A few years ago, Dr. Kim Busi, Director of the Quad Manhattan, an afterschool center for gifted children with special needs told me she was thinking about opening a store within her center. Then, she asked me to stock it with educational toys and gadgets.
Me? What would I, a former medical publicist know about stocking a toy store? But then, I thought about it, “Wait, I can do that. I can definitely do that.”
It all made sense. For the past few years, I have gone through semi-intensive training by pediatric professionals in the areas of psychology, education, speech and language pathology, and occupational therapy. By the way, I had not majored in any of these subjects in school. Instead, I had to learn all about them to help raise my two boys who are often identified as twice-exceptional (gifted with special needs.)
Thus for several years, I have been doing what only a mom can do. I got creative and I tried things out. I aimed to have my toy bin look like an educator’s toy bin. Surprisingly, these toys were not always more expensive than what I’d find in big box stores but they were definitely better in quality. However, don’t be misled. I didn’t aim to “therapatize playtime” but with easy things like toys and gadgets, I felt like I could make their free time more beneficial. I just had to be more mindful when purchasing their toys.
Soon I found it thrilling to share what I learned. Your child is great at hidden pictures? You must try Cubu then! Your child is glued to screens? For the visually-motivated, I love Chalktrail to get them moving! Your child has trouble making friends in the park? The Pumponator easily breaks the ice!
Eventually, I began to suspect that I was not the only person spending way too much time, researching, reading reviews by strangers, and still getting disappointed once I opened the box. But shopping online was a must for me. I live in New York City, and as big as it is, I would have to cross a river sometimes to buy the toys I wanted. I suppose toy companies understood this plight because even though they had never heard of my new toy and gadget review website, Toys Are Tools , they graciously sent me review units and upon my request, they would even send the toys to teachers, psychologists, and other therapists of my choosing. (Ahem, this includes Fat Brain Toys!)
These experts could really pinpoint what was so “educational” about these “educational toys.” I was so surprised that they were willing to even send me a toy to review but because they do, they inspire me. You would be too if you knew how much the toy industry is a global network of businesses, many of which are still family-owned. With that said, it’s easy to see that there is a lot of heart in those who design, manufacture, and distribute our kids’ favorite toys.
About this term “educational toy,” I kind of hate it. I prefer to look at toys in how they build skills and give kids an opportunity to exercise their natural talents. Sadly, we all know that so much of a child’s life today is dictated by standardized tests to the extent that many schools could look more like a test prep factory than a place of discovery and learning. In such settings, certain natural talents are likely squandered.
Toys may not be able to change the tide but I no longer feel helpless when I am armed with information. But which toys are the best for children? I look back to when I used to wait tables and a customer would ask me to help him choose what to order. A good waitress always asks a series of questions before making suggestions. This is because a palate is as unique as a personality. Kids are no different either.
Being so wrapped up in building skills and exercising talents, I became a great admirer of the theory of multiple intelligences introduced by Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor and psychologist whose teachings have enlightened many educators. The way I understand his work is this: every one has a variety of intelligences that are somewhat independent of each other. Many folks dub these intelligences as “smarts” and I think my kids possess some of them such as logic smarts, visual-spatial smarts, music smarts, and kinesthetic smarts. But there are other smarts too including word smarts or people smarts.
When you start thinking this way, you can see how a toy can appeal to one child and not another. However, there is so much more to consider when you look at toys in this perspective. Suppose your child has awesome visual-spatial smarts but could use a bit more in the word smarts department. Then, I would suggest you try out Pathwords Jr. To me, this game is an exemplary strengths-based-approach-game because Pathwords is excellent at cheering on a child who is not great at words because is so motivated to solve any puzzle that has Tetris-like pieces.
In essence, he is not only sharpening his natural talent but he is also working on something that’s been tough for him. He’ll be proud as he progresses and it’s all still play! Skills are being built here. So could it be said that toys can make a kid smarter? Can you really change a kid’s IQ? Well, I can say this: IQ scores are not static. This is a fact. And while I’m not hung up on such scores, I am hung up on strengthening skills so that my child can become the person he wants to be. So how about looking at your child’s toybox as your toolbox? I do and many professionals that work with children do too! A child’s primary occupation is play and with that knowledge, I can’t help but think that every tool they use “on the job” is no less important than the tools we use at own jobs every day. So… what tools will your child use today? Remember, play is great learning when it is more fun and if it’s not fun, then it’s not play!