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April 2008


How to judge the educational value of games and toys

In this giving season, parents are faced with a mind-numbing array of gift choices for our kids. And while our first criterion for a toy is that it’s fun, we want a gift to have more lasting value as well. Toy makers understand this, and many games are labeled “educational.” Faced with so many choices, how can a parent judge which games and toys will deliver real lasting educational value for children?

Smart consumers read nutrition facts on a label to judge the health value of food products. But games and toys don’t carry such objective information to help assess their education value. For those who want toys to provide both fun and opportunities to develop thinking, imagination, and coordination, we’ve developed simple criteria to help parents make informed judgments about gifts that will give children great experiences.

Look deeper than “recommended age”

Many toys include an age recommendation, but better still is a list of developmental skills required. Your first consideration is safety, then whether the toy will develop your child’s skills and interests. An age recommendation can’t replace your own knowledge of your child’s motor and cognitive abilities.

Identify the skills that can be developed through play

  • Project-oriented toys like model airplanes and crafts help develop motor skills and support thinking about how things work.
  • Strategy and logic games like Connect Four and Yahtzee encourage problem-solving and critical thinking.

How does it stimulate reasoning and brain development?

  • Science kits expose children to the wonder of the natural world, support logical thinking, and encourage following the rules that guide experiments.
  • Puzzles and building blocks develop cognitive and spatial reasoning, color and shape identification, and an appreciation for gravity and balance.

How does it stimulate imagination?

  • Pretend versions of the appliances and tools adults use encourage learning through mimicry and give parents opportunities to model behavior.
  • Playing with a school bus, a zoo, farm, or dollhouse lets kids put themselves into the action.
  • Make-believe costumes and stage props encourage story-telling.
  • Art and craft materials like paints, glitter, and glue, let kids express themselves while developing observation, coordination, and fine motor skills.

Does it provide opportunities for open-ended play?

Encourage creativity through toys that have more than one right way to play with them.

  • Kids don’t easily outgrow blocks and Legos because they can be used to build almost anything.
  • No holiday season arrives without a trendy “must-have” toy. Choose the action figure version that provides more opportunity for imaginative play instead of the electronic game version that can only be played one way.

Will it “grow” with your child?

The best toys and games span multiple developmental stages while providing months or years of fun. So look for durability. Buy with the idea that the child will play with it for at least 2 years, and pass it to younger siblings.

Family entertainment value

Many games are fun for multiple ages and skill levels. Younger kids enjoy games that incorporate “luck of the dice” which use early math skills. Older children like games that require logic, strategy, creativity, or speed. And everyone can practice life skills like following the rules, taking turns, teamwork, and winning and losing graciously.

Electronic games

Remember that children under 2 shouldn’t get any screen time according to research such as this from the Kaiser Family Foundation. For older children, as with any game, look for those that will span developmental stages and exercise creativity and problem-solving skills, such as navigating through different levels. Parents can judge the age-appropriateness of the content by trying the game themselves and with recommendations from respected educators, parents, or websites.

Where to look for recommendations

You’ll find objective reviews of games and toys with real education value at these award sites.

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Did you know?

Another top education award for DreamBox

DreamBox was recently honored with the Tech & Learning Award of Excellence, recognizing the “best of the best” in educational products for 2009. All entries are given a rigorous test drive by qualified educators in several rounds of judging. Evaluation criteria include quality and effectiveness, ease of use, creative use of technology, and educational value. Click here to read about all of our awards!

Tell your kids’ teachers about our free DreamBox Teacher Tools!

DreamBox has developed free Teacher Tools — virtual manipulatives that support students’ mathematical learning in large- or small-group instructional settings. Teachers can use these math tools — tenframes, mathracks, and other innovative tools — with an interactive white board or projector to make math lessons clear for the whole class. Click here to forward this article to your child’s teacher.

Math Learning Tips for Busy Parents

Because parents want to be involved with their child’s education, we include simple activities parents can share with their young children during everyday activities, as a regular part of our monthly updates.

If you have a jar of change at home, or your kids have been saving change for gift shopping, this is the perfect time to count and roll the money. (Kids will learn more if you don’t use the machines at the grocery store!) Together, count the coins into groups of 40 or 50 depending on the denomination. As you do this, identify the strategies your child uses. Is he counting by ones or tens? Is she making piles of ten, creating arrays (lines of coins) or stacking them? Find ways to double-check that the final amount is correct.

Find more parent tips at

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