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Tuesdays With Jane: What makes a good toy?

My now-adult daughter and I have recently had lots of fun conversations regarding our house rules—especially as she babysat children whose parents had different rules. For example, “Mom, thanks for not buying me everything I wanted. I learned a lot saving for that expensive doll, didn’t I?” Or, “Golly, that town playset really used our imagination—no wonder we played with it for so many years.” And, “We sure wore out that refrigerator box in the basement—it was so much better than a toy house or pirate ship because we could pretend it was anything!”

Believe it or not, you can have more influence over your children’s wants than commercials do if you involve them in defining what makes a good toy. While manufacturers advertise cuteness and technological “wow” factors, those criteria don’t necessarily equal play value.

Consider how Family Fun Magazine ( rates toys: quality, value, and enjoyment by children who test the toys. Mensa Mind games ( chooses five top new games a year based on originality, play repeatability (i.e., games like past winners Apples to Apples and Set that players return to time and again), aesthetics, and clarity of directions (a plus for any parent!).

Choose a few key criteria for your family’s definition of a good toy and then grab opportunities to instill these in your child’s mind—during commercials for “hot” toys, when they mention a friend’s new toy, or when they play with an enduring toy at Grandma’s. Here’s what worked for our family. Note that these weren’t hard and fast rules, but conversation tools for good decision-making.

Green toys. What breaks easily? What ends up in landfills? How many batteries might it wear out over time (even rechargeable ones)? Is it made of renewable resources? Plastics and electronics are inevitable, but we wanted our children to choose wisely.

Enduring toys. Even as we selected items for birthday party treat bags, our children learned to ask, “Will anyone want this a week after the party?” (With August birthdays at our house, treat “bags” were actually new school folders with pencils, etc.) We reflected on toys they’d tired of quickly and tried to help them understand what makes for longevity.

Engaging toys. Children should engage with, not just watch, toys! Sports equipment, lots of games such as Slamwich, Amazing Labyrinth, and Forbidden Island, art supplies, and building sets were high on everyone’s lists at our house. Beware of the current waves of toys that are supposed to build brain power—researcher after researcher says that they are nowhere near as effective as free play or toys that spark creativity.

Your criteria may be far different, but in having these conversations you’ll be helping your child learn to discern—another activity guaranteed to foster brain development!

By Jane Kise, Ed.D. – Educational Advisor and Consultant
Jane  writes an insightful post every Tuesday for Kidtelligent. Jane is an educational consultant, specializing in teambuilding, coaching, and school staff development. She is also the coauthor of more than 20 books. Jane’s website  is