When it comes to the thinking on “Educational Toys”, I think there are probably three categories parents and caregivers fall in to:
1. Those who think educational toys suck the fun out of play
2. Those who like the idea but don’t know what resources to buy or where to buy them
3. Those who fully-realise the benefits educational toys can provide to the children they shop for, and who are on the hunt for new ways to help their children learn.
Category One people: I'm here to show you that ‘educational’ definitely doesn’t mean ‘boring’; Category Two folks: fret not, I’m going to tell you which FIVE toys you need, and where to buy them; Category Three crowd: relax and enjoy the ride; do you have these toys? Which are your favourite educational toys: let me know in the comments below!
Ready? Let’s go!
1. First up, it’s the Yoto Player.
“Yoto Player fills your home with inspiring audio and lets kids lead the way.”
Put simply, the Yoto Player, a carefully-connected, screen-free speaker, made explicitly for children, is easily one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. Think of it as one of the storybook narration tapes your mum used to play on long car journeys given the most incredible pimping/make-over.
Adults and children alike control the unit by using credit card-sized, preloaded audio cards, so, from a parenting perspective, it means you can be confident that your small people are only accessing the content you’re happy for them to, and from their point of view, you are giving them the independence of choice, and the responsibility of doing it for themselves.
Add in to the mix the programmable day/night clock, the night-light, the children’s radio stations and podcasts and the bluetooth speaker functions and it becomes even more of a no-brainer.
But how does this super-speaker act as an educational toy, that will actively help your children learn and develop key skills?
Aside from what I’ve already mentioned in the way of promoting independence, the Yoto Player opens up a world of opportunities for your children (and you!) to learn.
There’s the Yoto Daily podcast, a mini-podcast for kids (which we listen to each morning as we have our family breakfast) which covers anything from National Awareness Days to simple mental agility games like “Guess That Sound”.
Then there’s the content library itself with a vast selection of things for little people to listen to:
· Music: everything from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ to The Wheels on the Bus. Music to actively ‘listen’ to, and soundscapes for sleep, meditation and exercising.
· Fiction: all those ever-popular Julia Donaldson stories, Enid Blyton, a huge Walt Disney collection and much-loved classics like ‘Paddington’, “The Railway Children” and ‘Winnie the Pooh’ to name a few.
· Non-Fiction: the Horrible Histories series, audiobooks on dinosaurs, on Rosa Parks, on famous footballers, on the solar system: you name it, they’ve probably got it.
· Activities: From mindfulness to phonics, mathematics to exercise: there’s a whole load of cards specifically designed to help your children engage with a particular activity or subject.
· Languages: Aside from the English-language audio, you’ll also find plenty of French and Spanish options too; with Yoto working on adding more languages to their library in the near future.
If none of the above floats your boat (if so, who ARE you?!) then I’ve saved what I think is my favourite feature for last: the capacity to Record Your Own.
Want Grandma to be able to read Little One their bedtime story from across the miles? Have her record it on a smart device and you can then link it to a physical story card that you or your child can load into the Yoto player. Can’t find a recording of your kid’s absolute favourite story? Record it yourself and then they can play it whenever they like. Baby won’t sleep without Daddy singing a lullaby, but Daddy can’t always be there? Record him singing on a Yoto card and Baby won’t notice the difference.
I LOVE the Yoto Player, I think it’s such a great resource to have in a family home; and I find it genuinely gets used by everyone at some point in the day, from my Littlest (who is 16 months old and who mainly just puts cards in and takes them out again!) to my husband who, using it as a bluetooth speaker, listens to NFL podcasts whilst cooking.
I think the capacity for learning and using the player as an educational resource is huge, and that’s why it makes this list!
2. Next up, if you’re looking for long-lasting, beautifully-made and sustainably-manufactured educational toys for young children, then you probably need look no further than Tender Leaf Toys, and in particular, my favourite of the lot: the stunning retro-design Play Kitchen.
The beautifully-designed wooden play kitchen has just about everything your small person could want in terms of ‘pretend play’; not only is it the largest Tender Leaf play kitchen in the range, but it comes with a whole load of trimmings that, with most other play kitchens out there, you’d have to buy separately, and at an additional cost.
· An oven with an front-opening oven door and integral shelf
· 4 cooker hobs
· A soap dispenser
· 2 hand-crafted wicker basket shelf top drawers
· A Butlers sink with double taps
· 2 wooden storage canisters
· 3 racks of herbs
· A gingham fabric pot holder
· 3 plates
· 3 wooden cooking utensils and a utensil holder
· A 2-part fish dish (with garnishes!) in an oval baking tray
· A chalkboard side panel for writing and drawing
· A printed tea towel
So, how is this beautifully put together toy an educational one? Well, did you know that imaginative role play helps your child hone several key skills all at once?
Using a play kitchen helps young children:
- Develop social skills as they tell you and/or their playmates what they are cooking or what ingredients they’re using, and as they ask everyone whether they’d like a potato or a mushroom with their cup of tea(!) Children playing with their peers learn to work together and to share; children playing independently can act out and rehearse social situations ahead of encountering them in real life.
- Improve vocabulary and early reading skills: reading a recipe or the label on a jar, hearing a grown-up give names to different ingredients, or parts of the kitchen, all works towards helping your little one get an early grasp on multiple elements of language and word recognition.
