Brainy Toys - helping or hindering?

It's that time of year again.

Time to start shopping for little Billy or little Annie. I've noticed a certain trend over the past few years. More toy companies are implying and marketing that they are selling "brainy" toys. With good reason - many parents these days are interested in supporting their child's growing brains. Toy companies know this and are taking full advantage.

Some of these companies specifically target this growing trend of fostering "smart" children and their branding include the buzz words, "mind," "brainy," "learning," and "brain" in them. Mindware and Fat Brain are two that come quickly to mind - but there are many more toy companies that revolve around the whole notion of the brain and learning. One of their logos even says, "Brainy toys for kids of all ages."

Don't get me wrong - some of the toys these companies sell are good - I have even bought some of their toys for my own children in the past....hence why I get these catalogs in the first place. However, a growing amount of the toys they sell actually do the opposite of what they are insinuating - they take creativity and problem-solving right out of the equation.  

At first glance, it may be hard to tell which toys are great and which are not so great. This blog post is designed to help you better analyze which toys promote development and which ones don't. Lets take a closer look at a few toy items for sale by a "brainy" toy company.


Toys that pose as brainy:


Initially, some of these toys may seem exciting or even a good idea to get your children for Christmas. While they may work on some skills - I wouldn't rate these toys too high on the "developing young minds" scale. On the fun factor scale, children will most likely enjoy these toys for a brief period of time (unless they are obsessed with forensics or spa time - which is kind of creepy) before being tossed into the pile of heaping toys your child often ignores. Why are these less likely to become favorites in the eyes of a young child?

1. They are not open-ended. All three of these toys are not open-ended. If you want to buy something for your child that you know they are going to use on a frequent basis, always ask yourself, "Is this toy open-ended?" In other words, can they use this toy for multiple purposes. If they can't, it is probably not going to be used very often.

Many parents often complain their kids don't even play with their toys anymore. They feel they need to constantly rotate their toys to stimulate renewed interest in them. There are two major reasons why this happens. One, is that they possibly have TOO MANY TOYS! According to the book, Simplicity Parenting, written by a leading psychologist in the field of parenting, Kim Payne explains that we should only have about 10 to 15 toys out at one time. More than this number overwhelms them and they consequently stop playing.

The second major reason, is whether or not the toy has great open-ended ability. Many toys today come as "creativity kits," such as the spa kit or forensic science kits above. The idea has already been thought of for the child. "Lets do a spa day" or "lets search for forensic evidence" - these kits say to the child. This takes away from the child's need to initiate or simply think of an activity on their own.

The child also doesn't need to think of what he/she needs to do in order to run a forensic test or  have a spa day, which is half of the fun during play. For instance, maybe they wanted to search for what they think should be at a crime tape, a fingerprint identifier, a flashlight, walkie talkies, etc...they might have come up with ideas that weren't even listed in the kit - but since the kit was presented to them, the thinking has already been done for them. This takes away the need to problem-solve. 

The take-a-part plane is also not open-ended. There are basically two functions to this toy: taking it apart and putting it back together again. A better investment, and one that uses more creativity, is to get children an actual tool-kit. They can use this to build, design, and create things on their own. If you are thinking they are too young for that, then maybe you just let them play with nuts and bolts and start learning how to hammer a nail into a board. I especially don't like how this toy uses an electric tool, claiming to work on "fine motor skills" simply pushing a button for the drill to do the work. Let them have a screwdriver - a real screwdriver to screw and unscrew nails with.

2. They are inappropriate for elementary-aged children. This is stating the obvious - but the whole idea of having children ages 6 to 9 have a spa day or doing crime-scene analysis seems a little weird to me. There is no hurry for the teen years or even the pre-teen years....yet, why do we provide activities that promote these behaviors? My two girls don't even know what the word, "spa" means. They do their fingernails and put on their lip gloss from time to time, but I never see them playing this for hours on end. Nor do I want them focusing on beauty for hours on end.

Setting up crime scenes, analyzing hair follicles, and setting up tape to look for criminals seems odd. I know that we have a lot of shows about finding criminals, but I'm not convinced this is something young minds should be thinking about or concerning themselves with at such a young age. I can't picture myself saying to my two innocent daughters, "So who is the criminal going to be today? Oh a murderer! How fun! Better get out that tape to keep the on-lookers out." Like I said, just odd. 

3. They entertain, not challenge the mind.

One of these companies has this phrase in their mission statement, "learning toys that engage and entertain." Entertain....shouldn't children be able to entertain themselves? We shouldn't be focused on providing toys that engage and entertain. When we do this, we are taking away the need to initiate ideas, use creativity, use imagination, and problem-solve. We are creating a group of children that will be great game-players and craft makers - but not game-designers and entrepreneurs. Many of the leading organizations are looking to hire creative and innovative thinkers, not just rule-followers.

I've heard recently that 85% of our the work-force in the future will be entrepreneurs. Are we fostering entrepreneurs by basically telling children what they are going to play and how they are going to play it? I'd like to argue that we aren't.


The REAL brainy toys:

And now for the toys that inspire creativity, problem-solving, and imagination. Notice they are very simple, but are open-ended and promote hours of play. These are kid-tested. I've gotten my kids the "creativity kits" in the past - only for them to grow bored with them after a brief period of play. Below are the toys my kids choose over and over again and have used in countless ways!

Scarves - these are used in a multitude of different ways by my children. They use them for fort-making, costume design, blankets, ropes, etc. They are my children's favorite and used almost everyday!


Walkie Talkies - these work great and my children use them a lot! It often becomes part of spy games or secret missions and is a prop to create imaginative play.


Figurines - my girls love figurines and often play with them for hours - wrapped up in their own imaginative world of knights, fairies, dragons, and more. They can be used outside in the sand pit, etc... I often get mine from Schleich, since they are high-quality.


Some other beloved favorites:

pastels, paper, glue, and scissors

different sized boxes

duck tape or scotch tape

pedal bikes

sticks (outside)


wooden planks

tool kit

basic dolls and doll clothing

stuffed animals


toy cars



A few board games (Checkers, UNO, deck of cards)

* That's it folks! Those are basically all that my girls play with and really need to provide hours of fun - all driven by their own minds.


Instead of picking toys to entertain your kids - choose toys

that allow children to entertain themselves!


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16-Jan-2014 10:23 AM Legginsy

Enjoyed studying this, very good stuff, thanks .

11-Oct-2014 10:28 PM Tosha

Thank you for sharing! This really helps me as I am trying to decide what to get my kids for Christmas and am focusing on open ended toys. You suggestions are perfect without being too strict.




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