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Time to Play: Toys Blurring the Line Between Science and Play

“Kids learn through play” are words we hear all the time now. Playtime used to be brushed off as kids simply entertaining themselves, but today it is widely accepted that through play the foundations of physical and cognitive development are laid. It is almost solely through play that kids learn to interact with the world around them. Directly connected to play, of course, are toys. They act as the right hand man to ‘play.’ Even before there were toys as we know them, little ones were using their imaginations to turn anything and everything into some form of a toy to create a richer playtime.

Yet for all of our understanding of the concept that kids learn through play, we’ve lagged behind in one major realm of learning and discovery -science. No, ‘lagged’ is not the right word I suppose, but compared to the technology being brought out in other parts of the toy industry science stuff moved along slowly. Many of the kits or toys, while awesome, felt a little behind the times. Now, that’s all about to change. Science toys are finally accelerating to catch up. They are becoming more complex in what they teach, but simpler to use and more readily available than ever before.

These toys aren’t exactly pouring out of factories yet, but below are a few neat concepts being brought to life in the here and now that bring some awesome science to your household.

Circuit Building:

Circuits are fascinating. I know it sounds a little nerdy, but they are. Especially to kids, who want to figure out how and why everything works like it does. Sadly, many circuits reside in places we don’t want our kids messing around with, such as the TV, or the computer, or in the walls.

I was lucky growing up in that my Dad built computers in his spare time. I could sit in his office with him and marvel over all the little complexities that made up a circuit board. I thought they looked like little cities. I was never able to put one together though, and never really grasped how electricity and energy could pass through them to make something run. I got stumped, and I got frustrated, and this was only amplified by the fact that I was only ever allowed to play with old motherboards that didn’t work.

Finally, people are starting to roll with this whole idea of kids and circuits. It is much to my delight that kids growing up today will have opportunities that most of us never had. Toys and kits like littleBits, or Snap Circuits, provide opportunities for youngsters to safely build their own simple circuits. They provide fun opportunities to learn about electricity and light and energy and the things that fuel our world. I just about jumped up and down with excitement when I saw these kinds of toys for the first time… excitement for um, the kids, of course.

Magnets, Magnets, Magnets!

I don’t recall having many magnetic toys when I was younger, but I do recall being fascinated by the invisible magnetic force. The most I got to play with magnets were these little plastic balls that stuck together, or the magnets that I would sneak off of the refrigerator door (the pictures they held up lying on the ground usually gave me away though.)

In recent years, toy companies are being drawn towards the potential that magnets hold. There’s the obvious reason that kids love being able to see them stuck together for no apparent reason. It’s almost like a magic trick for them. The other reason is that magnets can make a toy more versatile, more interesting, and pack in more potential for imaginative play.

One example that sticks out in my mind is Tegu. They are a company that makes environmentally friendly wooden toys who has based their entire operation off of the use of magnets. By safely embedding them in their wooden blocks, they’ve taken a classic toy and turned it into something totally fresh and new. No longer are wooden blocks limited to just what you can stack or jumble together, with magnets to hold everything together, there is an endless array of creations for kids to dream up.

Tegu is just one of many companies that are making more toys with magnets, and making them safer. Some are even making it possible to start with a toy that seems unchangeable, such as a car, and then making it changeable with the use of magnetic force. The result: you can turn one car into five different vehicles or so, and then go on to invent your own.

Solar Powered Toys:

This is a kind of toy that I, or many other adults for that matter, never had any experience with growing up. I, for one, would have happily handed over a dozen old motherboards for one solar powered toy if I had had the chance.

The idea of solar power wasn’t truly taken seriously until fairly recently, so it’s no surprise that it didn’t become included in toys until later. Again though, we have to remember that kids crave knowledge about their environment, and seeing something like a little car move along powered by nothing but the sun is a delightfully intriguing thing to learn about.

There are all different kinds of gadgets and gizmos that are solar powered, but what jumps out in very recent times is how the sun is slowly leaking over into toys that don’t seem, right off the bat, to be a science type of toy. This means that things like a toy grasshopper, or a toy helicopter, or a toy rowboat can surprise and fascinate little ones with their mysterious way of moving. Just one thing to keep in mind…I wouldn’t bank on these toys being a boredom buster on a rainy day!

Wonders To Us, Wonders To Them

Yes, I was a little nerdy growing up (ok I still am) and yes, I was bitter about the fact that I was held back from interacting with some of the things I thought were the coolest, but I promise this article isn’t meant to be a recount of my semi science deprived childhood. The point is that there are some really exciting things happening right now in terms of science, the toy industry, and how they are beginning to blend a little bit.

A lot of these concepts were thought to be somewhat ‘adult.’ For a while it was like, ‘sure kids might learn about magnetic attraction and alternative energy in school, but these aren’t ideas they can play with, right?’ or ‘No, no, these toys would be too expensive to make, and kids might think their strange and fun, but do they really care to learn about them?’

With the certainty that we can say kids learn through play, we can now also say yes, they do care to learn about how these things work. And even if they don’t learn the nitty gritty details, they’re still taking away a lot from interacting with toys that branch out from the norm. Little minds are complex, we know this now, what is a wonder to us can very much be a wonder to them. Now, to invent a time machine so I can take some of these toys back to my childhood…

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