Smart toys and educational games for kids:

An evidence-based guide

© 2010 -2014 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, kids got little or no formal instruction. Instead, they learned by imitation and practicing 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 the toys? The 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, toys of any kind are pretty uncommon in non-industrial cultures, where children’s make-believe is mostly the reenactment of mundane, everyday adult activities (Power 2000).

The creativity and elaborate fantasies that many Westerners associate with child’s play may be a phenomenon of complex, literate societies—societies where “smart” play might improve a child’s academic readiness, and thereby enhance his employment prospects and social status (Lancy 2008).

So—despite the snickers of skeptics who argue that the toy industry is 100% nonsense—it seems reasonable for parents to ask if toys can provide their kids with meaningful educational experiences.

Surely the answer is yes. Consider how intelligence is measured in standardized tests.

In this 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 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.

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, for instance, 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 LEGOs, KEVA and KAPLA planks, and other 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?

• I like mancala games because they are games you can make at home and they encourage kids to count and strategize.

Tangram puzzles have been recommended by The National Council of Teacher’s Mathematics (NCTM).

• I hate Candy Land because it’s a game of pure chance that can drag on and on. But what else can you play with a preschooler? I prefer these cooperative board games, which may be especially suited to the capabilities of young chidren. As I note in this blog post, it's not clear that preschoolers understand competitive games (Priewasser et al 2013).

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. Experiments indicate that "action" video games can improve visual-spatial skills.

It also appears that some video games encourage kids to be helpful and friendly.  They may even inspire people to muster a bit of bravery.

And researchers are working to design educational video games for use in the classroom.

More toys and educational games for kids

For more recommendations, check out my favorite toys and educational games for kids in the Parenting Science Bookshop.

References: Developmental toys and educational games for kids

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.

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 12/14