Gifts for Learning: Imagination-Based Toys Best for Tots

As iPods, Playstation 3s and other electronic gifts fly off the shelves this holiday season, a group of early childhood education majors finds the best gifts for young children are low-tech toys that help them develop their social, cognitive, emotional, language and motor skills. Many don't even need batteries.

The list of recommended gifts they compiled includes few that require electricity and some that adults will recognize from childhood, such as Play-Doh and Chutes and Ladders.

All of the toys help children learn. For instance, Play-Doh's Fun with Food toy encourages kids to create symbols, improve their fine motor skills and learn through dramatic play, according to the childhood education students who spearheaded the study.  

"Imagination in play is just so important," said Tori Orio, a senior early childhood education, special education and sociology major at Rowan University in New Jersey. "For children, using play to learn is so downplayed in our society, but it's really vital."

In their coursework in Professor Karen Hutchison's "Growth & Learning: Birth to Five" class, the students were assigned to research toys, books, games and songs that best adhere to New Jersey Preschool Teaching & Learning Expectations.

The students assessed the toys and activities they found based on how they helped children reach cognitive, social, emotional, language and motor skills milestones.

"They picked very well-rounded toys, things that involve creativity and collaboration. And they didn't go for technology at all, which surprised me," Hutchison said.

The students' recommendations include:

My ABCs Thumball: Promotes language arts literacy, pro-social behaviors, motor skills, supporting Albert Bandura's social learning theory, which states that people learn by watching the behavior and actions of others.

Play-Doh Fun with Food: This toy helps to improve kids' fine motor skills, engage in pretend play, learn through dramatic play and storytelling, and develop knowledge of healthy food choices.

Magneatos: This magnetic building set develops fine motor skills, promotes understanding of numbers and one-to-one correspondence, and helps develop spatial cognition.

Megaland Pop-up Playset: This nylon playhouse encourages imaginary and cooperative play, and develops gross motor skills and pro-social behavior, the researchers said.

Smooshies: Like a soft Mr. Potato Head, this toy provides never-ending, imaginative play, promotes creativity, and helps develop language skills.

The Amazing Peanut Ball: Great for kids with special needs, the ball has a contoured saddle seat that challenges kids' motor skills by requiring balance and focus.

UNO Moo Farm Animal Matching Game: Helps teach children to take turns, notice and identify patterns.

Dr. Seuss' My Many Colored Days kit: Includes a book, a music CD and colorful scarves all designed to promote dramatic play, dance and movement, and socialization.

Chutes and Ladders: An exciting up-and-down adventure game for little ones, this classic game doesn't require reading skills and promotes social and emotional milestones, hands-on learning, and math literacy.

"My Friend Isabelle" by Eliza Woloson: A book about two friends, one of whom has Down Syndrome, it teaches diversity and appreciation of storytelling, and promotes language development and expressions of individuality.

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.