Can you teach kids to be innovative? You can certainly try, but you won’t get very far if you don’t foster creativity first.
Believe me, with all the open-ended creative toys in our house, you’d think an afternoon with my kids would look like a day of blocks, marbles and paintbrushes, but I still have my share of “Mom, iPad code please.” Even though I bring my kids some of the world’s best toys and games, I will be the first to admit that sometimes encouraging creativity in children is really hard work. You really have to walk the walk, and that means getting down on the floor and actually playing with them. Many of us don’t feel we have enough time for that, but I truly believe it is worth the investment.
Another thing worth our investment is the kind of toys we buy. It’s not easy to spot a gem that fits your family. If you are in need of ideas, here’s a list of top 10 favorite toys that honor the creative process, categorized into four helpful hints that boost learning through play:
Hint 1: Creativity Starts at Home
Creativity doesn’t have to look like it was plucked from the sky. Rather, it is in our everyday comforts of home where we are most inspired to create. Think of how many of the world’s most innovative companies were started in garages.
1. Roominate Deluxe- ($ 39.99) Roominate makes building, lighting, and mechanizing things so easy that a child’s mind can experiment with her structure with much more fluidity. The toy’s design naturally invites other materials giving Roominate even more play value. Don’t be surprised if you see her adding in things from her toybox instead her wanting you to buy more sets to keep the play going. That is a sure sign that the creative process is at full speed. Moreover, while this toy was especially created to encourage girls to explore STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects, Roominate easily crosses over into boys’ play as my son realized that designing homes can be rigorously challenging. Just ask Vanilla Ice.
2. Young Architect – ($ 79.95) There are some children who are such perfectionists that they do not want to create anything at all. In the workplace- perfectionists can either be viewed as “detail-oriented” and “diligent” but they may also be seen as someone who never takes risks. We don’t ever want that but how do we get these kids to think outside the box? I have just the thing! Chances are that even the most critical hairsplitters will have a great time playing with Young Architects. Everything is made of precut blocks and stencils that can be mixed and matched easily, so there is less worry about precision and structural integrity. This is the kind of scaffolding that young inventors need sometimes to let their imaginations soar.
Hint 2: There Are No Wrong Answers
Developmental psychologist Dr. Jennie Ito of The Play Kitchen, thinks toys that inspire creativity are definitely worth the investment. “They’re teaching children to be creative thinkers, to be flexible thinkers and to be problem-solvers because there isn’t one right answer.” Ito says such toys lets them feel emotionally secure to explore. “It doesn’t always have to work out and that’s okay,” Ito says. Kids can fear failure just as much as adults can.
3. Zometool Creator 1 – ($ 65) If the Goddess of Math had to choose one toy to be her representative, there is no question that Zometool would be plucked for the job. It’s like a calculator. You just can’t go wrong. Once you start putting things together and making connections you will come to know the law of Zometool: if it works, it works perfectly. If it doesn’t, then you’ll just know. Play can be delightfully intuitive this way. Creative thinking can be too. You want your own child to be familiar with the movements of his own compass. The best toys do that – naturally.
4. Disruptus- ($ 24.99) I just had to include this game in this list of toys because Disruptus is no ordinary game. It is sure to blow you away whether you are at a company retreat or a family vacation. Disruptus is an innovative-thinking exercise practiced by firing off ideas based on images of objects and a directive determined by the roll of the die . My son’s favorite play is when the die lands on “Create 2″ in which he must doodle or talk about creating something using objects he finds on two cards drawn from the deck. Once after rolling “Create 2,” with just an image of multiple balconies and a slanted dumpster lid, he came up with a idea of a rainwater collection system. That was an unforgettable moment for both of us.
Hint 3: Befriend Technology
Do you ever fear that kids will get too used to everything being delivered with minimal effort or thought because of technology? I used to be this way. After a lot of parental soul-searching (and tech toy testing), I’ve decided that to raise innovative thinkers, I must become one myself. Thus, this year, I bought my first soldering iron and tried my best to embrace toys that simplified technology but still challenged kids. It’s not that easy to find but these three are winners.
