It plays to learn

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 February, 2005, 12:00am

TOY RETAILERS LOVE these first few weeks of the new year. It's a time when children by the thousands pour into shops clutching bundles of crisp banknotes with one mission in mind: spend, spend, spend.

All parents want to see their children putting their lai see money to good use. But if they must spend it on toys, how can you persuade them to choose something educational?

According to experts, it's not as hard as you might think. Toys that people assume wouldn't teach a child anything can actually be educational. Barbie dolls, action figures and toy cars, for instance, can all stimulate the imagination and prompt fantasy play. 'In theory, all toys are educational,' says educational psychologist Lesley Lewis.

'As a parent, you have to guide your children, deciding early on what's important, what you value, and what you want your children to learn,' she says. 'Kids need imaginative play. They can take any object, a classic toy, a cardboard box, or even climb a tree, and get something out of it.'

Lewis says too many children's activities are controlled, and children should be allowed to explore their imagination, which helps build creativity, as well as inner resources and self-esteem. Depending on their surroundings, most children will engage in imaginary play until about the age of 10, and this is something toy manufacturers cater to.

Katrina Walker, owner of toy warehouse Bumps to Babes, agrees. 'One of our popular new toys is the Early Learning Centre's Roman Colosseum, a wooden amphitheatre complete with gladiator figures and a chariot set,' she says. 'It's creative play and a history lesson rolled into one. I bought it for my godson and he took the Roman figures to school for a show and tell. So much emphasis is put on children's education, but we should remember that children also learn through play. It develops their ability to learn and create. It's really important.'

Computers are regarded by many parents as a key learning tool. But, although there are many educational computer games and DVDs, parents ought to consider how long their children should sit in front of a screen before it becomes hazardous or too much.

'If the computer is a child's only source of play, it can become isolating,' says Lewis. 'And as they become older and move into chat rooms, their whole life can become computers.' She says computer games can play a role as an educational toy - but parents should be selective when choosing titles.

Rhys Bradley, Asia's head of merchandising for Toys R Us, says that one of the chain's best-selling toys this year is the V.Smile from Vtech. 'It's like the LeapFrog series,' he says. 'It's really an online book that looks at reading, writing and mathematics. The line starts for young children and appeals up to the age of nine. Generally, we've seen a growing demand for educational toys in Hong Kong.'

Traditional toys such as board games, card games, puzzles and building blocks continue to delight children of all ages. And there are few better ways to stimulate the imagination and help language development than reading. 'Children love books,' says Lewis. 'To choose an appropriate title it's important to consider the age group, the illustrations and the subject matter.

'There are a multitude of educational toys out there. Whether they have a positive or negative impact depends on the parents and how they guide the play. While their children are still young, parents should find two or three things that the family continues to do throughout a child's upbringing. See what your child's interests are, and become part of it.'

Up to four years

Today's new-born is well catered for. Choose brightly coloured, tactile products that offer a sensory experience. Walker says the best-selling ranges include tried and tested toys such as wooden blocks, wooden puzzles and brightly coloured soft toys.

Toys to try: Early Learning Centre Blossom Farm puzzles or Electronic Activity Cubes, Lamaze's Fishy Fun Crib Mirror or Link-Along Friends, or Little Tikes Wide Track Activity Walker.

Four to seven years

Parents should look for natural toys that stimulate children's senses with tactile and colourful designs, Lewis says. Between four to seven, order is important: building; understanding how to reverse things; and knowing how to place things in sequence are important. Creativity is at a peak during this age period. Choose arts and crafts, counting beads, musical instruments, dress-ups, doll's houses or anything that stimulates fantasy play. For the more active child, choose action figures, radio-controlled gadgets and sports-related toys such as soccer balls, cricket bats or bikes.

Toys to try: Bandai's Gundam action figures; LeapFrog's LeapPad Learning System or Vtech's V.Smile range; or real-life or fantasy playsets such as farmyards with animals; doll's houses or the Early Learning Centre's Pony Club; Pop-up Princess Castle, Knight's Castle and Knights.

Eight to 12 years

At this age, the key consideration is socialisation, Lewis says. It's important to find toys that allow children to interact with others. Choose board games where they have to engage with others, sports equipment of any type, computer games, cooking kits and musical instruments. At this age, children are interested in collectibles such as die-cast cars, figurines or stickers.

Toys to try: The Matchbox car series, or board games such as Hans Im Gluck's Carcassonne; Milton Bradley's Battleship; Parker Brothers' Cluedo; Mattel's Junior Pictionary or Junior Scrabble; or computer games such as I Spy Fantasy by Scholastic, or Learn to Play Chess with Fritz and Chesster by Viva Media.


Although children tend to become more introspective once they reach their teens, imagination is still important. According to Lewis, 12-14 is a pivotal age and it's important that lines of communications between parents and teenagers remain open. Part of this is recognising that, although teens still need parental support and attention, they also need to be given space and allowed to feel they're in control. Choose board games, sports equipment, music you can enjoy together, any type of drawing and painting.

Toys to try: Board games such as Parker Brothers' Monopoly or Risk.