Toys That Teach - The North County Moms

I call them TWAPs!

For kids, summer break means fun, sun and doing what you want. It also means NO SCHOOL! School is a summertime afterthought. Many parents dread a “summer slide,” and I’m not talking about the kind at the local pool! 


Some parents may discover that stocking the kids’ playroom full of toys with a purpose (something I call TWAPs) may ease the parental conscience. Some of the best toys around double as teaching tools that keep the brain engaged – perfect for those inquisitive minds that need to be challenged during summer break.


When school wraps up, parents face a shift in their day-to-day schedules and thinking. Suddenly thoughts revolve around how to structure their children’s days. The summer weeks that lie ahead seem endless. A big vacation may be on the horizon, but how will kids fill the days leading up to (and after) the big getaway or weeks away at camp?

Parents may ask themselves:

  • What are toys with a purpose?
  • Aren’t toys meant to entertain and provide an escape from reality?
  • How can toys both educate and amuse?


What are toys with a purpose?

Toys with a purpose (TWAPs) are those that engage more than one sense at a time. These often teach without the child realizing they’re learning. 

Manipulative toys that inspire critical thinking are examples of TWAPs. Toy researchers note they include simple, old-fashioned toys that carry a time-tested history to delight. They have been our little ones’ favs through the years. Here are a few that come to mind: 

    • Puzzles
      • Improve problem-solving skills, memory and concentration
      • Reinforce knowledge of colors, shapes, patterns and sizes
    • Building blocks
      • Help with hand-eye coordination, spatial relationships and fine motor skills
      • Aid problem solving skills
      • Teach colors, shapes, patterns and sizes
      • Can stimulate learning about balance and gravity
    • Simple musical instruments
      • Encourage creativity, self-expression and experimentation with sound
      • Stimulate rhythmic appreciation 
    • Cooking toys 
      • Promote following directions
      • Introduce basic math concepts 
        • Measuring ingredients
        • Understanding fractions

    Critical thinking skills are important for all children to develop. TWAPs let kids recreate their environment. They can be beneficial playthings for children heading toward kindergarten in the fall. These skills will help them immensely as they begin their educational journey and throughout their lives. Check out this informative video about the TIMPANI Toy Study led by ECSU’s Center for Early Childhood Education.

Aren’t toys meant to entertain and provide an escape from reality?

Most people would say yes, but not all toys have to be flashy and light up to be entertaining. Simple, old-fashioned toys often provide the most enjoyment because they inspire imaginative play and can spark creative interaction with siblings and friends. Sometimes it’s the simple act of playing with a toy that is entertaining, not the features of the toy itself.

How can toys both educate and amuse?

The best toys are those that can do both – educate and amuse. The key is to find TWAPs that your child enjoys and that also have some educational value. They inspire the best in sensory play. There are numerous toys on the market that fit the bill. Begin by reading this article; then do some research. You’re sure to find a wide selection suitable for your child.

Let’s explore a few categories and samples of TWAPs that any well-stocked playroom, family room or bedroom should have.


Kitchen set with utensils: Play-kitchen sets lay a foundation for robust imaginary play. They are perfect for little ones who love to help out in the kitchen. These sets typically include a play stove, oven, sink, and all the necessary utensils. Ages: 18 months – four years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Play-food set: Play-food sets activate the imagination. The items in these sets include staples, like fruits, vegetables, meat and grains. Some of the best are made of solid wood. They’re durable and have a life span beyond your kids’ formative years! The sets are great objects for kids to learn about healthy eating habits. Ages: two years – five years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Pizza or cake-maker set: Toy pizza makers and cake bakers, let kids “make” their own pretend pizzas, breads and cakes. They are great ways to introduce math skills that teach them about following directions and measuring ingredients. Ages: three years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Science & Nature

Microscope & magnifying glass: These standard lab tools help kids learn about the world around them. They provide an up-close examination of an objects’ structure, while encouraging scientific exploration and discovery. Ages: Six years and up. Difficulty level: Moderate.


Insect net & magnifying glass: These nature tools let kids study and learn about the insects in their backyard. Difficulty level: Easy


Telescope: This optical instrument allows kids to explore the night sky, inspiring curiosity about the stars and planets. Ages: Eight years and up. Difficulty level: Moderate.


Volcano science kit: These bundles let kids build their own volcanoes and provide anticipation and excitement as they watch them erupt. It’s a great way to teach them about plate tectonics, magma and volcanic activity. Most kits include safe, non-toxic materials and instructions. Ages: six years – 12 years. Difficulty level: Moderate.


Rock tumbler kit: These kits come with everything kids need to polish rocks into shiny gems. Some kits teach the rock cycle, geologic time and the properties of different rocks and minerals. Ages: eight years – 12 years. Difficulty level: Moderate.


Potted flower, fruit & vegetable seed kits: Besides getting their hands dirty, a pot, soil and seeds teach kids about plant life cycles and gardening while enabling them to watch the growth of plants, flowers and crops over time. Ages four and up. Difficulty level: Easy


Number blocks, abacus & other counting toys: These blocks and early-math toy tools reinforce number knowledge and counting. Parents also use them to teach basic addition and subtraction. Ages: 18 months  and up. Difficulty level: Easy.


