In a nation where children sit in their rooms with death grips on their Game BOYs, what can parents do during the holidays -- the biggest toy windfall of the year -- to please their children's need for entertainment and education?
The choices are plentiful. Educational toys is the fastest growing category in the toy industry, jumping 77 percent between 2000 and 2001, according to NPDFunworld, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. In contrast, sales growth for the overall toy industry in 2001 was just half of a percent.
"I realize that many parents do tend to purchase games and activities that are the most popular," says Krystal Goree, director of clinical practice at Baylor's School of Education and senior editor for Gifted Child Today. "But I also feel that there is a definite trend for parents to concentrate on toys, games and activities that are intellectually stimulating and challenging. I even see more popular toys and games that the kids are choosing themselves that are containing more educational opportunities, more challenges."
Such challenges can range from playing blocks with your toddler to old standbys such as Lincoln Logs, LEGOs and Tinkertoys a few years later (all teaching visualization, geometry and dexterity) to playing Tetris with your middle school or high school youth (developing sense of space).
As parents fill the stockings this year, remember that toys don't have to be highly technical to be highly educational, Goree says. "I think one of the most effective things you can do for kids is give them a sack full of cotton balls, paper plates and tape, and let them create an original toy or piece of art," she says. "There are so many neat things you can do with regular items around the house. Of course, it might get a little messy when the wheels in the brain are turning."
Dr. Trena Wilkerson, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the School of Education, recommends board games as some of the best educational toys for teaching mathematics and problem-solving strategies. Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land and Yahtzee all further counting, place value, strategy and problem-solving skills. UNO and dominoes also are favorites.
Regardless of the child's age and how much parents want to spend, playing with your children is key to the educational process, Dr. Wilkerson says. "It's not until you do that that you know the kinds of difficulties your kids are having. You see things and talk about why they did it that way. We think kids automatically just know the way to jump to a space on a game board. They don't. They need the opportunity to play, talk and share while playing."
McMullan, BA '88, received her degree in journalism and political science. A former editor of the Lariat, she has written for Texas Monthly, Southern Living, The Dallas Morning News and is a contributing editor for D Magazine.