Boring Educational Toys

Here’s a note from a reader who used to design educational toys. But first, let me say that when I went to the Toy Fair here in NYC a few years ago, I was amazed at the way EVERY SINGLE TOY had come up with a way to describe itself as educational. If it was colorful, it was “stimulating the visual cortex.” If it was heavy it “demonstrated gravity.” If it existed at all and you could touch it, it aided in “hand-eye coordination.”

And of course, all those things are true. But they are equally true for things that are NOT toys. We are so eager to give our kids a leg up that we are played like violins by marketers who know that “educational” = $$$.

Give our kids some credit: They will learn if they are curious, and they are curious when they are truly learning. – L.


Fun = learning. No fun = a lot less learning.

Fun = learning. Less fun = less learning.


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40 Responses to Boring Educational Toys

  1. Gina October 3, 2016 at 12:03 pm #


    I buy ONLY open-ended toys.

    Life is education enough. Play teaches.

  2. Naomi October 3, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    I have a 14 year old and figured she’d learn to type for a long time, but I found that not to be true. (She went to a practically antitech school 2nd through 8th). She’d hunt and peck painfully slowly. I broke down and made her type daily … Using a free online program not different from the mavis beacon I learned from … before 9th grade, knowing that in her new school it would be expected but not taught. (I found that they do learn to text on their own.)

  3. david zaitzeff October 3, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    Thanks for posting this! I would never have imagined such thinking!

  4. Reziac October 3, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    The problem with “educational games” is that they don’t teach the nominal topic; they teach how to make the game spit up the “win” condition. Some studies have found (no surprise to me) that the more computerized the classroom, the less educated the kids. Consider that this applies all the way down. Being good at making a program reach its goal is not the same as putting that information into your head and understanding it. If it were, we wouldn’t have so many undereducated kids who live on their smartphones.

  5. John B. October 3, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    I’m not sure about the typing thing Lenore. Back in 1972 when I was in HS, I was enrolled in a typing class and got up to 72 words a minute w/o a mistake on an IBM typewriter! Considering typing on a keyboard is such a prominent thing in the workplace today and not to mention on the blogosphere, the thoughts just flow off my fingers so in hindsight, I feel it was one of the more useful classes I took back then. I don’t think I could have learned to type that fast and easy on my own.

  6. Powers October 3, 2016 at 12:55 pm #

    It’s worth noting that it’s probably not the case that the company thought fun games couldn’t be educational. It’s that they thought no parent would buy an educational game that was too much fun. Whether that’s true or not is up for debate, but the company presumably had research that found that to be the case.

  7. Dot October 3, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

    I think there is a big difference between learning to type via hunt & peck so that you can do things online, vs an actual typing class that teaches you proper hand position for speed. My excellent typing skills, while honed from years of actual working with a keyboard, would not be near what they are without the typing (yeah, I’m dating myself, it was on an IBS Selectric) class I had in 9th grade that my dad (a college professor) forced me to take. So yes to keyboarding classes and/or training for kids !

  8. Troutwaxer October 3, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

    Agreed on keyboarding classes. If I can find the home row. I can type in the dark.

  9. Workshop October 3, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

    Many adults think “fun” means “not learning anything.” Probably because “fun” in their world consists of watching television to see who got voted off the island, or going to an overpriced restaurant so someone can overcook their salmon, maybe observing a professional sports team play against another professional sports team.

  10. HW October 3, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    I’m going to third or fourth the comments below saying that typing classes are necessary (which I realize was not the point of this post). Kids will learn to text, but they will try to use the same technique in front of a real keyboard (one finger on each hand). Which they may think is plenty quick enough, but of course you can’t type at thinking speed unless you actually use all your fingers. I see a lot of college kids painfully spending hours hunt-pecking out essays. Most kids really do need targeted instruction to learn to type.

  11. elizabeth October 3, 2016 at 2:13 pm #

    i used to type super slow, even after the computer classes in school. I didn’t get better at typing until I started writing. so, to those who say typing classes are best, they don’t always work. I was always the “make me do it before im ready and ill take even longer to learn it than I should” type of kid. I didn’t learn to swim until I stupidly jumped in the deep end when I was ten. I didn’t learn to French braid until I just up and did it one day. i mostly play piano (self taught) and guitar (mostly self taught). all my needlework skills and hair design skills, i learned by doing.

