The Learning Power of Play

"A child educated only at school is an uneducated child."
George Santayana (1863-1952)

Ultimately, it is parents who determine the quality of their child’s education. Kids instinctively learn from their environment. The most important thing is for parents to inspire and motivate their child by providing the right environment for learning. If a child grows up aware of how literacy and numeracy skills are used in daily life, he will want to learn them himself, as naturally as he learns to walk and talk. So don’t just read to him, let him see you reading, writing and using numbers. Schools teach the basics, but parents also play an important role by motivating their child to see value in learning, preparing him for school by ensuring he develops early skills, reinforcing skills taught at school, and enhancing his education by providing enriching experiences that will expand his mind and increase his general knowledge.

School Readiness

Many of today's parents feel pressured to provide toys with academic content worrying that these days most kids already know their ABCs and basic counting skills even before they start kindergarten. The ABC thing is a real concern. No child wants to feel like the rest of the class knows more than him. So teach your child his letters and numbers for the sake of his self esteem. Just don't confuse that with educating him.

Kids learn quickly and easily when they’re ready. Trying to “teach ahead” is a long process that results in memorization rather than real learning. Rote memorization will always play a small part in a child's education. At some point there's just no way around memorizing math tables. And while understanding phonetics is an important part of reading and writing, the spelling of some words just has to be memorized. But rote learning will never really educate a person. Besides, its a boring and tedious way to learn – not to mention exhausting. Imagine if instead of words, your child's weekly spelling test was memorizing a list of nonsense strings like 'xtgotnyr'. That's pretty much what it's like for a child who doesn't understand basic phonetics.

The best education is one built on solid skills, hands-on practical experience and genuine understanding of the subject. And in the early preschool years the best approach to giving your child this foundation is to simply let him play, because play is perhaps a child's most potent learning tool. Even something as non-academic as dressing Barbie helps develop fine motor skills which are so important when it comes time to handle a pencil and form letters. It's also important encourage the “brain muscles” that make it easier for a child to learn more school-like things. Simple activities like colouring and doing puzzles enhance such skills as concentration, focus, fine motor control and visual discrimination (seeing the difference between letters like 'b' and 'd'). And any activity that encourages kids to sit at a table will make it easier to feel comfortable in a school desk. Physical coordination is equally important, and not just to stay healthy - kicking a soccer ball around at recess is a great way to meet friends.

Homework Help

Much of what's taught at school needs to be practised and reinforced at home. Memorizing math facts and spelling-list words can be tedious; and toys with academic content can be a fun way to practise, especially electronic toys that give kids the privacy to make mistakes without someone watching. What these toys do well are skills drills. But rote learning is not the same as comprehension, so keep in mind that most skills drills toys don’t have the capacity to truly educate.

Don't get too discouraged if your child is having difficulties. The best way to interest a reluctant learner is to share your own enthusiasm and do the activity with him, because a child will respond to almost anything that is the focus of quality time. And keep in mind that kids have different learning styles, and they learn at different rates. While teachers can't always accommodate each child individually, parents can. Look for toys and games that approach the subject matter a little differently. It also helps to provide hands-on experience that brings abstract knowledge to life – kids have an easier time remembering the growing cycle when interest is already piqued and they can relate to the material because they helped plant a garden last summer – or even just a few beans in a pot.


While an academic toy will reinforce what’s taught at school, others — a science kit, for example — enrich a child’s intellect and add to his general knowledge. Children are naturally curious and want to learn and all children can benefit from enriching experiences. Providing enrichment opportunities is especially important for a bright child who is under-stimulated at school. The important thing is to avoid preempting the school curriculum by getting ahead of what your child is learning there. Kids who already know what the teacher is teaching will not find school challenging, and boredom can lead to behavioural problems. Trying to enrich by working on more advanced academic content often just makes the situation worse. What kids learn at school barely touches the surface of things your child will be eager to know about, so think in terms of ‘lateral learning’ – expanding his education, rather than advancing it, and find other ways to excite your child's mind. Go to Upper Canada Village and milk a cow. Let him dismantle an old computer. Take a close look at a frog, or set up an ant colony. Then take your child to the library and encourage him to find out more. If you can't get out on field trips, activity kits are another excellent medium for discovery learning as well as introducing them to less structured ways of thinking that will inspire innovation and creativity. There are also plenty of websites and blogs devoted to offering enriching activities. So make paper, learn to weave, do science experiments, excavate fossils or even make chewing gum.

While no one toy is going to guarantee your child a Mensa membership, there are ways to determine which edu-toys stand above the rest.

Developmental friendliness: “Growing into” an educational toy isn’t always a good thing. You want content that is bang on with what your child is learning right now.

CanCon: Check that toys reflect Canadian content for spelling, currency, metric measurement and basic information (not just US presidents). But don’t rule out a toy based on a minor lack of Canadian content if it’s useful despite this.

Child friendliness: Look for toys that do a good job of explaining the concepts involved. Children inevitably ask questions, and you don’t have the time to research each topic. Nor can you be expected to have the teaching skill to present the information in a way kids will understand and remember — that’s what a good toy is supposed to do!

For specific toy suggestions, watch for our upcoming article on this years newest educational toys. In the mean time here are a few of our all time favourite edu-toys:

Reading & Writing

Money and Math

Science Toys