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Ask an Expert: Jennie Ito, Ph.D., The Play Kitchen

Tiggly caught up with Jennie Ito who has a doctorate in developmental psychology and is the founder of The Play Kitchen, through which she advises toy companies on making top-quality learning toys. Today, we ask her what parents should look out for (both good and bad!) in the toy aisle.

Tiggly: You have a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and are a highly rated consultant to companies that make toys for children. What are the top 3 things you look for in toys for kids in the preschool set?

Jennie Ito: The first thing I look for in a toy is that it encourages open-ended play. Open-ended play is a type of play that has no expectations, no specific outcome or problem to solve, and no rules or scripts to follow. Instead, it is the children themselves that determine what to do and how to do it. Because toys that encourage open-ended play can be used in a variety of ways and have the potential to be different each time you play with them, they give children the opportunity to use their imagination and bring in their own ideas.

The second thing I look for is lasting play value. Toys with lasting play value can be played with in different ways, and can be used with other toys. A good example is blocks. Children can mix and match blocks with different blocks sets, use them to build tunnels and bridges for their toy trains and cars, and use them in their play kitchen. Toys with lasting play value also appeal to children at more than one age or level of development (keeping in mind the importance of toy safety). For example, a younger child may explore a set of nesting cups by placing the cups inside one another while an older child may use the same cups to build a tower or incorporate them into pretend play.

Toys are meant to be platforms for play rather than direct children’s play, so a third thing I look for when choosing a toy is that it is “child-powered.” In other words, toys that are driven by a child’s own imagination. A good rule of thumb is that a toy should be 10% toy and 90% child. I prefer “child-powered” toys because, unlike other toys that simply entertain children, they encourage children to create their own ideas. This provides children with wonderful opportunities to engage in creative play.

Tiggly: What are some encouraging signs that a child is really intellectually engaged with a toy?

JI: It is not always obvious whether children are truly intellectually engaged with a toy when observing them at play. I look at what happens after children are done playing with a toy. A good sign that children are intellectually engaged is that the excitement and learning continues long after the toy is put away. Children begin to transfer the knowledge they have gained from playing with the toy into their everyday experiences.

For example, after playing with Tiggly’s apps, children might begin to point out or match the Tiggly shapes and colors to objects in their environment. One of the reasons I am so excited about Tiggly is that they provide children with a tangible object to help them make meaningful connections between what they learn on the iPad and how it relates to the real world.

Tiggly: Are there any red flags that parents should look out for in the toy aisle?

JI: The biggest red flag to watch out for in the toy aisle are toys that promise to make your baby smarter.

When I had my son, I couldn’t wait to start shopping for toys that would spark his imagination and encourage his creativity. Instead, all I found were shelves of toys promising to boost his I.Q. I knew from my training in developmental psychology that the majority of these claims were untrue, and I could see that there was a real gap between child-development research and the information that was reaching parents.

After talking to other parents about my experience, I learned that many parents believed that the claims of these so-called “smart toys” were true. I realized that I needed to find a way to share play research with parents because that is where the research could have the most practical impact. This experience motivated me to change my career path from academia to focusing on parent outreach.

Tiggly: In your experience, which toys are the best investments? Are there any that children you’ve worked with return to day after day, year after year?

JI: Toys that can be used differently each time a child plays with them have the most play value. Some great examples are blocks, dress-up clothes, play food, animal figures, and dolls. If a toy only does one thing (no matter how fun that one thing is!), children will become bored of the toy over time as the novelty wears off. In the same way, children tend to quickly outgrow licensed toys as they move on to the latest craze.

Tiggly: What do you like best about Tiggly’s toys and apps?

JI: Digital toys are great at engaging children and providing them with feedback, but they are usually missing some important aspects of play that help children learn, such as the manipulation of real objects and interacting with other people. What Tiggly has done by taking a classic toy and combining it with creative and interactive apps is not only unique, it allows children to capitalize on the best parts of both digital and physical play.

The other thing that sets Tiggly apart from other digital toys is that your toys and apps incorporate the top three things I look for in a toy—encourages open-ended play, has lasting play value, and is “child-powered.” These three qualities are rare in digital toys, and is the reason why I am so excited about Tiggly.

For more about Jennie, check out The Play Kitchen.



Team Tiggly