The science of toys: A guide for the perplexed shopper

A customer looks at toys at the JoueClub Contesso shop in Nice, France, November 28, 2018.   REUTERS/Eric Gaillard - RC128A7F13C0

‘Tis the season when adults around the world flood the local toy stores (or, more likely, their favorite online retailers) to find the perfect gift for their children. Each year, they are faced with an avalanche of choices jumping out of advertisements and from stuffed shelves. Retailers have good reason to bank on the holiday season: The National Retail Federation anticipates 4.3-4.8 percent growth in November and December of 2018 spending relative to 2017. In fact, the gift lists are out for 2018–for infant toys, for creative toys, for scientific toys, and the categories go on.

This leaves parents and caring family members in a quandary: How do you select from seemingly countless options? Even buying a shape sorter or set of blocks comes with almost unlimited choices. Thankfully, science is beginning to unravel this mystery. In fact, the AAP just released a clinical report that discusses recommendations for how pediatricians can talk to parents about children’s toys. This report is not meant to generate business for toy makers, but instead offers away to help fulfill pediatricians’ “prescription” to parents to “play with your child every day.” 

In a world focused on test scores and where our children are under increased pressure to perform, it is important for parents and educators to remember that play is powerful because it naturally harnesses a set of principles that lead to learning. Play, especially a type of play called playful learning in which children lead but adults support them in discovering a learning goal, seems to be an especially powerful pedagogy for learning—even in domains usually linked with direct instruction methods including literacy, numeracy, and even shape knowledge. Playful learning does this by supporting joyful interactions, an actively engaged brain, iterative thinking, and the power of social interaction. But what do these ideas look like when you are in the store or online buying a toy? A good rule of thumb is to remember that the purpose of toys is to engage a child’s mind, not to be impressive in terms of technology and bells and whistles. Instead, focus on toys that involve 90 percent activity on the part of the child with 10 percent input from the toy.

Here, we outline each principle and how it can guide toy selection:


Think about the joy that children experience when playing peek-a-boo. Research suggests that surprise and joy are not only pleasurable, but they can also support learning and executive functioning. Toys that have a surprising element (e.g., a toy that doesn’t always do the same thing every time you use it) or that tap into children’s sources of joy (e.g., a veterinary toolkit for a child obsessed with animals) will not only create happy memories, but potentially help increase the potential for learning.

Actively Engaged

Toys can encourage children’s exploration of math and spatial skills through activities like building with blocks. Construction blocks are a perennial favorite, and they may in fact lead to better spatial abilities and improved language development. Puzzles are also great for fostering these kinds of active or “minds-on” contexts.

It is also worth noting that these construction toys and shape sorters need not have a digital chip to be fun and packed with learning potential, which actually distract from the goals of the activity. In one study, play with an electronic shape sorter resulted in less enriching parent-child talk and interactions than a traditional shape sorter. In this case, the toy made noises that did not directly relate to the shapes that children were supposed to be learning. Instead, these “enhancements” distracted parents and children from the activity at hand.


Remember the excitement of a new toy from your childhood and how quickly that excitement faded once you had solved the challenge? It is important to give children ample opportunity to iterate, change, experiment, and try new things as they play with their toys. For instance, in addition to a building block set that has detailed instructions, buy a box of blocks that are completely open-ended. Make sure that children have the opportunity to build a train station that turns into a castle that can then transform into a magical robot. This iteration is where the magic of learning happens. Play and playful learning can help eliminate the “double-edged sword of pedagogy“—a term that researchers use to describe the downside of more direct instruction techniques. When children are explicitly told what something is or what it does, they are less likely to explore for additional information.


It is also helpful to find toys that are meaningful to children’s lived experiences or connect with their previous knowledge. This might look like buying a construction toy set that features a child’s favorite cartoon character to add a parasocial connection. Making a connection to a child’s favorite shows or characters can help them become interested in more complex activities that might not have grabbed their attention—from constructing new play sets to developing more interest in reading.

Socially Interactive

Finally, purchase board games or other toys that encourage social interaction. Scholar research points to the positive learning from games. This is true for board games that allow a child to move five or eight spaces, or for digital games like Minecraft. Pretend play with figurines or dolls can also deliver some of the same benefits. When children play with superhero figures, they spend time negotiating who gets to play which character, who will lead the story, and who will support. This kind of pretend play helps children control and process a variety of different emotions.

There is now ample research that links play and learning. As we brave the stores and online marketplaces, we can use scientific evidence to enhance the value of the toys we purchase. Only then will children reap their rewards long after the holidays are behind us.