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How to pick the perfect learning toy

Here’s our insider’s guide to the tricks of the learning toy trade. Hint: Electronic and trendy doesn't necessarily mean "educational."

By Hank Pellissier

"Santa Claus will be here soon!" our two girls keep chirping. "Under the Christmas tree, we want to see toys. Toys. TOYS!"

My wife and I are resigned to spending a sleigh-full of money on gifts, even if they logged a year that was sometimes naughtier than nice. We will purchase toys. But this year — we’ve firmly resolved — we're not buying "stupid junk" that decays their developing brains. Instead, we'll shrewdly get them educational toys. Our children will be happily playing and secretly learning. Basically, we’ll trick them. Ho ho ho!

But what are learning toys, anyway? Most parents are frightfully uncertain of the definition — and easy prey for every smarmy sales pitch and promissory “Einstein” label.

Learning toy “rules”

"All toys are learning toys," writes Kathy Hirsch-Pasek. The Temple University professor has written several books on the topic, such as Play = Learning.

"…but,” she continues, “the toys that work best”:

• are 90 percent child and 10 percent toy
• can be used in multiple ways — again and again
• inspire creativity and imagination
• can be used with others

Hirsh-Pasek's first contention — the 90/10 rule — is that toys should be "platforms for learning rather than directing children." She favors toys that let children take the lead. This is backed by a January 2011 study in Cognition where researchers found that children discover more about a toy when they get less instruction from adults. A young human's creativity, inventiveness, and urge to discover are best enhanced if they are permitted to investigate a toy without suffocating guidance from hovering adults who explain complex details from a step-by-step manual.

Her message: Simpler is smarter. High-tech, high-cost gizmos with digital bells-and-whistles aren't necessary to elevate your child's intelligence. Instead, Hirsh-Pasek recommends traditional, vintage toys for Santa's list, such as rubber balls, clay, crayons, art supplies, building blocks, and other construction toys that enlist children's imaginations and small-motor skills to build castles, forts, and playhouses.

Basics are best

At Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, a research laboratory for child development psychologists, Director Jeanne W. Lepper has a list of materials that help young children learn, including paper, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, tape, cardboard boxes, easel paints, water colors, sand, play dough, building blocks, Legos, puzzles, dress-up clothes, hats, props, dolls, doll clothes, and simple musical instruments.

Wow. Mighty old-fashioned, isn't it? Pretty much every gift on that list — except Legos — is something that little Laura Ingalls might have played with in Little House on the Prairie. Sure, her doll might’ve been made of corn husks, but the point is that researchers’ 21st-century toy lists don’t include Spy Kids DVDs, Call of Duty video games, Taylor Swift CDs, remote control helicopters, or anything posted at

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.