In our achievement-driven society, many parents are trying their best to hasten the intellectual development of their children to give them an academic edge. My sister-in-law told me that preschoolers in her community were already doing book reports. At my son’s preschool, my husband overheard a parent telling the teacher that her three-year-old daughter can count to 100. When he told me about this, we laughed, but also secretly worried that our son was only able to count to 10. Like many parents, our first impulse was to go out and buy some flashcards so our poor kid wouldn’t be left behind.
Until very recently, I had always believed that educational toys were the best toys for little children to help stimulate their intellectual development. I figured that if a child is playing, he might as well be learning something at the same time. My views of how children learn changed dramatically after I read the book Einstein Never Used Flashcards. The authors explained that our world economy is shifting from one that is information-based to one that is driven by innovation. With the wealth of easily accessible information currently at our fingertips, the luminaries of society are not the people with the most knowledge but the people who can successfully integrate this wealth of information to create, innovate, and find novel solutions to society’s problems.
What does all of this mean and how does it relate to the type of toys we should buy for our children? The authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards classify toys into two categories – convergent and divergent – and believe that the category of toys that your child spends most time playing with could have a significant impact on his/her success in this new world.
Convergent toys: In a nutshell, convergent toys lead to a single correct answer or one correct solution. Puzzles and educational games are examples of convergent toys because their purpose is to help kids learn to find the “right” answer. The pitfall of convergent toys is that they do not foster creativity or innovation. If children spend most of their time playing with convergent toys, they will learn that there is only one correct way to solve a given problem and they are not encouraged to explore further for other potential solutions.
But before you chuck all your convergent toys out the window, realize that these toys are critical in helping your kids to do well in school. Students who can learn the correct way to solve problems and can memorize a lot of information tend to get good grades and do well on standardized tests. Ultimately though, there is a big difference between knowing how to find the right answer and being able to apply that knowledge in an abstract way.
Divergent toys: Divergent toys are those that encourage creating, building, and using imagination rather than memory and repetition. Examples include dolls, blocks, Legos, cars, and kitchen and tool sets. According to the authors, divergent toys foster creativity in problem solving and thinking outside the box. Children also tend to display more enthusiasm and perseverance with divergent play.
Learning in context through free play and everyday experiences is the best (and most fun) way to learn and to retain new information. Rather than using flashcards to quiz my children, I teach them about the green, red, orange, and yellow bell peppers on our grocery run. We play games like “I spy with my little eye” to make learning fun and interactive. When something is fun, we tend to enjoy it more and when we enjoy doing something, we naturally become better at it.
Toys that encourage imaginative and creative play:
When shopping for toys for my kids, I try to choose the ones that have fewer bells and whistles to give them the opportunity to use their imagination. My 2- and 4-year-olds are particularly fond of their mini shopping cart, pretend foods, cash register, and cooking set. They love to pretend to go grocery shopping (like the grown-ups) and cook meals for us.
Having access to a variety of musical instruments helps toddlers and young children to learn rhythm, pitch, and melody through free play and exploration. These musical instruments are big hits with my boys: baby take along tunes, ukulele, harmonica, recorder, and player piano. I’m thinking about picking up this band in a box set as well.
My four-year-old son has been showing interest in how babies grow in their mommy’s belly. He has been telling us that he is growing a baby called Alula in his little pot belly. I have been looking for a baby doll to teach my boys what it’s like to take care of others and this baby doll looks promising. I liked this doll because it’s washable and you can choose its ethnicity.
Having two boys means that I have more cars and trucks around the house than one could ever imagine. If my boys could have it their way, there would never be too many variations of cement mixers, cranes, excavators, bulldozers, garbage trucks and firetrucks. I’m a fan of the Bruder brand of play vehicles because they are well-made, look realistic and have functional working parts. The cement mixer truck, tow truck, and fire engine are my boy’s favorites.
My boys also like the wooden Melissa and Doug car transporter, firetruck, and school bus. These toys are simplistic and come with little figures of school kids and firefighters to encourage imaginative play.
Finally, blocks, Legos, and Play-Doh are wonderful divergent toys that encourage children to build, create, and innovate. My kids and I adore this cake mountain set and this retro doctor fill and drill set is hilarious.
It would be great to hear what other people think about the concept of using divergent toys to encourage unstructured imaginative play. What are your favorite tried and true toys? Perhaps your little one has a favorite toy that wasn’t mentioned here that you would recommend. I hope you will find the concept of convergent and divergent toys as interesting and thought-provoking as I did, and I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.
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Photo credit: Markus Spiske