It’s always a challenge to choose the best toys for children because you want to buy them something they will enjoy and learn from. Thankfully, today there are toy selections available that meet both of those requirements. I did some research online to find out what the benefits of choosing an educational toy was, and spoke with a few UCSB educators to learn which toys offered the most value to your child. 

Some benefits of these "smart" toys include:

• Innovative and creative thinking: When playing with educational toys and games, children can develop perception, intuition, and reasoning as they partake in a creative activity.

• Cognitive skills: Educational toys can help children connect to their thought processes and further develop their capabilities to think freely. Common toys that help boost cognitive skills include puzzles and number games.

• Motor skills: With the right educational toys and games, children develop their motor skills in conjunction with their cognitive skills.

• Soft skills: By giving children a well-guided play experience, children develop what are considered softer skills such as appropriate social interaction (dictated by social values, principles, and sentiments), language skills, and emotional development (i.e. handling certain situations, such as losing a game, helps them learn to accept challenges, to overcome them, and to gain mental strength).

Most importantly, educational toys should encourage kids to play. Play increases the size of the prefrontal cortex, meaning that the brain is more efficient at making plans, solving problems, and regulating and identifying emotions — basically all things required for a successful life.

Play is so important, in fact, that it's recognized by the United Nations as a human right for children. The importance of play for children wasn't thoroughly researched or even really considered until the second half of the 20th century but we can sum up the research that has resulted thus far with the famous proverb, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

The current buzz word is STEM (stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) toys. The benefits any STEM toy provides depends on the subject matter it is intended to teach, but in general, STEM toys go a bit further than regular educational toys to enhance divergent thinking, enhance innovative thinking, help children develop hand-eye coordination, and better promote spatial skills.

However, just because these toys are STEM-focused doesn't mean they're not creative, artistic, or educational in other ways, so don't get hung up on the labels. As long as the kids have fun and are learning while they play, that's all that matters.

According to Business Insider, a consumer newsletter, the following STEM toys are a “best pick” for children six and older:

• Best educational toy overall: Magna-Tiles Clear Colors 100 Piece Set

• Best for learning about electricity: Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 Electronics Discovery Kit

• Best for learning about science: Scientific Explorer Mind Blowing Science Kit

• Best educational toy robot: Wonder Workshop Dash Robot

• Best app-based educational toy: Osmo Genius Kit

For toddlers, a consumer organization called The Spruce recommends the following 10 toys:

• Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Solid-Wood Building Blocks With Wooden Storage Tray (60 pcs)

• VTech Touch and Learn Activity Desk Deluxe

• Fisher-Price Learn With Me Zebra Walker

• LeapFrog Scribble and Write

• Mega Bloks 80-Piece Big Building Bag

• Fisher-Price Baby's First Blocks

• Teach My Toddler Learning Kit

• VTech Busy Learners Activity Cube

• Fisher-Price Bright Beats Smart Touch Play Space

• VTech Little Apps Tablet

Judith Dale built her career in education; continues to serve the SYV community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board; the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation board; and as the former mayor of Buellton.

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