Smart toys and educational games for kids:

An evidence-based guide

© 2010 -2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Developmental toys and educational games for kids are relatively recent inventions. Do they work?

Throughout most of human history, children got little or no formal instruction. Instead, they learned by imitation, and by honing new skills through pretend play (Lancy 2008).

Today, we know that play benefits the brain. It may promote problem-solving skills, too. But what about toys? Adult-designed educational games? Are there "girl toys" and "boy toys?" Are there games that make kids better students? Or better citizens? Does it matter which toys our kids play with?

Parents living in high-tech cultures are especially interested in toys that teach. But "smart" toys are a relatively recent invention. In fact, adult-made toys are uncommon in non-industrial cultures, where children’s make-believe is mostly the reenactment of mundane, everyday adult activities (Power 2000).

By contrast, children living in complex, literate societies are often encouraged to engage in elaborate, pretend play, and that, says anthropologist David Lancy, makes sense: Such play might improve a child's academic readiness, and enhance his or her long-term economic prospects (Lancy 2008).

So it seems reasonable to ask if toys can provide kids with meaningful educational experiences, and surely the answer is yes. Consider how intelligence is measured in standardized tests.

In his book about the influence of the environment on intelligence, psychologist Richard Nisbett notes that Raven’s progressive matrices -- an intelligence test often touted as “culture-free" -- is steeped in culture (Nisbett 2009).

Take a look at a typical question (pictured here).

The test-taker is meant to look at the first two rows and identify the pattern.

Next, he looks at the bottom row. What should come next--in the empty box?

If we grant that people perform better when they are familiar with a task, then clearly there are experiences that can help us solve this problem.

A test-taker will have an advantage if she is familiar with

  • regular geometric shapes
  • analog clocks and clockwise movement
  • the idea that gradual, stepwise changes can be depicted by a sequence of images
  • the assumption that it's okay to generalize a rule from only two prior examples

You can probably think of more. But the point is this: Each of these elements must be learned, and some people—including virtually all of our ancestors—didn't learn them.

That's one reason why IQ scores have risen over the last century. It's not that people have become intrinsically smarter. It’s that their culture is doing a better job training them in the areas that help people succeed on IQ tests (Flynn 2007).

And where does this training take place? At school, yes. But other places, too. At home, in books, on television, on the computer, and through exposure to toys and educational games.

What's true for learning about shapes is doubtless true for other things—like acquiring advanced language skills or developing "number sense."

So the real question is: Which toys and games offer the most effective educational experiences?

Unfortunately, we have very little research to guide us.

For example, the vast majority of supposedly instructional electronic games have not been rigorously tested for their educational effects.

Then again, there has been surprisingly little rigorous research on the effects of playing chess. Or even on the effects of playing with blocks.

Still, we have good reason to think that some toys and games provide kids with more than mere entertainment.

The science-minded consumer: Which toys and educational games are supported by research?

In these pages, I review what published studies tell us about toys and educational games for kids.

If you are wondering what to spend your money on, a good place to begin is my article about construction toys.  As I note there, toy blocks are linked with better language development and higher achievement in math. There is also reason to think that construction toys hone spatial skills and inspire kids to follow career paths in science, engineering, and technology.

In addition, there is experimental evidence that certain board games improve math skills. More generally, I think it’s reasonable to assume that many board games promote analytical skills—if we combine them with explicit lessons in critical thinking.

For more information, see these evidence-based articles about board games and teaching critical thinking to kids.

Looking for specific recommendations? In addition to LEGOs and KEVA planks, consider these:

  • Tangram puzzles have been endorsed by The National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics (NCTM).
  • Mancala games encourage kids to count and strategize.
  • Cooperative board games may be especially suited to the capabilities of young children. As I note in this blog post, it's not clear that preschoolers understand competitive games (Priewasser et al 2013). Moreover, I think the cooperative board games are a refreshing alternative to old fashioned preschool games like Candy Land, which can be tedious to play.
  • Researcher-designed party games may help older kids "tune in" to the perspectives of other people. As I explain in my round-up of evidence-based social skills activities, teenagers who played Buffalo: The Name Dropping Game™ were subsequently more interested in fighting social stereotypes (Kaufman and Flanagan 2015).

What about video games?

As noted above, there hasn’t been a lot of rigorous research about the educational effects of video games.

On the negative side, there is evidence that playing violent video games makes people feel more antagonistic and less sympathetic to the plight of victims. There is also research suggesting that some kids suffer from video game "addiction."

But there is good news, too. Researchers are designing educational video games for use at home and in the classroom.  And experiments indicate that some "action" video games can improve visual-spatial performance, specifically the ability to track multiple objects in a fast-moving setting (Oei and Patterson 2015; Oei and Patterson 2013).

It also appears that some "prosocial" video games (like Super Mario Sunshine™ and Animal Crossing™) encourage kids to be helpful and friendly.  They may even inspire people to muster a bit of bravery.

More toys and educational games for kids

For more recommendations, visit the Parenting Science Amazon store. A portion of your purchase will help support this site.



References: Developmental toys and educational games for kids

Flynn JR. 2007. What is intelligence? Cambridge University Press.

Kaufman G and Flanagan M. 2015. A psychologically “embedded" approach to designing games for prosocial causes. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(3), article 1.

Lancy DF. 2008. The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, and changelings. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nisbett RE. 2009. Intelligence and how to get it. New York: WW Norton and Company.

Oei AC and Patterson MD. 2015. Enhancing perceptual and attentional skills requires common demands between the action video games and transfer tasks. Front Psychol. 2015 Feb 10;6:113. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00113. eCollection 2015.

Oei AC and Patterson MD. 2013. Enhancing cognition with video games: a multiple game training study. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e58546. 

Power TG. 2000. Play and exploration in children and animals. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Priewasser B, Roessler J, Perner J. 2013. Competition as rational action: why young children cannot appreciate competitive games. J Exp Child Psychol. 116(2):545-59.

Content of "Smart toys and educational games for kids" last modified 11/15


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