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The Science of Smart: Want To Make Toys Really Educational? Just Add Conversation

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Attention educators. This season, we’re thrilled to feature the work of Annie Murphy Paul, a writer who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Her Brilliant Blog features the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, revealing the simple and surprising techniques that can help us learn to be smarter. In this week’s column, she weighs in on the educational possibilities of toys during the holiday season.

With electronic toys from Leap Pads to Wii U consoles topping many a holiday gift list, one way many parents justify the purchases, particularly with younger children, is to focus on their educational possibilities, writes KJ Dell’Antonia on the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog. But these possibilities may be illusory, she notes:

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“A report from the New America Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, ‘Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators,’ suggests that parents should be wary of those claims. In examining the iTunes App Store, the researchers found that more than 80 percent of the top-selling paid apps in the Education category targeted children, with 72 percent targeting preschoolers.

But parents surveying those apps, or the educational titles available for every gaming console, will find little to guide them toward which (if any) offer much beyond the most basic skill-building blocks. Very few literacy-focused games and apps even attempt to target more advanced skills like comprehension, grammar and story-telling—meaning that for older children, their utility may be limited.

Parents hoping to take advantage of a particular platform’s educational benefits should look for games that make age-appropriate demands of player—and can’t be circumvented. Open-ended questions are rare, for obvious technological reasons, but they are out there. Some math games allow for a written answer rather than offering multiple choice. Other games could prompt children to take photographs in the real world, draw their chosen tools to solve a problem, or record a story as they draw.

‘These are great opportunities for helping children make connections between the learning in the game and the learning they are doing in the physical world,’ said Lisa Guernsey, a director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and one of the authors of the report.

‘If parents are going to justify a game purchase as a way to augment children’s learning, they need to make sure not to cede their responsibility to actually talk with their kids about what they are playing with,’ she added, via e-mail. ‘Children have all sorts of thoughts, questions and confusions about what they are doing on iPads and other devices, and these are key moments for kids and their parents to come together. Those conversations have the potential to be even greater learning opportunities than the apps themselves.’” (Read more here .)

I like Lisa Guernsey’s point that it’s the conversations that parents and kids have around these tools that are the real source of their “educational possibilities.”

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.