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Four Ways to Make Any Toy Educational

Seems to me there is a whole lot of pressure on parents to buy toys that are “educational.” With the holidays around the corner, you might be looking for that perfect educational toy to complete your shopping list. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t know what the heck an educational toy is. Really, I don’t. But from the looks of it, a toy is “educational” because 1) someone says it is, 2) it’s sold in a fancy store with other “educational” products, and 3) you’re told, more or less, “buy this toy and you’ll stimulate your child’s brain.” Sadly, these toys aren’t cheap, especially those backed by experts selling fun-tastic fertilizer for growing brains destined for the Ivy League.

Thankfully, I can forgive my parents for failing to buy me fancy, educational toys. Instead (how dare they?!) they bought me, well, toys. Plain old regular toys. And sometimes they didn’t buy me toys at all (the nerve!). Sometimes I played with pots (gasp!), yarn (yikes!), and, wait for it, sticks (noooooo!). All these items were toys, if I chose to impose my imagination on them, and my parents made sure I did so by granting me free, unstructured time (what?!) to play with these objects any way I saw fit.

Beyond the sticks, there were “real” toys of course. I’m old enough to have never owned an iPad as a child, but I derived great pleasure laying felt pieces on a fabric board with a toy in a box called the Fuzzy Felt Circus. When I Googled, there it was, a vintage Fuzzy Felt Circus on Amazon, in all its simplistic and creative glory. And yes, even the sight of the box left my heart warm and, well, fuzzy.

As I think back fondly on my Fuzzy Felt Circus, here’s what I know for sure (if I may borrow from Oprah who originally borrowed from film critic, Gene Siskel). What fueled my brain were toys that weren’t toys, and toys that didn’t impose a limited number of ways I could or should interact with them. What fueled my brain were parents who read me stories of real and imagined places, who spoke with language rich in vocabulary that became the building blocks of my imagination, and who supplied endless sheets of blank paper, any time I wished. To this day, I covet blank paper—a palette of possibilities for writing, drawing, folding, flying.

So there it is. The big reveal. Anything—and I mean anything—can be educational. And you don’t need a label, or an expert to make it so. Here are four strategies to help you grow creative brains without breaking the bank on toys someone else insists are educational.

1. Don’t limit yourself to toys: I said it before, I’ll say it again. Anything—and I mean anything—can be educational, so why limit yourself to toys? In the delightful picture book, Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, a bunny insists that a cardboard box is not a box. Instead, it’s whatever he imagines it to be: a race car, a robot, a mountain. Give your child endless possibilities for imaginative play with all kinds of items, and watch pots become drums and paper rolls become telescopes!

2. Consider whether a toy does too much: When out toy shopping, you might ask yourself, “does this toy cost too much?” Ask yourself whether it does too much, too. What do I mean by that? Remember those bygone days when a box of blocks was just that—a box of blocks? Well, now it seems most boxes of blocks tell your child exactly how this “creative” play session is going to go down. Kit A becomes a rocket, Kit B a robot, and Kit C a jeep. My way or the highway, kid! And once the items are made, the rules have been mastered and the job is done. So the rocket, robot, and jeep are now showpieces on bedroom shelves and you’re buying Kit D, E and F because what is a rocket, robot, or jeep without all the rest, especially if a mega-movie franchise is in the mix, encouraging your child to collect all six? So let’s think about this. Is your child being creative or following someone else’s rules? I’m pretty sure Steve Jobs wasn’t following anybody when he mashed two unlikely concepts together—computers and fruit—and came up with Apple. Creative types break from the expected and deliver surprises that elude conformists. So why limit your child’s imagination with make this, and only this, kind of toys?

3. Talk and play together: Words build brains; that I know for sure. And strong language skills can stretch your child’s imagination. I doubt J.K. Rowling could have envisioned the world she imagined, and shared it in her Harry Potter books, without an expansive vocabulary to support her creativity. Talk to your child as you play to help boost imagination. Creative conversations about anything—and I mean anything—will make any toy, drive in the car, or walk through a supermarket educational.

4. Add drama and digress: And while you’re talking, why not add some drama? Create stories with your child and act them out. It’s okay if you’re not certain where the story is going. Let the narrative unfold as the creative muse inspires you. Maybe you say a few lines, then your child adds to the story, and then it’s back to you and so on. Let digressions happen as you both break rules and prep for the red carpet (or maybe the hallway carpet, which could be red if you use your imagination).

Dr. Brenda S. Miles, C.Psych. is a clinical pediatric neuropsychologist and children’s book author. Her blog, Psych 4 Thought, explores topics in psychology and psychiatry and offers 4 strategies for parents and teachers to try at home and school. At The Possibilities Clinic, Dr. Miles offers psychoeducational and neuropsychology assessments, memory and executive functioning intervention for children and teens, and consultation for parents and teachers.

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