  12. Kirsten October 3, 2016 at 2:23 pm #

    I am curious what the “actual fun airline simulator” was? I’d love to get it for my nephew.

    I also hated educational toys as a child, and received a ton of them because the family thought of themselves as intellectuals.

  13. James Pollock October 3, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    On the subject of typing tutor software– I wrote my first one around 1981. I took typing in high school, by which I mean typing, because the class was taught on typewriters and years later, when I worked in vocational education, the college offered up to 6 terms of keyboarding, depending on which program the student chose, and that was in addition to a class specifically on Word.

    On the topic of “educational toys” being no fun, may I direct you towards Lego Mindstorms and FIRST Lego League competition? FLL teams build robots that compete to complete mission objectives (the missions change every year) The goal, of course, is to get kids interested in STEM careers.

  14. James Pollock October 3, 2016 at 2:47 pm #

    “If I can find the home row. I can type in the dark.”
    Many, if not most keyboards have physical indicators for the home row. For example, the keyboard I’m typing on right now has little raised bumps on the “F” and “J” keys

  15. Aimee October 3, 2016 at 3:13 pm #

    Oh yeah, the Selectric!!! I took typing as an “adult ed” class…. when I was in 9th grade. As others here have noted, one of the most useful classes I ever took!

  16. lollipoplover October 3, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

    The best toys focus on what the child can do, rather than what the toys can do.
    If it talks or needs batteries, we don’t need it. Best toys for my kids were blocks of all different sizes and shapes and letting them combine different toy sets (blocks, tinker toys, balls) to actually have free play. I used to be anal about putting toys away with their own *kind* but gave up when I saw they liked combining different elements for fun. And don’t underestimate a good blanket fort…hours of enjoyment in there!

  17. BL October 3, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

    I was one of those kids who could have more fun with a large box than the toy that came in it.

    A box could be anything you wanted it to be.

  18. M. October 3, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

    I have a friend who is a kindergarten teacher. The principal at her school is really strict that everything be geared toward academics, so she has to be able to justify anything even remotely fun as being “academic” in some way. It’s ridiculous, I don’t understand how people who work with children could be so clueless ABOUT CHILDREN.

  19. C. S. P. Schofield October 3, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

    I got given a lot of “creative playthings” (the old company, not the slide set people), and some of them were quite good. Their wood blocks were harder wood, amd more interesting shapes, then the standard. They also made the first “build your own marble slide” toy that I know of.

    That said, there is something educational about just about any toy. For instance “Mouse Trap” taught me quite quickly how boring a toy could be that looked quite exciting on television.

  20. lollipoplover October 3, 2016 at 4:00 pm #


    We got a new washing machine last month and I asked if they could leave the box after they delivered it (I was optimistic that the 10 year-old was still interested in boxes). Soon the box was in the driveway and more kids showed up and started carving and cutting away for an hour. My daughter ran in the house, looking for our cats. Yes, they made a motel for cats, with different levels and play features and even had cat portraits. The cats were in heaven. We finally trashed that thing last week when one of them peed in it. Cats are jerks.

  21. Workshop October 3, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

    Grognard rant warning . . . .

    I learned to type on a manual typewriter. Capital P was the definition of evil, and a wonderous experience my children will not get to repeat.

  22. Suze October 3, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

    Oh brother. This whole subject yanks my chain. You know what this reminds me of? Ms. Trunchable; the horrible, vile principal in the movie ‘Matilda’. Her motto was … “If you’re having fun, you’re not learning.”


  23. Jim Collins October 3, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    When I was young, my most prized possessions were an Erector set, Tinker toys and about 100 ft. of Hot Wheels track with several bends. I built bridges and ramps that had cars whizzing about the house. Is it any wonder that I went to school for Mechanical Engineering?

  24. Anna October 3, 2016 at 4:47 pm #

    Totally agree with the many who have pointed out that millennials (and subsequent generations) actually can NOT type, despite spending all their time on computers. I learned old-school in a one-semester high-school typing class, on machines with no correcting function, and I learned to type over 50 words per minutes without errors, and no need to have my eyes open. My younger siblings and nieces and nephews can only hunt and peck, never seem to acquire much sense of where to expect to find a given key, and they don’t notice when they make mistakes.

