I love your Venn diagram concept.

Here's one of my favorite "educational" things that ever happened in our store. A very nice grandmother asked us for help in finding an educational gift for her grandchild. We showed her some toys and then asked, "how about a book?" "Oh, no," she said. "He already has one of those."

I don't think she meant it exactly in the way it came out, but it definitely gave us a chuckle. :)

Erin