The brightly colored plastic mobile dangles lazily overhead in the infant’s crib. The baby coos as its tiny arms swing a rattle back and forth. In another room a pre-school youngster is busy assembling the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and upstairs a teen is conquering worlds on a computerized video game. What do all of these activities have in common? They are examples of children playing with educational toys.

It seems that a home with children is a home full of toys. Parents want children to have happy, healthy childhoods. Toys are a big part of growing up. But, with stores filled with toys and games many parents begin to question which of these toys are appropriate and which toys will help their children develop normally? These are good questions.

There is no doubt that toys are a normal part of childhood. Kids have played with toys of some kind for as long as there have been children. It is also quite true that toys play a significant role in the development of the child. The types of toys with which a child plays often have a strong influence on the child’s adult interests and behavior.

Play consumes a large portion of a child’s time each day. It is during this play that children learn some fundamental lessons not only about themselves, but also about other people and the world around them. It is through play they develop physically, mentally and emotionally. Play is essential to the child’s development.

Educational toys are tools of play designed to develop motor skills, cognitive powers and emotions. Other toys may simply be fun. Too often, the label ‘educational’ is attached to toys regardless whether or not the toy was actually designed to ‘teach’ the child a skill or ability. Sometimes the term is used as a marketing gimmick to command a higher price.

So, how does a parent know if a toy is actually an educational toy? The answer to that question is to understand what the toy is designed to teach or accomplish.

Children learn best when learning is fun. Children learn at a very early stage to do those things that they enjoy and to avoid activities that are not enjoyable. Nearly every parent wants to believe that his or her child is special, that they are developing mentally or physically at a faster pace than other children. There is often a temptation to overburden the child with toys that are beyond the child’s stage of development, or to concentrate on toys that stretch the child’s skills. The truth is that there must be a balance between cognitive development toys, skills-based toys and toys that are simply ‘fun’ or relatively effortless to use. Pushing a child too strenuously can be just as damaging to development as not providing sufficient stimulation.

The plastic mobile dangling above the crib is an important aid in helping the infant learn to first focus its vision and then to distinguish between shapes and colors. The rattle helps the baby learn to identify and determine the source of sounds. Shaking the rattle develops coordinated movement. Both the mobile and the rattle are educational toys. The mobile is a cognitive development toy and the rattle is a skill-based toy.

Examples of other cognitive development toys include jigsaw puzzles, word puzzles, flash cards, drawing sets, painting sets, modeling clay, chemistry and science lab sets, telescopes, microscopes, educational software, some computer games, some video games and children’s books. These toys are labeled with the age range of the child for which they are designed. These are the toys that teach children to identify, make choices and reason. Smart parents will make sure their child or children are given toys appropriate for their age range.

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