Turnertoys - the toys we grew up with    
Essays & Reports: Toys Safety, Health, Psychology  
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Two Short Essays on Play and the
Value of Teaching Craftsmanship

1. What Makes a Toy "Educational"?

    Almost everyone selling toys these days tries to tell us that their toys are educational.   Children, playing and experimenting freely, inventing their own rules and structure as they go along or using no rules at all, will acquire and maintain new motor, cognitive, and creative skills when they engage in genuine play.
    An explicitly didactic toy is boring.  A toy with a predetermined set of goals, with a "right answer", is not a toy at all.  Play with such a "toy" is not play, but work. Children cannot learn much from a toy they are not motivated to play with.  On the other hand, one of the most important things a child ever learns, either through structured, didactic learning experiences or by doing real-world tasks, is that the successful attainment of a predetermined goal is supremely satisfying, and that part of the satisfaction comes from the knowledge that he or she may fail to attain the goal in any particular instance. There are play products for children that do a very good job of guiding this process.  
      An automated toy holds attention for a while, but pretty soon, after it has done its thing, a child gets bored with it and moves on.  A toy really teaches if it requires thought and effort from a child, and rewards new efforts with new kinds of results. There is a place for real, structured learning even in the life of an infant.  But such behavior is never play and shouldn't be confused with play.  

      Read more about the behavioral science of play at The Nature of Play  

2. The Teaching Value of Craftsmanship

    A child with any aptitude for learning craft skills, and who has a quiet place to work, a few necesssary tools and materials, and a little sympathetic, patient coaching when needed, is a fortunate child indeed. 
A successful and emotionally healthy adult has acquired a few critical skills:
1. to prepare for a task by gathering necessary information before starting, and controlling the impulsive desire to jump in head first.
2. to follow directions. This often means acknowledging the expertise of others, and realizing that he or she needs instructional help with a task, even if it seems easy and obvious at a casual glance. 
3. to tolerate frustration.  A difficult, new, lengthy, complex project will always go wrong in small ways. A mature individual sees these obstacles as temporary, as problems to be solved, and as natural, normal, and expected; not as tragedies or failures.
4. to know when to shift focus away from a compelling task.  Inherent in any significant undertaking is the necessity of letting it go temporarily, whether to rest and regain a fresh enthusiasm for a difficult problem or just to let the glue dry. Avoiding a compulsive pounding at a project that is, for the moment, resisting progress, is a valuable emotional skill.
5. to finish a project completely.  It seems to happen so often, that the attention to detail demonstrated at the start of a project is abandoned near the end, after the novelty of the task has worn off and is replaced by a desire to move on to something else.

    Real craft skills, those that are not casually or easily learned, can provide a child with instruction in all of these, and offers one thing more: pride in a true accomplishment.  A child who has built a real stick and tissue model airplane, one that really flies and flies well, will feel pride not only in ownership and use of the new toy, but also pride in the ownership of a new, larger self. These are lasting experiences, the basis of genuine self esteem.   
    Toys that build these skills, as we suggest in the first of the two esssays on this page, are not really toys.  They do not offer a play experience in the pure sense, but rather a task with a clearly defined outcome.  Our balsa model-building kits are an ideal example of such a product. The desired outcome is clear and obvious, and although the finished airplanes lend themselves to real play when they are successfully finished and can fly, even here, the difference between good and bad outcomes is pretty clear. What makes these kits suitable for children is the carefully graded levels of difficulty built into the series, starting from quick (dry) assembly and easy flying, to complex glue-up using a variety of materials, and following plans with precision.
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