- Explore their creative thinking: that “broccoli tea” might sound disgusting to us, but to your young budding chef, the freedom they have in their roleplay kitchen to explore flavours, food combinations and their own ideas is key to developing their creative thinking.
- Practise numeracy skills: weighing out ingredients, counting how many biscuits are left, or how many plates they need, counting down the amount of time their bake has left in the oven: all these roleplaying elements introduce mathematical thinking to your child in a fun and engaging way. They’ll be learning without even thinking about it!
- Understand the need for a healthy lifestyle. Role-playing a kitchen environment gives parents and caregivers the opportunity to talk about healthy eating choices in a relaxed way. You don’t have to lecture your child in order to teach them that an all-cake diet isn’t a healthy choice; you can ‘play’ the lesson instead: asking them to ‘cook’ you a meal with lots of tasty healthy vegetables, or having an ice cream as “a special yummy treat!”
There’s just so much about this play kitchen that is of educational benefit to young children. I bought my daughter’s play kitchen when she was 18 months old and she’s still using now at four-and-a-half, although these days she’s also accompanied by her younger brother as sous-chef, and occasionally, the cat.
3. At number three, another absolute cracker from Tender Leaf Toys, there is no better way to teach your small person about the need to look after themselves and to care for others than by using the brilliant Tender Leaf Doctors Bag Set.
This beautiful retro-styled set includes all the wooden role-play pieces a pretend doctor could need:
· A stethoscope
· A pair of scissors
· An ear probe
· A syringe
· A knee hammer
· A blood-pressure monitor
· A face-mask
· Medical roleplay stickers
· A bottle of pills
· A tube of ointment.
In the same way as using a play-kitchen helps young children hone key developmental skills, in role-playing as pint-sized medic, your child is practising, exploring and learning all the time.
They learn to recognise and name emotional states; they familiarise themselves with the proper names for parts of the body, and – in being the patient – you model for them a healthy openness in discussing your body, and you are in a position to introduce, in a very organic way, ideas about body safety and to answer any questions they may have.
You can talk about how the body works, how diverse individual bodies are, healthy living and even the more difficult concepts of birth, illness, bereavement and – not forgetting – global pandemics(!)
4. Next on my list, had to be the Yellow Door Education Jumbo Alphabet Stones – an absolute favourite in our house. I doubt that I need to explain to you why these beautifully cast pebbles are educational toys, but I do perhaps need to show you just how versatile they are.
Whether you use them to practice visual letter recognition, sound-blending, or word-building, these stones are an invaluable educational resource for those early years learners.
Aside from their obvious uses as early literacy skill honers, you and your little one can use the Jumbo Stones to:
- Take alphabet crayon rubbings
- Feel how a letter is formed (great for Montessori-style learners)
- Fill the engraved letters with sensory bases (rice works well!)
- Count with or as small world building tools (on the smooth reverse side)
- Play games appropriate to your child’s age (put all the toys beginning with ‘d’ next to the ‘d’ pebble; put all the blue chickpeas next to the 'b' pebble)
- 'Label’ a play set-up (‘forest’, ‘under the sea’ etc.)
- Form words in any language that uses the Latin/Roman alphabet (in fact, Yellow Door have also added a supplementary set to their collection that uses the Welsh language characteristics of ‘ff’, ‘dd’ and ‘ll’).
5. And last, but by no means least, the fifth and the final addition to my list of gorgeous educational toys had to be these beautiful Tickit Rainbow Architect Arches.
Made from smooth, solid beechwood, in the seven colours of the rainbow, I think that this set of architect arches is a must-have for any child’s toy-box. It’s the open-ended play resource that just keeps on giving and, purely because it can be played with in so many different ways, the educational benefits it offers are numbered.
Some of the ways this toy helps children to learn through play:
· Stacking the arches on top of one another (from biggest to smallest), or using these arches alongside other blocks to build towers and structures, hones fine motor skills and visual depth perception. It introduces the concept of balance and teaches differentiation between shapes.
· The arches can be used individually in small world play to make little homes, pens, bridges, tunnels and see-saws. Small world play brilliantly helps children develop their imaginative and creative skills.
· Building the full rainbow helps children hone logical and early mathematical skills (they have to work out how the shapes fit together; which is biggest, which is smallest; how many arches there are) as well as colour recognition.
· Older children will enjoy making a marble run with the arches – this teaches them about basic physics: gravitational force and motion.
· Stacking or flat-laying the individual arches, you can create different shapes and pictures; like small world set-ups, this is a fab way to encourage your child’s creative thinking.
· Using the arches to colour-sort other smaller loose parts is another way to promote colour recognition and to talk about similarities and differences.
· Using the rainbow as a whole, you can open up talks about symbology: what the rainbow symbol means to different people; what your little person feels a rainbow means to them. You teach them The Rainbow Song, you can talk about the weather; the opportunities are endless; it’s such a multi-faceted educational resource and one that will grow with your child.
And that’s it; that’s my educational toys round up, and my top five picks for toys to invest in!
I say “invest in” because these are toys that will last a lifetime; they are all eco-friendly products that have been beautifully made, with young children in mind. They can all be wiped clean of sticky fingers, survive a dropping and are completely safe for your little people to use.
They’re all available at Catkin Toys and the lovely Kimberley will happily answer any questions you’ve got about them.
So, for now, I’ll leave you to ponder those (do let me know what your favourites are!) and I’ll see you: same time, same place, next weekend! xx