Number puzzles & sorters: Kids practice counting skills and doing simple equations with these fundamental-math  toys. Many come with an array of colorful pieces that reinforce color grouping and identification. Ages: Four years and up. Difficulty level: Easy.


Shape sorter: Basic mathematical investigation begins with tried and true sorters. Young children begin to learn to identify and sort basic shapes.They also help with hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Ages: 18 months – three years. Difficulty level: Easy.

Language Arts

Alphabet puzzle: These puzzles help kids learn the letters of the alphabet. They also assist in achieving hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Ages: 18 months – three years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Word builder: Kids can begin learning to spell simple words with these toys. They often include a storage case and 48 double-sided tiles with two letters on each. Ages: three years and up. Difficulty level: Easy.   


Magnetic letters & numbers: Letter and number magnets are perfect for little ones just learning to read and write. They can be used on white boards, refrigerators or any other magnetic surfaces. Ages: Three years and up. Difficulty level: Easy.



Art easel: A double-sided easel is essential for budding artists. Many include a dry erase board, chalkboard, paper-roll holder and storage bins. This is a great way for kids to explore their creative side. They can use it to paint, draw or make other art projects.  Ages: Three years and up. Difficulty level: Easy.


Art supplies: Every playroom should have a container full of crayons, markers, colored pencils and a stack of paper to draw, color or make other art projects. These supplies give kids immediate access to tools that let them explore creative self-expression. Ages: three years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Paint set: Paint sets that include non-toxic paint, brushes and a smock provide kids with the tools and supplies to get started with creating colorful art pieces whether on paper, canvas or even a rock! Ages: three years – five years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Molding clay: Molding or sculpting clay is great for kids to manipulate their imagination. They can use it to make sculptures, animals or other objects. Toy clay is non-toxic and is reusable. It can provide malleable entertainment and creativity for years! Ages: three years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Puppets & theater: Puppets and theater props are excellent dramatic play toys! They’re a great way to encourage imagination and storytelling while enhancing language development and social skills. The theater includes a stage and curtains. Kids can put on shows through imaginary play. Puppet choices abound – from superheroes to animals, vegetables to vehicles. Selections include hand puppets, finger puppets, and Marionettes. Ages: two years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Dress-up trunk: Wardrobe collections include a variety of clothes and accessories for kids’ dress up. Trying on a variety of clothing encourages the imagination, awareness of character types and highlights creative self-expression. Shopping trips to resale shops to purchase recycled clothing to add to the collection enhances the value of this activity. Ages: three years – eight years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Magic set: Magic kits include everything kids need to perform magic tricks. Kids learn about science, math and public speaking as they act out tricks and narrate what they’re doing and what will happen next. Magic sets reinforce time-related themes, like the past, present and future. Ages: six years – 12 years. Difficulty level: Moderate.



Instrument set: Musical instrument sets often include tambourines, xylophones, cymbals, maracas, rhythm sticks and other percussion instruments. They’re perfect for little ones who love to make noise.  Musical instruments promote rhythm, coordination and fine motor skills. Ages: 18 months – three years. Difficulty level: Easy.

Piano mat: These music mats are fun for kids to get familiar with melody and promote an appreciation of rhythm. They can stomp on the keys to create different sounds and melodies. The mats also encourage physical activity. Ages: three years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.

Music box: Battery-operated or rechargeable, music boxes offer kids the ability to choose from popular childhood-favorite tunes. Recognition of songs – lyrics and melodies – can enhance school preparedness, the acquisition of language and reading readiness, according to Dr. Ibrahim Baltagi, who holds a PhD in music education. Check out this video. In it, Dr. Baltagi discusses the importance of music – prenatally and in a young child’s development. Difficulty level: zero to 36 months.



Dance & Movement

Hula hoop: Hula hoops are perfect for the active kid. They were made for movement and fun! Kids can twirl the hoop around the waist or try to keep it going around their arms or legs. Hula hoops teach kids about rhythm, coordination and balance. Ages: three years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.


Jump rope: Jump ropes are another active-fun toy that encourages balance development through hopping, skipping or jumping. Kids innately practice rhythm and coordination with each hop, skip or jump. Ages: three years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.

Dance Mat: Dance mats benefit rhythm and coordination. Similar to piano mats, kids can stomp on mat areas to create different sounds and melodies. Dance mats are also the perfect gear to encourage musical appreciation and physical activity connected to movement. Ages: three years – six years. Difficulty level: Easy.



The wrap up

There’s an abundance of toys on the market that help your child learn while having fun! There are also varying levels of activity inherent in the “play component” of toy categories – some requiring more action than others — so you’re sure to find just the right toy, or two, that suits your child’s desired level of movement or participation. (Don’t forget that some toys require batteries, so it’s wise to keep a stash on hand.) 

Remember, the next time you’re stumped on ways to make summer fun more meaningful, think TWAPs – “toys with a purpose!” These toys will keep your child’s mind active and engaged while providing hours of enjoyment. And, who knows, they might just learn something along the way!

Parents may find that their children’s interests change from year to year and that’s perfectly normal! It’s important to mix things up and keep the toy collection fresh so kids don’t get bored. 

Happy toy shopping! And happy summer!

Toys that Teach

Written by Maria Felicia Kelley
The North County Moms

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