Spielwarenmesse: Educational toys and their limitations

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Educational toys and their limitations

from Eva Stemmer und Jörg Meister

Play enables children to understand the world. It is through play they that learn about the connections between cause and effect; they also learn about scientific processes and social interaction. When they play, children follow a set of rules which they have defined themselves or which they have defined for a specific activity, and they are usually without any consequences. Through play, therefore, children can try out, change and readjust their ways of behaving in order to then transfer their experiences to the world in which they live.

In the process, toys are mediators between the worlds, opening up the space between the world of make-believe or play and actual life experience. Ideally, they do this without publicizing their educational value. The desire to play is intrinsic in nature. Inwardly driven, players want to carry on, experience more, and become better. Their goal is simply to release adrenalin and dopamine.

Play should primarily be inspiring

At the same time, the pleasure of playing is also a desire to learn, to experience new things and to identify connections. Brain researcher and author Professor Gerald Hüther states the fact that this only works through people's inner drive: "The brain develops according to how it is used with enthusiasm. A child loses interest in mathematics when someone makes it clear to the child that they are too stupid for it – and then the child doesn't develop any further in this subject."

Nature explorer set for children

Play is the thematic embedding of this enthusiasm. It gives a context to the urge to explore. It is a motivating and self-reinforcing support and does not sanction failure. Toys are thus, per se, tools to convey (educational) content. If one adheres to this argument, one will inevitably come to the conclusion that, in principle, every toy is also a teaching aid. A doll teaches social interaction; building blocks teach logical thinking and physical rules; board games promote competitive or cooperative behaviour and logic; and balls train motor skills. Everything contributes ultimately to the child's wealth of experience.


Educational toys should complement schooling

A certain social insecurity favours the demand for educational toys: parents are increasingly reluctant to trust the state school system to make their children able to cope with future demands. They consider school curricula to be outdated and teachers sometimes overburdened and ill equipped for the digital world. Extracurricular learning is intended to compensate for these shortcomings and provide the child with advantages for the start of his or her (professional) life. The focus is on scientific skills, as well as new fields such as robotics and programming (also known as coding), which have, so far, received little attention from schools. Such toys, for example, are very popular because they are oriented toward the future. Parents hope that this will give their children the skills they need to navigate the digital world with ease. In Asia and the USA in particular, toys designed to give children an edge in knowledge or skills are extremely popular.

Labelling of educational toys

science kits for children

Ever more toys are stressing their educational value. For example, the "Educational Toys" label is a growing phenomenon, currently often labelled as "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Supplemented by "R for Robotics" and "A for Arts", this has already developed into "STREAM" (Science, Technology, Robotic, Engineering, Art and Mathematics). Many toys labelled "STEM" or "STREAM" are fully justified in being designated as such. They are more teaching aids than toys. Others try to upgrade themselves with this label in order to imply added value with an educational veneer. However, parents and children can give a playful impulse to the intergenerational transfer of knowledge or they can discover a new learning field together.

Edutainment: a merging of the educational with the enjoyable

In the dawning age of edutainment, the future lies in the playful transfer of knowledge. Whether in an analogue way – with STEM toys – or digitally – with serious gaming – learning will be enriched with even more game elements in the future. How efficient the learning process is depends on whether the interaction between the learning opportunities available and the type of learner is appropriate, how skilfully the toy communicates the learning content and how intrinsically children and teenagers are motivated to get to grips with the content. 

In the long term, toys can score points if manufacturers are honest with their customers and with themselves: are the offered articles really toys, i.e. is the value of the game and a play pattern in the foreground, or are they teaching aids, i.e. primarily designed to impart knowledge? The correct approach to this distinction highlights the competence of the manufacturer to knowingly and deliberately distinguish between them. At the same time, manufacturers avoid leaving customers disappointed on account of false expectations.

Requirements for "future-proof" children

Whether "a good school-leaving certificate", remarks Professor Gerald Hüther, is "an indicator of good adaptability rather than of an indicator of intelligence" is another matter. In any event, educational toys will only ever supplement a few skills in the personality portfolio of adolescents. What is certain is that it is up to the parents of today and tomorrow to educate their children to be open-minded and creative and to give them the ability to develop interconnected thinking skills and interact socially.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.

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