The best 'sneaky' educational toys

Expert shares her list of fun toys that also teach

BERKLEY, Mich. – At the Doll Hospital and Toy Soldier Shop in Berkley, the options are seemingly endless.  So we brought in an expert.   

Local 4 asked Dr. Stefani Hines, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Beaumont Children's Hospital, to shop the shelves with education in mind.   But we had one request.  We were looking for "sneaky" educational toys -- toys that were so fun, kids wouldn't even know they were learning. 

For babies age 6 to 12 months -- Hines loves stacking toys, like the Stacker by Green Toys.  

Stacking and nesting toys are perfect for practicing basic eye-hand coordination and motor movements.

"They're exploring with their hands, they're figuring out how things fit together," said Hines.

For children age 18 to 24 months -- Hines suggested building toys with more shapes, more pieces and more options.    She was drawn to the HABA Fit Together Wooden Building Blocks.

"A little bit more color to them, and there's more to kind of do here too in terms of taking apart and manipulating and putting back together," said Hines.

For toddlers and preschoolers -- Hines said a train table is right on track for practicing eye-hand coordination and playing with others.

But a word of warning to parents -- resist the urge to secure the tracks to the table.

"Our tendency as adults is to nail them down or to glue them down," said Hines.  "Part of the play here is the creativity.  It's the taking apart and putting back together again."

For early elementary kids, it's all about building.  From Magna-Tiles to marble runs, children are learning the basics of physics while they're having fun.

"It can be taken apart, it can be put back together again.  Working on visual spatial skills, eye-hand coordination and also creativity," said Hines.

Hines also loves Lincoln Logs, but to increase the problem-solving potential, she suggests Keva Planks.

"These are just solid wooden planks.  There's no grooves set into them, so it takes a little bit more in terms of being creative," explained Hines.

She's also a big fan of Kaleido Gears.

"Our future architects and engineers might benefit from this," said Hines.  "How do I get these things to fit together?  If I make this move can I ultimately make that one move?"

While the box says for "Age 3 and up," this toy isn't just for preschoolers.

"I would love to play with it," said Hines.

For late elementary school to middle schoolers, LEGO building sets offer big benefits.

"You have to follow visual instructions.  It's not written instructions, but visual instructions.  And a different sort of skill to have," said Hines.

For teens -- there are much more sophisticated LEGO Architecture sets.

"These are architectural icons, and they're much more complicated to put together, but again you have to follow some visual instructions to do it," said Hines.

These sets teach patience and problem solving.

"You can't learn that from flashcards," said Hines.  "They don't even know they're learning.  They're just learning."

Hines is also a fan of games.  For younger kids -- she likes the classic Candy Land.

"It's not a game of skill.  Mom and dad can play this with four-year-old Tommy.   You don't have to be smarter or better.  It's a game of luck," said Hines.  "What kids are learning there is how to take turns, how to play in a group, and also they're learning how to be a good sport.   So 'Daddy won this time, but let's see who can win the next time.'"
For a little older kids, Hines suggests a pattern recognition game called SET.   It's a favorite in her family.

"We spent the whole Christmas evening playing this game, so it's a really fun game, and I find a lot of kids like it."

Another family favorite?

"This is on oldie but a goodie.  I still like Simon," said Hines.  "It actually works on your auditory memory, your hearing memory, and your visual memory, what you see."

Finally, don't overlook the value of pretend play.

"Dolls may not look like they have educational value, but they do.  Doll babies are a way of promoting children to learn how to provide nurturance and love."

To promote math skills, consider a toy cash register and play money.

"We're learning how to count, we're learning how to do addition and subtraction," said Hines.  "'If I give you a dollar, and it's 50 cents, how much do you owe me?'"

Doctor or veterinarian kits, chef sets, or dress-up clothes can also help fan the flames of imagination.

"Again it doesn't look at all educational.  Children are learning imitation," said Hines.  "They're watching people either in their home or out in the community, and they're picking that up and they're carrying that out at home."

Overall, Hines' picks were heavy on building eye-hand coordination, visual spatial skills, pretending, problem-solving and patience.

"If I can't get this to work, how can I go about figuring it out to make it work?  How do I get this piece to fit together?  I'm missing a piece, what can I do instead?  How do I work with someone else to create something?" said Hines.  "Toys can have educational value without looking educational.  These are just fun."