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Toy Learning Focus: Examples of Toys Suitable for Developmental Goals

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The learning purpose of toys is aimed at developing cognitive skills and motor skills. Play is important for children's development because it stimulates their thinking, creativity and social skills.

The five main learning objectives for toys are:

  1. VOICE/STEAM: STEM is an educational approach focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, developing critical thinking, problem solving, and logic. STEAM adds art for creativity. Toys such as experimentation sets and construction sets help with cause and effect understanding, applying technology, construction and creative expression, while math puzzles and measurement tools promote math skills.
  2. Physical development: Physical development in children includes improvement of motor and coordination skills, including fine and gross motor skills. Toys such as stacking games, pushchairs and puzzles stimulate fine and gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination respectively. Sensory play is also important for this development.
  3. Cognitive development: Cognitive development in children involves acquiring skills for thinking, learning and understanding the world, such as memory, attention, imagination and problem solving. Logic games promote logical thinking, while imaginative play stimulates creativity and social skills. Problem-solving toys such as puzzles develop spatial awareness, while recognition toys teach shapes and colors.
  4. Language and communication development: Language development in children involves learning communication skills and can be stimulated by vocabulary building toys such as categorizing blocks; tell stories, for example a dollhouse; phonetics, such as sound-making toy telephones; speech therapy, eg sound exercises; letter and reading skills, such as a magnetic alphabet; and multilingual toys.
  5. Emotional and social development: Emotional and social development in children includes learning to manage emotions and developing social skills, such as empathy and regulation. Learning to take turns and dressing up encourage patience and creativity respectively. Symbolic play and making music help develop expression and imagination.
The 5 learning goals of toys

Some toys serve multiple purposes and a systematic review by Zeng, N., Ayyub, M., Sun, H., Wen, X., Xiang, P., & Gao, Z. (2017) even found that physical activity has a positive effect on both motor skills and cognitive development in young children.

This research showed that physical activity can provide improvements in language development, academic performance, attention and working memory.

Parents choose toys based on these learning goals because they are essential to children's early development. Toys and games differ in that toys focus more on learning and development while games focus more on fun and entertainment.

However, some toys can have a negative impact on learning, for example if they focus too much on technology and leave little room for creativity and imagination.

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STEM is an educational approach that focuses on developing skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. It aims at promoting critical thinking, problem solving and logical thinking in children. STEAM adds art to the STEM concept, stimulating creativity and imagination.

Various topics are covered within STEAM education, including:

  • Science: This includes understanding cause and effect, action-reaction, problem solving, and logical thinking. Toys such as experiment sets and microscopes can help children develop these skills.
  • Technology: This involves understanding and applying technological concepts. Toys such as programmable robots and electronic building sets can help children develop technology skills.
  • Engineering: This includes structured and unstructured construction. Toys such as building sets and puzzles can help children develop their engineering skills.
  • Art: This includes creative expression and imagination. Toys such as paint sets and musical instruments can help children develop their artistic skills.
  • Mathematics: This includes understanding number concepts and applying mathematical principles. Toys such as math puzzles and measuring tools can help children develop their math skills.

Through these different concepts, toys and activities can help children develop their STEM/STEAM skills. They promote critical thinking, logical reasoning, creativity and problem solving skills.

Examples of STEM toys that can develop these skills are experimental sets, programmable robots, construction sets, paint sets and math puzzles.

Physical development

Physical development in children is the process of improving their motor skills and coordination. This includes both fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

  • Fine motor skills refer to skills such as writing, stacking, and exploring objects through pinching, feeling, grasping, pushing, and pulling. Toys such as pencil skills, stacking games and toys to explore can help develop these skills.
  • Gross motor skills include skills such as walking, balancing, climbing and crawling. Toys such as pushchairs, balancing games, and climbing frames can help develop gross motor skills.
  • Hand-eye coordination is also important and can be stimulated by toys that require the use of hands and eyes, such as puzzles and building blocks.
  • Sensory play, where children use their senses to explore and learn, is also essential for physical development.

A study by Kuzik, Naylor, Spence and Carson (2020) found that moderate to vigorous physical activity plays an important role in children's physical development. Children spent an average of 1,8 hours a day on this.

Another study by Martzog, Stoeger, and Suggate (2019) showed that fine motor skills, especially dexterity, have a unique link with nonverbal reasoning and general knowledge in preschoolers. A link was also found between fine motor skills and reasoning skills, supporting the idea that fine motor skills are involved in the development of cognitive skills.

To stimulate children's physical development, it is important to choose toys that support different skills. For fine motor skills, toys such as puzzles, building blocks, and wooden toys can help. Toys such as pushchairs, balancing games and climbing frames can be used for gross motor skills. It is also important to give children the opportunity to explore and learn about their senses through sensory play.

Cognitive development

Cognitive development in children involves acquiring skills that are essential for thinking, learning and understanding the world around them. This includes building memory, attention, imagination and problem solving skills. Toys play an important role in developing these skills.

Language skills can also be included in cognitive development, although we have labeled this as a separate category along with communication because of the impact of this developmental track.

  • Logic toys help children develop logical thinking and reasoning. Examples include board games such as chess and checkers, which require children to think strategically to achieve their goals.
  • Imaginative play, such as playing with dolls or role-playing situations, stimulates children's imagination and helps them develop creativity and social skills.
  • Problem-solving toys, such as puzzles and building sets, challenge children to solve problems and develop their spatial awareness.
  • Discrimination and recognition toys, such as shape sorters and colorful blocks, help children learn to recognize and differentiate between different shapes, colors and patterns.
  • Toys that focus on decision speed, such as reaction games and memory games, help children develop quick decision making and improve their memory.
  • General knowledge can be stimulated through toys that provide information, such as educational books and games. This helps children to learn and understand new concepts.
  • Memory can be developed through toys that challenge children to remember and remember information, such as memory games and guessing games.

