My Favorite “Learning” Toys in our House #TeacherMom

What do you think of when someone says, “educational toy?”

Google certainly advertises what many of us imagine: 

But the toys that bring the richest learning to my children look nothing like this. The toys that make them think, that invite them to talk out their thinking, that spark make-believe play — they look much less, well, educational. 

Especially since reading this article on the site Zero to Three about characteristics of toys for toddlers that are rich in learning (featuring qualities like open-ended-ness and problem-solving), I’ve been thinking about what exactly these toys look like for kids, (not to mention with this holiday season upon us). 

So today’s post is a reflection on which toys promote the richest play for my kids (aged 8, 4, & 2), and why. Different toys will appeal to different children for a variety of reasons, but there are certainly some universal lessons on play to be found in the why. So let’s dive in!

#1: Loose Parts box

How it’s packed with learning: In addition to being a great tactile experience — the kids love the rough and smooth wood grains, the woven coasters, and the silky scarf — these objects provide endless possibility for play. One day, it’s a kitchen set, and the next, it’s a zoo. 

#2: Animals set

How it’s packed with learning: These animals feature in much of my kids’ make-believe play. Special favorites are the ones that include a baby and parent. This is definitely a toy that grows with kids, delighting a broad range of ages. 

#3: Lock box

How it’s packed with learning: Problem-solving skills abound with this toy. Particularly since there are 3 compartments inside in which to stash all sorts of treasures.

#4: Magnetic tiles set

How it’s packed with learning: I am amazed at the creativity these tiles elicit. Rockets, houses, buses, even “gift boxes” are constructed and reconstructed each day. I like the way it requires geometric problem-solving as well. 

#5: Go Fish card game

How it’s packed with learning: This is a beloved game for all of our kids. Even though the youngest doesn’t quite understand it, he loves to instruct adults to “go fish” and watch them comply. I also like that there’s opportunity for literacy building with the labeled pictures. 

#6: Play-Doh

How it’s packed with learning: The sensory experiences, creativity, and fine motor skills development are endless. Especially when we add a few tools, like these play scissors and a rolling pin. 

#7: Play Tunnel

How it’s packed with learning: In addition to the physical activity this tunnel provides, it also lends itself to a great deal of large-scale make-believe play in fort-building and playing house. 

This last bonus photo was at the 4 year-old’s request when he saw me taking pictures of all his favorite toys. It just goes to show how you never know what kids will treasure!


Engaging play facilitates powerful learning. What toys spark this for your kids? 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Third Teacher At Home #TeacherMom

I’ve often mentioned the importance of creating a rich environment to help invite learning (rather than relying on more contrived programs and flashcards that put learning on the adult’s timetable all the time). But like everything else, this has been a bit of a journey for me.

Weird fact about me: I have subscribed to the magazine Better Homes & Gardens since I was 13 years old. (A major influence on my continued loyalty was when they replaced a copy that my very helpful then-2-year-old had “put in the bathroom.” ie, watery toilet grave. I still hope that email with my pitiful story and request for a new copy is pinned to some break-room somewhere).

So while I’m nothing even close to an expert on interior design, by the time kids came along, I had some difficulty consolidating my notions of home decorating with kid-friendly-play.

So for today, I thought I’d share today a little of what that learning environment currently looks like in our home. Some of the learning environment elements include…

Sensory Play

At first, I restricted access to all sensory play (like the box of beans below and play dough) so that they would need to ask each time they wanted to play, because who wants to spend days constantly cleaning this up?? But then I learned how wearisome this can be for all parties involved, which ultimately inhibits play.

I ended up replacing the box with one on wheels, storing it under a daybed where the kids can slide it out to play as desired; play dough storage became similarly accessible. As for picking up stray beans, it turns out the dog really likes them, so that helps with the mess factor. But most importantly, sensory play has become a more readily-available choice in our home.

…Book access

I mingle the toys with the books, and try to provide a cozy spot nearby (like the sheepskin rug pictured below) so that reading is always a convenient option. I’m also always shifting the way our books are organized and displayed (more on that in last week’s post).

when I saw this print by a local artist, I knew it needed to be framed near our books.

Open-ended play

I try to provide “toys” that have open-ended possibilities. Our loose parts toys (photo below) are one of my favorite ways to watch my kids’ imaginations fly, but another factor has been simply arranging toys together. Safari LTD animals near a school bus near wooden trays.

…occasionally setting up invitations to play

Leaving shelves open so that we can find new ways to invite play on their level has been helpful here. This little “dining area” has been set up for a while so my kids have largely forgotten about it by now, but it’s often the first thing visiting kids notice when they come over to play.

Design for togetherness

This has been perhaps the most influential element of creating a rich learning environment at home. I used to think that I needed to keep toys and books corralled in a corner so that the grown-ups could enjoy grown-up space. Now I know that when I integrate play into the design, I can cultivate more comfortable spaces in which everyone feels they belong, which in turn invites more shared play.

For us, this looks like no separate play room, plenty of seating for everyone use the space, and shared bookcases arranged so everyone has what they need on their level. But of course, the possibilities are endless and should be based on your family’s needs.

What about you? What are ways you provide that “third teacher” at home?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto