10 Essential Educational Toys

The title "Toys" is a bit misleading, because although I will give some product recommendations, this post is more about making good choices and providing a rich environment for open-ended play and experimentation - for learning. With a handy 10-point list. I thought about calling this Toys for Boys, just to attract the attention of all those parents who, like me, find it difficult to satisfy their technologically-minded sons' desires without resorting to the kinds of products I'll list on the "uninspiring" list. But my daughter loves these things too, and I don't like gender stereotypes, so I'm not caving in to that. Then there was

Great Science Toys

What on earth is science? How stuff works: Life and everything else in the universe. Great Toys for Learning Everything?

Why do we need toys for learning, anyway? Well obviously we don't. But you know... we in the overfed and undernourished middle class... we like to buy stuff. So here it is:

If You Must Buy Stuff for Your Kids, Buy This Stuff

Ha ha ha.

If you read this blog you already know why we're unschooling: Because we believe wholeheartedly that learning comes not from prescribed activities and curriculae well-presented... but from exploration.

My kids have had access to various products throughout their lives, but mostly they've had access to freedom. Right now, nearly 10PM, they're both sitting in the living room with their father having a great chaotic accordion ruckus. Two accordions and a concertina: Nobody skilled at using them; everybody experimenting. It sounds wonky and ridiculous and there are moments of pure joyful discovery and harmony. This is our life. We've never sent them to grade-school, never followed a curriculum, never pushed pre-determined lessons on them nor demanded that they achieve the "prescribed learning outcomes" (PLO's) that we have to sign off on for their report cards. But you know? They do achieve those, without us really knowing how it happened. In fact, as I read over the PLO's and other information before I send in the requisite reports to our school district, omitting the fact that we don't actually follow any guidelines at all, I see that my kids magically over the past 7 years of unschooling have achieved everything the school district expected of them, and also most things for the few years ahead of their grade levels. Yes - my kids are brilliant - just like yours. All of us have the ability to achieve some kind of greatness when we follow our hearts and passions, and generally, as long as we're not limited, we're going to pick up the socially-expected skills and knowledge along the way.

So, back to the topic of this blog-post: There are toys and activities that limit exploration, and there are some that encourage it. I can't be the expert on this, and I don't want to pretend I am, so I asked my kids. What kinds of products are useful to you for explorative learning and play? Here are their responses, with some notes and additions from me:

Inspiring Toys

1. The outdoors. Not planned outings; just lots of free time for free play outside. With no rules. The outdoors is my children's primary learning area, and this great article will help you understand why. The Outdoors definitely got the agreed-upon #1 spot on this list. Oh. You need some products? My daughter suggests boots and good rain gear, because we live on the wet coast, and we play outside all year long. Considering the current season, though, I would like to add a safe sunscreen and a hat to this list if you can't keep out of the sun. The outdoors, of course, includes dirt. Everybody needs a good pile of dirt. My kids have a "mine", where they dig and discover buried treasures, and the various layers of soil, sand, and clay we live upon. Yes, even fossilized shells, here. They use sturdy shovels from the local building centre, because toy shovels can't stand up to serious digging. Dirt never gets old. And water. It's free. (And if it isn't we need to change that.) Water play is about sensory discovery, physics, wave theory, temperature, heat-transfer, mechanics, chemistry and emotional awareness. Products to support water play: Containers of all sorts, squirters, syringes, sponges, washcloths and pumps. And a swimsuit and towels.

2. Musical instruments. Real instruments, that is. Without lessons. Lessons can be just great, but make sure there is plenty of time and opportunity for free play with instruments that have no expectations attached to them. And if you want your child to explore physics, make sure they can see how the instruments work: non-electronic, drums, xylophones, stringed instruments, simple wind instruments. These are great to have around for open use. I like Elderly and Orff instruments, but going out to participate in live music-making with friends and family is truly where it's at, and then getting an instrument from someone who has played and loved it is so much more deeply meaningful than buying new online. Or if you don't have a community music making event to attend, go into your local music shop and try out what suits your fancy. This is one of my favourite Vancouver music shops: Prussin Music

3. Art and crafting supplies. Pens, paint, paper, sticks, glue, string, scissors, clay, fabric, needles and thread. Hammers, nails, saws and wood. Let them use things however they want and encourage experimentation. Lots of things won't work. That is how they will learn. For bigger experimentation with cardboard boxes, string, scissors, packing tape and Make-Do are great to have available.

