I like to find ways of using toys to teach my kids something, because they spend way more time playing with their toys than they spend doing classwork. Especially LEGO®. I know my unschooling friends will jump right in and reassure me that they keep on learning while they play.
What I like to do is bring the LEGOs into our classwork to illustrate problems. For instance, recently my six-year-old son (now seven) was trying to grasp the concept of place value.
We watched a math video several times and I talked until I was blue in the face, but he just wasn’t getting it. I finally remembered to go get a LEGO bucket. Thank goodness, or we would still be on place value three weeks later. All we had to do was make stacks of ten and ten stacks of ten together. And play the Starfall.com place value game a couple times to reinforce the idea. Once we brought toys and games into the picture, he got it fast and we were able to move on.
Certain toys are naturals for playing to learn. LEGO bricks are one such toy.
Other toys we especially love for learning include:
- Puppets teach communication, acting, expression, social skills, role play, and problem-solving. Our favorite puppets are the very realistic Folk Manis puppets like this fox. I like to pair a puppet with a favorite picture book and read it to my little kids with the puppet for added fun.
- Play dough teaches art, fine motor skills, sensory integration, muscle tone, and imagination.
- Craft kits are great for improving fine motor skills, thinking skills, and practice at following directions.
- Wooden blocks teach thinking skills, gross motor skills, and cause/effect. I especially love this book for wooden block play.
- Plastic animals can help teach science, storytelling, cooperation, math, colors, and shapes. We like to buy the very realistic looking Schleich animals like this little grizzly bear. They are more expensive, so we have collected one at a time from various stores where we can easily add one animal to our cart.
- Playground balls and hula hoops improve physical strength, coordination, core strength, and gross motor skills while also providing exercise and fun. Outside toys we also enjoy for building core strength are the hopper ball and the plasma car.
- Sand and water toys are great for improving fine motor skills, gross motor skills, sensory integration, and for learning cause/effect, critical thinking, planning, and cooperation.
- Advanced technology toys like robots and coding toys are fabulous for giving our kids a techy edge and learn valuable skills that this generation is going to need to survive and thrive. Digital tech and all kinds of STEM skills can be learned from these toys.
Even as I write this list and try to keep it short I discover that all toys contribute to some form of learning.
Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. Fred Rogers.
As kids get older they tend towards more sophisticated toys like games and puzzles. We have found so many wonderful board games that contribute to learning. Some of our favorites include Line Up, Canasta, Settlers of Catan, Sequence and Sequence Jr., Bananagrams, Apples to Apples, Marie’s Words, and Aggravation.
Our family also enjoys a vast array of educational apps for our iPods. My daughter and I are studying Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day by Jeannie Fulbright and Anna discovered my iBird Pro Guide to Birds App. She loves to look up the birds we see, identify them, and read all about them on her iPod! We also enjoy the Knowledge Quest apps such as the Wonders of Old: Ancient Timeline ($4.99) and several math, grammar, and phonics/reading apps. Sometimes, I even let my kids do app-school in place of their regular seatwork on a given subject!
My oldest enjoys LEGO robotics and other robotic building toys and computer programming play. Playing to learn never has to end!
I also love to find curriculum with games built right in. Primary Arts of Language (PAL) from IEW is the perfect example of game integration. TouchMath PreK is another great curriculum with toys and games built into the program. I wish I could find more curriculum with games built into the material!
Any time regular schoolwork — our current curriculum — isn’t working, I look for toys, puzzles, or games that will help.