In nature, baby animals of all species demonstrate playful behaviours. Wolf cubs wrestle and tackle their siblings as a sort of dry run that teaches them to protect themselves, their food, and their family members. Adolescent monkeys cavort and throw fruit at each other as they develop the social bonds that will cement the clan together for years to come. In these and countless other instances, play serves a vital purpose in the development of young animals, teaching and reinforcing social skills and giving them the opportunity to perfect the techniques that will enable them to survive on their own. In many respects, human children are no different. Because play is a vital part of their development and fills a key role in their future success as adults, it is important that we help them to select educational toys that will facilitate this process. In our over-mechanized, fast-paced world, the need for toys that truly encourage growth and development cannot be overstated.
Educational or interactive toys enable kids to become integral participants in play. Instead of doing all the work for them as many currently available options do, these learning toys may furnish a structure, but allow children plenty of room to use their boundless imaginations and creativity. Contrast, for instance, a video game that takes a player through a scientific process with an actual chemistry kit that allows a budding scientist to perform genuine experiments of his or her own. Without a doubt, more learning will occur in the case of the latter, with its hands-on, trial and error approach.
Recent attention has also been focused on the upsurge of childhood obesity brought on not only by unhealthy diets, but also because of the increased emphasis on activities in which kids only participate passively. Exercising their fingers on game consoles certainly does not lead to physical fitness. Consumer-savvy companies, sensing the trend toward interactive options that encourage more active participation, are now coming up with ingenious choices that marry the glamour of electronics with good old-fashioned motion. One prominent toy company, for instance, offers an exercise bike for pre-schoolers which connects to the television. When the child pedals, he or she can play games which are then shown on the screen. Stop pedalling and the game is over--certainly a motivator that will keep junior pedalling long after he might otherwise have stopped. Makers of children's DVD's have also jumped on the bandwagon by producing interactive offerings. No longer does an aspiring dancer need to be content with merely watching the performers on a DVD. These days, he or she can learn techniques step by step, taught by the experts themselves. It might not be a replacement for private lessons, but no one could call this passive play.
Educational and interactive toys have a hidden benefit as well: they foster what might be called immersion parenting. In other words, care-givers can elect to become part of the fun themselves, not just bystanders looking in on games or activities. Whether families use interactive toys to practice a ballet move or to concoct a chemical compound, these educational choices enable families to truly play and learn together. As adults, it's all too easy for us to assume we know everything or that we have seen it all. There is nothing like immersion in the games of children to show even the most jaded and cynical grown-up that life is still filled with untapped resources and limitless exploration.
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