The truth is, when it comes to toys, you don’t need anything more sophisticated than your great grandmother had. The most fundamental learning skills require very little in the way of resources. Imagine taking your child on a nature walk, for instance. At most, you might have a magnifying glass or pair of binoculars handy. Pretty wholesome, right? Now imagine cruising down the nature trail in a safari jeep. The whole experience is shortchanged. It may be more exciting, but it does nothing to cultivate learning skills.
If you’re trying to whip up excitement, you’re over-shooting the mark. Keep things simple. How interested do you think your child is going to be in a classroom if she’s in the habit of super-charging her emotions with stylish gadgetry? Not very. Give her things to do that stimulate her curiosity, not her emotions.
Counting beans, for example, is a great activity to do with your toddler. It offers significant conceptual building skills, and it’s easy on the parent because you get to sit on the floor and more or less relax. It invites your child’s input in determining outcomes, and it is open-ended with unlimited possibilities.
The wonder of counting beans cannot be achieved through an electronic device. If just learning to count were the objective, then the electronic device would be equal to the task. But one activity advances learning skills, while the other advances learning information. One is based in the real world with real things being moved, weighed and grouped. The other is not. One offers the relation of objects to gravity. The other does not. One can be deposited in a jar to displace a quantifiable measure of water. The other cannot. One appeals accurately to the senses. The other does not. One can be exchanged for macaroni, pebbles, marbles, twigs. The other cannot. One can be glued to paper and painted and hung on the wall. The other cannot. The point is that the best toys and activities—the ones that build solid learning skills—are usually the simplest in nature.
In short—be aware of trends and habits that develop. Down to earth educational toys and activities will be enjoyable for your child if they are the norm. If watching television and playing electronic games are the norm, then skill building activities will seem like work.
Related material (NPR audio): Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills