The Best Toys for Learning

With so many toys being marketed as "educational" these days, how's a mom to tell which ones will really help her child learn -- and be fun enough to hold a three-year-old's attention for more than five minutes?

The best educational toys, according to child-development experts, are those that encourage the development of specific skills, as opposed to toys that present facts or simply claim to "improve learning." "Enhances cognitive development sounds technical, but is really too general to be useful," writes psychologist Susan Hardwicke, in the October 2003 issue of Toy Directory Monthly. Hardwicke, whose work focuses on educational testing, continues, "The truth is that all experiences develop the brain. The key to cognitive educational toys is to develop a number of different skills that are ultimately used in complex ways later in life."

Okay, so back to the pressing question: Which toys do that? The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent consumer review organization that evaluates children's products, publishes a yearly list of toys tested by a national panel of grownups and kids in the hopes of answering this very question. "We often think of educational toys as those that are related to school skills, but the educational value of toys and play is much broader than right and wrong answers or simply knowing the ABCs or 123s," says Joanne Oppenheim, child development specialist and cofounder of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio. "A rich variety of play gives children opportunities to learn and develop their physical, social, creative and intellectual skills. For example, through 'pretend,' children develop language and imagination

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