4. Kitchen Supplies for chemistry and food. No you don't need the special chemistry sets, cake pans or recipes for kids, although there's nothing wrong with them. Just let the kids mix and experiment, taking care to stick around for some health and safety advice and to keep them from including all your organic vanilla beans in a special test-tube of goo. Include the kids in your own baking and then let them try their own invented recipes. This is, in fact, how my daughter invented the best gluten/soy/egg-free white-cake I've ever tasted.

5. Books. Obviously. We have a fiction library and a non-fiction library at home, and many trips to local lending libraries for discovery, as well. Some of our favourites to encourage open-ended play and experimentation are:
  • Theodore Gray: Elements, and Mad Science 1 & 2
  • The Illustrated Atlas of the Universe by Mark Garlick
  • The Illustrated Atlas of the Human Body by Beverly McMillan
  • Prehistoric Life (Dorling Kindersley)
  • The Finding Princess by Sue Ann Alderson - out of print but too good to omit
  • Rotraut Susanne Berner: season books, Night, and In the Town (any language)
  • Magazines: Our kids have subscriptions to Scientific American and Muse, but the kids also collect used Popular Science, Nat. Geo and other Cricket mags from our local recycling depot.

6. Science tools. A good quality telescope and/or microscope, with some instructions for making slides, if necessary. A good magnifying glass and maybe some petri dishes and receptacles for observation. Some prisms and some sunshine.

7. A fire-pit, some matches, and some benevolent supervision. This is how my son built a forge from bricks in the back-yard and forged gifts out of old nails for his loved ones.

8. Lego. It's plastic, it's expensive, and somehow the designers have lost their way, but among the useless branded garbage the company promotes you will find regular Bricks, Technic and Creator... all of which, given enough pieces, are wonderful for open-ended experimentation. And you can find lots of used lego parts online.

9. Electronics. I bought my kids a box of rubber gloves to protect themselves from lead and other toxins, and they delight in going to our recycling depot and bringing home discarded tools, toys, cellphones and other gizmos which they dismantle for parts. They have learned more about electronics this way than any other. But still we want to buy things, don't we? Something shiny for their birthdays? Well then I will suggest the Make: Discover Electronics Kit for beginners and the Make: Electronics Complete Collection for enthusiasts.

10. Internet. We have family computers. Everyone uses them, and there is no privacy. Safety first. But as you feel your kids are safe online, let them get into it. My kids both enjoy programming: Scratch (beginner), Codecademy (good but apparently gets difficult quickly), and Khan Academy (both of my kids agree it's the best). We're currently deciding between and Arduino and Raspberry Pi for the next step. And 3D modelling systems. That's my son's domain, and he recommends the following: TinkerCad (easiest but more limiting, can have projects 3D printed), Sketchup (not as limiting; easier to make big things, easier to learn than blender), and Blender (very difficult to learn, but you can make extremely realistic, detailed 3D renderings for games and animations). And of course, all of those programs are free to use.

Uninspiring Toys

Now for the "uninspiring" list. I'm going to be brief. From any of the 10 "good" items you can quickly get sucked into products that look and sound very exciting but are, in fact, limiting. They may be satisfying in various ways, but they do not encourage open-ended exploration or creativity, and in fact they often lead us into feelings of inadequacy, since they present something pre-fabricated that most of us cannot dream of creating alone, without the purchased components.

1. Colouring books. Stamps. Stickers and make-your-own-[insert-craft-here]-kits. Some of them are SO beautiful. But they lead us to believe that we need somebody else, presumably more qualified, to make the structure for our art - that this is what art should look like.

2. Products such as Elenco's Playground and Project Labs look cool, and probably do provide some educational benefit and enjoyment, but lose the tactile experience that moveable electronic components provide. For (or not for) younger kids: Elenco Snap Circuits. They're O.K., but in their polished look, hefty price and click-together ease of use, they take away the it's-OK-to-break-it idea of experimentation. This is essential.

3. Model-building kits - ugh! Where is the creativity in that? "Science kits" that have a limited assortment of prescribed projects? Same thing. Unless you're willing to pay the relatively high price for the kit and allow your kids to make a mess of it in experimentation, get the ingredients and recipes and allow them to experiment to their heart's delight - without the kit.

4. Inexpensive crappy microscopes and other toy tools. This is where I think spending more money is a good thing. Cheap scientific tools can be very discouraging as they break easily and often don't work in the first place. Find something meant for a classroom.

That's about it for this particular brain-dump. Please feel free to add your opinions and suggestions in the comments. Then go out and play!


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