How do you know a good educational toy when you see one? Phonics toys, flash cards, math games, educational videos and software. . . so many toys are packaged as educational, but what should you know to help you choose what’s most appropriate for your child? One way experts teach us to think about educational toys is: do they promote convergent and/or divergent thinking?
Construction toys are among the best educational toys because they promote convergent and divergent thinking.
- Convergent Thinking
This is the ability to learn facts, follow instructions, and come to a correct answer.
This type of thinking is fundamental to a child’s education, especially because these days so many educational opportunities are tied to performing well on standardized and multiple-choice tests. Toys that promote convergent thinking lead children to deduce a single correct solution. A jigsaw puzzle only goes together one way; each math flash card has a single correct answer; the right color for a pink pig will always be pink in a preschooler’s educational video.
- Divergent Thinking
This is the thought process that explores many possible solutions, creates new ideas, and solves conceptual problems.
Divergent thinkers are often designers, engineers, managers and leaders of all types, and generally are good at thinking outside of the box. Many educators argue that all children need a strong foundation in divergent thinking as well as convergent thinking. Toys that promote this kind of learning are craft and arts kits, toys that teach scientific and music concepts, and even role playing and costumes that encourage children to imagine and socialize in creative ways.
- Combining the Two
Convergent + Divergent = Optimum Learning
Good construction toys promote convergent thinking while simultaneously setting the stage for creative, divergent play.
Children follow instructions to build the model on the box. Meanwhile, they are gaining skill with the construction pieces. Completing the instructions (convergent thinking) gives them a sense of achievement and reinforces confidence. Often, this experience leads them to want to build their own ideas (divergent thinking) with the same building pieces they just finished using!
You’ve probably experienced that sense of pride and joy children feel when accomplishing a challenging convergent task, like completing a puzzle or LEGO model. Good construction toys harness that emotional energy and move kids right into divergent play. Of course, much of what’s available today are just ordinary toys masquerading as a construction toy - if the product you are looking at cannot be easily reconfigured by a child to build their own ideas, it’s probably not a very good construction toy for teaching divergent skills.
- Low Floor, High Ceiling
Low Floor, High Ceiling
The best educational toys offer children both a “low floor” and a “high ceiling.”
Seymour Papert, a renowned MIT professor and a seminal figure in the field of technology and education, set out on a mission years ago to determine a child’s optimum creative environment. He ultimately concluded that a toy presents the ideal creative environment when it offers what he calls a “low floor” and a “high ceiling.” A toy that possesses a low floor allows a child to play without needing a lot of advance experience or knowledge. Building blocks provide a wonderful example. Even toddlers with pudgy fingers can stack blocks and knock them down. An ideal toys also possess a “high ceiling.” As a child ages, the toy grows with them and provides tougher challenges, and that’s just what a good construction toy does best!
- Future Leaders
Future leaders get their start on the family room floor
...Exploring and building their own ideas. And, often, there is a parent playing right alongside. A construction toy that is fun for both kids and adults makes a lot of sense. According to multiple academic research studies, construction toys and child/parent play have a wide variety of benefits:
- Provide an optimum way of learning.
- Increase math performance.
- Promote creative problem solving.
- Improve language skills.
- Spur out-of-the-box thinking.
Furthermore, research shows that high school students who excelled in block play as preschoolers ultimately:
- Enrolled in a greater number of advanced math courses.
- Took a higher number of honors math courses.
- Earned greater math grades.
American geniuses like Albert Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and Frank Gehry all grew up playing with various types of construction toys. And they thought they were just having fun!