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The Best Developmental Toy For Kids Isn’t What You Think

According to Alexandra Lange, the author of "The Design of Childhood," parents of young kids should trade in those coding toys for a set of simple building blocks.

Shopping for toys can be overwhelming. There are STEM sets and Surprise toys, coding tools and crafting kits, interactive pets and Augmented Reality apps. It’s hard to know what toys be fun for your kids, let alone what might actually help them develop worthwhile skills. What are some must haves? What should be avoided? For those answers we turned to Alexandra Lange. The author of The Design of Childhood: How The Material World Shapes Independent Kids, Lange is an architecture critic for Curb, 2014 Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Art and Design, and an all-around design expert in play as well as what toys help build better kids. We spoke to her about the state of the toy industry, what parents should be sure to add to their kids’ collection, and why nothing beats a good old set of building blocks. 

Why is it important for parents to be thoughtful about the toys they buy their kids?

The first way that children learn is through their hands and through manipulating objects. That’s why the first play sets that most kids get are building blocks. Educators and parents have understood from the end of the 18th century through today that there are a number of cognitive connections that can be made through manipulating blocks. The psychologist, Piaget, talks about ‘object permanence,’ which is a stage of cognitive development where kids understand that if you put a block underneath a piece of fabric, the object is still there, even though they can’t see it.

Building blocks also teach a number of other skills, too. 

There are larger concepts like gravity, which kids learn by stacking things up, and size, like physically comparing two blocks and seeing that one is bigger than the other. Kids can figure out stability: put the bigger block on the bottom, and the smaller block on top. Going forward, as kids get older, kids learn to share blocks with other kids. Blocks are the first thing a kid can grasp and they become an entry to Lego sets and the larger building blocks, like the Imagination Playground blocks. They are a lifetime toy.

What do you think about play sets which constrain kids to a certain end goal? For instance, the Lego Millennium Falcon set compared to those which are more like building blocks, which is play with no specific end result?

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Lego is an interesting case. You can still build in an open way with Lego. They sell those Lego studio bricks, which is a box full of white bricks that come with no instructions. In The Design of Childhood, I actually write about how unconstrained Lego play has become the province of artists rather than children. A contemporary artist, Olafur Eliasson, has a piece called “The Collectivity Project,” where he sets up bins and bins of white legos and basically invites everyone to play with them. It was a really beautiful thing. But it also made me a little sad.

Why sad?

Lego is not packaged in that open-ended way now. It tends to be packaged as branded sets and single use sets. Parents and children have to overcome that sense of constraint. However, I do think that a lot of children end up building freely. I have to say that I struggled with it as a kid; I’m a bit of a completist. My son is the same way. We love to build the sets. I think it’s a positive thing. It’s about following directions, building the set, and accomplishing a task over time. That is a really different form of play than open-ended play, though.

What are your thoughts about STEM and coding toys that are so in-demand right now? 

I don’t really think they’re necessary. I especially don’t really think they’re necessary for three-year-olds. They exist — there’s a whole set of toys that basically look like little wooden blocks and they’re intended to teach your kids to code. That is not what three-year-olds need to focus on. Three-year-olds need to think about building, space, gravity, and the basics of life. They do not need to think about coding yet.

Why not?

It’s not going to set them up to be billionaires. It’s just not. The idea that I think that is embedded in these toys, that I hate, is that playing with blocks isn’t good enough anymore. Playing with blocks is always going to be good enough. We’re not going to leave the physical world behind. Children, more than anyone else, need to experience the physical world to grow their minds and bodies.

Are you saying that you disagree with coding toys in general?

It’s perfectly fine for older kids to learn how to code. My son goes to public school, and in third or fourth grade they were introduced to Scratch and Scratch Jr. Those are free online programs developed by the MIT Idealab, and those are, in fact, block-based early coding programs that are on screen. You snap together Lego-like pieces to build command sequences to do simple animation. That’s free. Kids can do it at a pretty young age. It doesn’t require all of this parental investment and it doesn’t necessarily require a physical toy.

So for you, coding toys are fine as long as it’s not toddlers who are playing with them.

Some of the older connected toys, like the Lego Mindstorm, have an online component and are part of the larger Lego universe. Those are great. Kids can code so they can move a Lego spider around the room. That’s part of a larger system aimed at older children. Those are kids that have already had a chance to play with building blocks, have already played with Lego, and now they are adding coding to a system they already understand. I think that makes more sense developmentally, because it builds on systems they know.

In your opinion, what should always be “must-have” toys for kids?

I love basic building blocks, the unit blocks, which were invented by this amazing educator, Caroline Kratt, in 1913. Those are the classic blocks and a great thing to have.

I also really love Magnatiles. They say they’re only for three-and-up, but really, the magnet is very safely encased in plastic, so I don’t think they’re that big of a swallowing hazard, which is generally why there are certain restrictions on a lot of magnetic toys. Those are either opaque or translucent colored plastic tiles with magnets around the edge. You can build big structures really quickly. My kids have played with those for about 10 years. They’re a little bit expensive, but they’re a great investment.

I also love Zoob. You can build animal structures and textile structures. They click together with ball and socket joints. They were created by this great artist, Michael Joaquin Grey, and are in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art. But they’re also a really inexpensive and readily available toy.

What are some toys you don’t like? 

I already mentioned toys that teach your kids how to code when they’re three-years-old and they often cost $70. Those are pretty dumb.

There are also a lot of block sets where they try to “add” something to the basic building block. It’s a marketing ploy. Blocks that teach your kid the alphabet or colors can be confusing for the child. It’s important, with blocks, to allow kids to focus on one quality of the block: just the shape or just the color. But once they start layering on colors and numbers and the alphabet, it’s actually not helpful, cognitively, because the child doesn’t know what to focus on.

With Montessori toys, they are very careful to only introduce one new concept at a time with each new toy. Or all the consonants will be one color and all the vowels will be another color. If the toy hasn’t been designed thoughtfully, and there’s no system as to why its colorful, it can actually be detrimental and a bad toy, because the child tries to make a system out of what they see.

What do you think of the “surprise” toys out right now, where the whole gambit is you don’t know what you’re going to get until you get it?

My seven year old loves them. I feel like we already have a fair amount of experience with surprise toys: both Lego and Playmobil make these surprise baggies with a mini-figure in them, and people have been giving those out at birthday parties that my kids have gone to for several years. They’re pretty fun but tend to have a bit of a gender problem. They are very gender-distinct. I wish that the makers of those figures would think harder about how to make all of the figures, equally heroic or equally scary across gender.

Play is essential for kids. But what about adults? After your research, how important is it for adults to let loose their inner child?

I’ve always done a lot of crafting. I feel like having children actually brought me back to crafts, because as a busy adult you don’t always prioritize that. But we all need to do things with our hands. That’s one of the things that our very digital society separates us from.

You can get the same satisfaction building a tower of blocks as you do cooking a meal or sewing. That’s the niche that the coloring book craze was also tapping into. People just wanted to be able to feel okay taking a moment and thinking about colors and structure. When you’re a kid, your options are managed by your parents. But as an adult, you can do the crafting you want to do. Do you want it to be with yarn? Do you want it to be with food? Do you want to just color?