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Experts Offer Tips on Buying Educational Toys

It's December and that means parents are out shopping for the perfect toys for their children among the dizzying array of so-called educational products lining store shelves these days.

But how can parents tell whether a toy really is educational?

That was the topic of a recent podcast by the New America Foundation's Early Education Initiative, in which Early Education Initiative Director Lisa Guernsey and Claire Green, the president of Parents' Choice, a nonprofit guide to quality children's media and toys, explored how parents can determine if a toy will really help their children learn anything.

"For some reason, the conversation about what's best for children has this technology overlay all the time and I think it's for good and bad," Guernsey said. "And then another trend certainly is the label 'educational' that gets posted on so many products for young kids these days," she continued. "The idea that toys have to be educational is certainly out there in the water right now."

When it comes to technology, "it's interesting to see that so many traditional toys are now being infused with apps," Green added. "The question is, does it add to the play? Does it add to the play value? Does it add to the play's learning? And if it does, wonderful. But if not, then it's just another add-on that doesn't seem to make sense either as a good value, an educational value, or a long-term play value."

The trend to label everything as educational feeds into parents' desire to make sure that their kids are surrounded by learning opportunities to stimulate brain development, Guernsey noted. But like anything that becomes overused, the term can lose its meaning.

"Everything becomes labeled 'educational' without any real understanding about the fact that even a cardboard box can be educational in that it can provoke all sorts of imaginary play in a young child," she said. "You could apply that word, 'educational,' to everything and then it becomes meaningless."

So parents need to be discerning and figure out what a toy can teach their kids and whether that's something they'd want them to learn, Green said. She noted that her organization puts toys through a multilevel evaluation process that includes experts and families before including them in its Parents' Choice guide.

That examination includes a lengthy survey that includes lots of questions about such issues as the toy's purpose, whether it's age-appropriate, and whether it teaches what it's supposed to.

It's that kind of information that can help parents navigate the world of educational toys, "so that parents feel a little bit more confident and empowered when they're making some choices for their kids, especially parents that have a limited budget and are not wanting to waste their Christmas wad on something that two months later is going to just be sitting there in the back of the kid's bedroom," Guernsey said.

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