Toys for Thought

Have you ever asked yourself, “What toys should I give my children? What will he be most entertained by? What will she learn the most from?” Walking down the toy isles at your local Target or Wal-mart can be very overwhelming – most of your choices involve batteries and high tech finesse. What If I told you the best options are the most simplest? As parents and caregivers, we want to encourage and support children’s sense of wonder. By giving them the right tools (or toys), children will flourish while they discover how the world works around them.

Peggy Ashbrook, a contributor to the Families page on, provides some insight into the world of wonder and whimsy of childhood exploration. “Simple toys and tools can engage children as they explore natural phenomena in ways that will support their later science learning. Adults who allow children to play and work through small difficulties by themselves support children as they build an understanding of how the world works. Resist the temptation to ‘fix it’ or ‘make it go faster’ or ‘use it the right way,’ and you will build your child’s self-confidence and problem-solving ability.

1. Spinning Tops

Concept: Use these toys as tools to explore motion

How to support exploration: Ask your child open-ended questions (questions with more than a yes or no answer). How hard do you have to push each type of top before it begins to spin? Are light or heavy tops easier to spin? Are tall or short tops easier to spin? Can a top with a penny taped to it maintain a spin?

Where to purchase: Look for tops in party stores or in catalogues that sell small plastic party favors.

2. Magnifiers

Concept: Tools can extend our senses, allowing us to obtain more information than we would be able to on our own. Magnifiers extend our sight by making objects look bigger.

How to support exploration: This tool is fun to use to make the world look blurry and our eyes look huge, and o look closely at everything! Magnifiers reveal aspects of nature that are too small to see with just our eyes. Examine skin, coins, flower structures, and insects—all objects with small parts that make up the whole.

Variation: Fill a round, clear plastic jar with water and have your children look at their hands or a picture through the jar. Children often notice the change in apparent size. Ask them, ‘Did your hand look bigger?’ Then let them examine it and ask, ‘Did my hand really get bigger, or did it just look bigger?’ Take another look so children can be certain of their answer. Have your children pinch the lens or a magnifying glass between two fingers and gently run their fingers across it to notice that the magnifier is not flat but has a curved surface, just like the jar!

Where to purchase: Drug stores and discount stores sell inexpensive plastic magnifiers, or you can order them from a scientific supply company.

3. Eye Droppers or Pipettes

Concept: As children use eyedroppers and pipettes to move liquids, they learn a lot about how liquids behave. For example, they learn that when they squeeze the bulb, the dropper pushes air out and when they release the bulb, it pulls water in. Children this age can also observe that water forms drops.

How to support exploration: Show your child how to squeeze the dropper to force the air out of the bulb and how to release it to allow it to pop back into shape, drawing in air or liquid as it reforms. Your child can feel the air as it leaves the dropper by holding it up to her cheek (away from her eyes) as she squeezes the bulb. Use the dropper to suck up small amounts of rain from a puddle or to mix colored water from one dish with water of a different color in another. Turn the dropper upside down to create a fountain. All of these activities have the added benefit of helping your child develop small motor control.

Where to purchase: Buy just a few at pharmacy or dollar store or order many from a scientific education supply company.

4. Bubbles and Bubble Wands

Concept: Bubbles teach children about geometry (shapes) and give them an awareness of air movement. How long will the bubble last and where will it float?

How to support exploration: Bend a pipe cleaner into a square-shaped bubble wand and ask your child to predict what shape the bubbles will take. Introduce less common words, like ‘sphere,’ as you blow bubbles to give your child the ability to describe a three dimensional shape and to expand his vocabulary.

Where to purchase: Look for bubble solution in party stores year-round or, during the warm months, in drug stores and discount stores.

5. Balls

Concept: Use balls of the same size but differing weights to explore how the mass (what we feel as weight) of an object affects its motion.

How to support exploration: Which ball will roll farther if we give them the same push—the heavier ball or the lighter ball? Children become very familiar with the effects of the pull of gravity as they throw or kick balls. They explore the properties of materials when they compare the height of the bounce of balls made of different materials. They will draw on these kinesthetic experiences in later science learning.

Where to purchase: Buy a variety of balls at toys stores, drug stores, and discount stores in the toy or sports sections.

6. Mirrors,

Concept: Playing with mirrors to reflect light and wondering how our image is reflected teaches children a beginning understanding about the properties of light.

How to support exploration: Bounce light off of different surfaces. A large plastic ‘baby mirror, held freely, is especially good for this. Have your children use mirrors to look behind themselves. ‘Catch’ some sunshine and reflect it to another surface outside or inside. Children can use a mirror to examine their face to draw a self-portrait. Children are more likely to draw from the observations they see in the mirror and not from memory if they are encouraged to focus on parts of their face they don’t usually begin with, such as their nostrils. Ask, ‘Do you see the holes in your nose? How many are there?’

Where to purchase: Buy mirrors at a pharmacy or dollar store. ‘Baby’ or designed-for-preschool plastic mirrors can be ordered from preschool or scientific, education supply companies.

7. Magnets

Concept: Children can play with magnetic force and explore this property of materials. By using the phrase, ‘attracted to the magnet,’ instead of ‘sticking to the magnet,’ you reinforce that there is no ‘stickiness’ involved—magnetism is a force that pulls or pushes. How it does this involves understanding that all materials are made of tiny pieces too small to see (atoms), a concept that children will build toward understanding around age 10. There is no need to rush this understanding. In early childhood, children can understand that being attracted by a magnet, or not, is the nature of a material.

How to support exploration: Ask questions such as, ‘What objects in my house can be attracted to a magnet?’ and ‘Can magnetic force work through fabric?’ Put the magnet in a sock and see if it can still attract objects.

Where to purchase: Be sure to buy magnets that are too large for a child to swallow. These can be found in hardware stores or toy stores, or they can be ordered from preschool or scientific, education supply companies.The most important science learning comes from experiencing the natural world. Without the natural world, we could not manufacture any of the human-made materials that make our lives easier and more comfortable. The natural world is the most important science tool of all, so go outside with your child, breathe, look around, and explore.”

When you step into a classroom at Kids’ Care Club, you will not find many battery operated toys that light up and play songs. You won’t find TV’s or children playing computer games. You will however, find all of the items mentioned above and more. You will see children using their senses and imagination to explore and play. We believe that play is important to their development, and therefore provide items that enhance and foster their natural curiosity. Things such as marble mazes, wood blocks, gears and levers, and items from nature such as pinecones and plants, are available to children—toys that encourage open-ended play. There is no right or wrong way to make these items come together and work efficiently. Children can work together in small groups or independently to build their problem-solving skills, as well as use their vivid imaginations to conceptualize and then create.

You can find information and ideas about how to incorporate more open-ended ways for your child to play by reading this article at about how to incorporate learning centers at home. If you have a younger child, has a good article about choosing open-ended toys for toddlers.

Additional Resources

Find more information and tools on our.  Parent Resources page »

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