A study called “Age-related functional brain changes in young children” by Long, X., Benischek, A., Dewey, D., & Lebel, C. (2017) analyzed MRI brain scans of 44 children aged 2- 6 years. The study examined the development of functional connectivity in the brain and concluded that this development plays an important role in the development of cognitive skills during this early childhood.

One of the most important ways to stimulate functional connectivity is to challenge the brain with complex puzzles and problems and toys can help with this.

Language and communication development

Language development in children is an important process in which they acquire skills to communicate effectively. There are several areas of language development that can be stimulated through toys.

  1. Vocabulary building: Toys aimed at increasing vocabulary can help children learn and understand new words. Examples include toys that name and categorize words, such as blocks with pictures of different objects.
  2. Storytelling: Toys that encourage children to create and share stories help develop their storytelling skills. For example, this could be a dollhouse where they can create different characters and situations.
  3. Phonetics: Toys that focus on phonetics can help children learn sounds and develop their pronunciation. An example of this is a toy telephone with buttons that make different sounds.
  4. Speech Therapy: Toys specifically designed for speech therapy can help children practice and improve their speech skills. For example, this could be a game where they have to pronounce certain sounds.
  5. Lettering and reading skills: Toys that focus on letters and reading can help children develop their reading skills. For example, this could be a magnetic alphabet that allows them to arrange letters and form words.
  6. Multilingual Toys: Toys that contain multiple languages ​​can help children learn different languages ​​and develop their language skills. For example, this could be a toy computer with different language options.

By using toys that focus on these different aspects of language development, children can practice and improve their language skills in a playful and interactive way.

Emotional and social development

Emotional and social development in children is the process by which children learn to manage their emotions and develop social skills. This includes empathy, emotional regulation, and social skills.

  • When taking turns, children learn to wait their turn and respect others' turns.
  • Dressing up allows children to use their imagination and play different roles, helping to develop creativity and social skills.
  • Symbolic play, such as acting out situations with toys, helps children express their feelings and thoughts and develop their imagination.
  • Singing, dancing and making music can help children express themselves expressively and develop their emotional expression.
  • Creative play, such as drawing, painting and crafts, allows children to develop their creativity and expressive skills.
  • Playing musical instruments helps children to learn musical skills and increase their expressive ability.

Toys can play an important role in developing these skills. For example, dolls can help children develop empathy and learn how to care for others. Language development can be stimulated by using soft toys that have facial expressions and can talk.

Imaginative toys, such as reversible emotion cards, can help children recognize and deal with different emotions.

Choosing toys specifically aimed at promoting emotional and social development can help children learn and practice important skills in a playful way.

What is the psychology of toys?

The psychology of toys is the subject of research that focuses on the impact of toys on child development. Jean Piaget began the theory of cognitive development based on his observations of children at play.

Toy psychology studies how toys affect children's cognitive, physical, and behavioral development.

This affects how you choose toys for your children, which is important for their early development. Toys and games both have a learning purpose but can be used in different ways to enhance development.

How do you choose toys based on their learning focus?

You can use the learning focus of toys to influence your purchasing decisions by choosing toys that match a learning focus you have in mind for your child. For example, you can look at the child's age and development, the skills the toy promotes, and the child's interests.

In addition, you can choose toys that stimulate the child's curiosity and creativity, and toys that promote interaction and collaboration.

Why are toys important for early childhood development?

Toys are important for early childhood development because they promote skills and learning, are important for cognitive development, stimulate the imagination and support social interaction and communication.

A study by Kultti and Pramling (2015) showed that early childhood play activities allow both individual use of toys and opportunities for collaborative activities with other children, with toys playing a role in supporting communication and facilitating both individual and collective use.

What is the learning focus of toys versus games?

Toys have a different learning focusses than games, but both contribute to children's development in different ways.

First, games often provide skill practice, while toys focus on learning through exploration and creativity.

Second, games provide structured learning experiences, while toys give children the freedom to direct their own learning.

Third, games often promote the development of academic skills, while toys focus on the development of emotional, physical, cognitive, and social skills.

How are educational toys different from other types?

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Educational toys differ from others in that they are specifically designed to promote learning and skill development in children. Unlike normal toys, educational toys have a clear focus on teaching specific concepts or skills.

They're created with the aim of providing meaningful and engaging opportunities for children to learn and practice certain skills. These toys are based on the understanding that children learn best through play and fun

Educational toys are designed to stimulate children's imaginations and encourage interaction with caregivers. They vary in impact and behavior, but their overarching goal is to foster valuable learning experiences and maximize engagement and interactions.

What are examples of bad toys for learning?

Examples of bad toys for learning include: toys that provide little value for learning, toys that restrict children's movement, toys that provide overstimulating experiences, and toys that distract children from engagement.

The lack of educational value, limited exercise, overstimulation and distraction can hinder skill development and limit interaction with parents, carers and peers.

Always something to do for the holidays or rainy day?

Play Choice now has the ultimate activity book collection, with over 60 pages of fun coloring pages and educational puzzles.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of is a content marketer, father and loves trying out new toys. As a child he came into contact with everything related to games when his mother started the Tinnen Soldaat in Ede. Now he and his team create helpful blog articles to help loyal readers with fun play ideas.