5. MaKey MaKey – ($ 49.95) This unusual kit has a very constructivist approach to learning which is what makes it so fun. The kids set the level of difficulty each time they play. Basically you plug it in and it allows you to make anything that can conduct electricity become a key on your keyboard – even a banana. Kids can use the MaKey Makey to make almost anything they want including using paint to compose music and even creating their own games. We managed to make our own version of the game Operation by just using some LEGO bricks, some playdough, and our computer. The result was not only fun, it left a whopping supply of self-confidence.
6. Sphero – ($ 129.99) What could be more fun than a ball? How about a robotic one? Veteran toy industry expert Richard Gottlieb had lots to say about technology and play, pointing to how kids’ tablets came out just two years after the iPad was introduced to the world. Gottlieb called Sphero an excellent use of technology and said, “It’s taking one of the oldest play platforms we have, which is a ball and uses technology to expand the ball experience.” Sphero continues to expand children’s worlds by introducing educational lessons that include mathematics and programming via their newly launched education initiative: SPRK (Schools -Parents -Robots -Kids).
7. Thames & Kosmos Remote Control Machines – ($ 84.95) One of the reasons why kids lose interest in their remote control toys is because there is a lack of what they can actually control. This unique set allows you to control up to three motors that do what your child chooses to but all with just one controller. Of course, the tricky but fun part is your child will have to build this contraption herself. The good news is that the set comes with excellent visual instructions in which techniques can be learned just by making model after model (crane, robotic arm, folding car). Their very sturdy parts provide children with the most fluid experience building and creating their own robotic anythings.
Hint 4: It’s Okay to Talk About It!
Do we really ever talk about creativity aside from acknowledging that it’s good? Sometimes I feel awkward talking about it as if I have no right to judge what is or isn’t creative. However, the reality is that everyone values creativity therefore it is judged in one way or another. If that is the case, we should talk about how important it is to us and how much of our kids’ creativity and flexible thinking skills are being challenged at home and at school.
Last year, Creativity for Kids launched a “Creativity Comeback” and gave away over 50,000 free creativity cans to kids at neighborhood toy stores. They will continue to distribute them this year. Schools and other non-profits can also apply to receive free cans. Check www.creativitycan.com for more details.
8. The Big Creativity Can – ($ 19.99) The magic comes not from the contents of the can, although they are delightful. Instead, the incentive to create comes from the actual can itself. The very presence of the can in your home says that you value creativity. What your child does with the can is up to her. To add to the challenge (and hopefully the fun), you can open the can as a family and make things together. Collaboration and cooperation won’t be optional. Don’t be surprised if you see unusual acts kindness and courtesy taking place. Moreover, you can give yourself a present by getting a new can every few months and allowing your child to show you just how much she’s grown since you last opened a can. Last year my child made a cute monster pet and a home for it. This year he blew me away after he opened a fresh can to make a foam sculpture that he balanced using a single metal bell.
9. LEGO Mixels ($ 4.99 each) Do not be surprised if you see families waiting outside the LEGO store around the middle of this month. That is when the 2nd series of LEGO Mixels will be available for sale (at LEGO stores first, June 1 for all other stores). Mixels are so incredibly interesting. Unlike many LEGO sets, these LEGO products were made to be mixed. One of my testers said of her two sons (ages 4 and 8), “They build according to the directions but as soon as they are done they like to modify and make it ‘better.’” Her children also love the Mixel terminology where some odd mixing can make a MURP – “a weird mixed-up Mixel with a totally unique personality that cannot be controlled.” To me, MURPs humorously demonstrate that creativity is something to be respected. It’s not just random mixing. You still have to make sense especially to the most hard-to-please customers: children.
Kaleidograph comes in several styles, Color (Crystal and Flora) or Black and White pictured (Contrast and OpArt)
10. Kaleidograph – ($ 14.99) What do you do with restless kindergarteners on a school bus? I speak the truth when I tell you that Kaleidograph made that day unbelievably joyful. These simple die-cut cards of different colors and shapes make kids go crazy trying to show their creations. I just sat there laughing as children practically fell over each other attempting to get my attention. It almost felt like I was holding a bouquet of chuckling flowers. Thus it is no wonder that Kaleidograph is said to be created in the tradition of the “Gifts” of Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the original Kindergarten (translated in German: garden of children). You can try it online first but be warned, you might end up staying up all night seeking that perfect combination.
Note: Every product has been personally tested by Toys Are Tools’ kid testers. Products were submitted to facilitate a review. Reviews are never promised.
More best toy tips from Jenn at Toys Are Tools.
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