  25. Elin Hagberg October 3, 2016 at 4:47 pm #

    Even “junk” toys can be used in stimulating play. Just don’t let the kids watch the movie before they get the toy and let them figure out what to play with it first. My daughter has My Little Ponies going on boat trips with Pippi Longstocking and all their dog friends and Barbies driving plastic tractors. She improvised a craft from scrap paper lying around making herself a butterfly that she insisted could fly for real and with no props other than her two month old baby brother she played “child swan that can fly and baby swan that can only swim”. Baby brother was doing tummy time on the floor and she was running around flapping her arms and lying on the floor next to him “swimming”.

    I like educational toys like legos and I love reading to my kids but I think it is just fine with Elsa dolls, My Little Pony and Spiderman figures too. As I said above, try to keep the children from the movie until they have made up their own mind about the toy, then they will almost always play with it in more ways than one.

  26. elizabeth October 3, 2016 at 7:11 pm #

    One popular game when i was a kid was chicken. Two or more kids would swing and one “chicken” would stand at the edge and run under the swings to the other side. This requires (ironically) nearly college level mathematics (calculate the height of the arch of a pendulum’s swing to determine speed). I didnt need newton balls to know that if i ran at the wrong time, i would get knocked onto my @$$. Educational toys are a farce.

  27. JimK October 3, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

    I hate to take the opposing view on typing, especially as I think it’s a great skill to have, and ‘touch typing’, which I can do, even more so, but shortly it will completely unnecessary. There are any number of Voice-to Text programs out there and there are any number of Apps which do the same thing. Typing is a dying, and will soon be an ancient art which only Grandmothers and Grandfathers do. Sort of like Shorthand is (sorry Mom).

  28. Beth October 3, 2016 at 7:26 pm #

    @Workshop, what’s with the judging of people who like to go to restaurants, or watch sports? Parents are allowed to have a wide variety of interests, and I’m not convinced that those interests necessarily affect what kind of toys they purchase for their kids, or whether or not they want their kids to have fun.

  29. Anna October 3, 2016 at 7:38 pm #

    “I hate to take the opposing view on typing, especially as I think it’s a great skill to have, and ‘touch typing’, which I can do, even more so, but shortly it will completely unnecessary. ”

    Oh yeah? Kind of like how a few years ago we were positive nobody would ever need to know how to spell, form a grammatically correct sentence, or write or print legibly by hand, so schools stopped teaching those skills? Or like how any minute now computers are going to mean no more trees wasted on memos and junk mail? (Still holding my breath on those, but I’m sure you’re right about typing. . .)

  30. Havva October 3, 2016 at 8:02 pm #

    My mom was big on pushing me to learn typing skills. I had some computer game typing lessons in elementary that didn’t stick at all. Some old fashion typewriter based lessons in summer middle school. That got the proper hand position in my mind. After that I had an exercise book at home. I didn’t care for typing exercises, and couldn’t touch type. What finally did it for me, was being injured early freshman year of college. I started emailing all my high-school friends and one of them after a brief back and forth advised me to download instant messenger. Then I had to really learn to type to keep up! Without anyone around to tell me not to look at my fingers, I just put my fingers in the proper place and looked when I needed to. Pretty soon I was touch typing.

  31. Chris G. October 3, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

    Workshop – I’m with you. When I took typing in the late 1960s, we had manual typewriters. And there were NO letters printed on the keys! Oh the horrors. Lol.

  32. Rachel October 3, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    Lollipoplover-maybe next time the kids will plan better and put in a bathroom 🙂 Also, cats are jerks!

  33. Art October 3, 2016 at 8:28 pm #


    Two words

    Cubicle Farm

    Touch typing IS an important life skill. It can be severely hindering not knowing how to touch type with things such as Data Entry, information that needs to be entered securely into a computer. There’s reports of employers having issues with Millennials who can only hunt and peck because speed of the essence.

  34. Emily October 3, 2016 at 9:05 pm #

    I actually learned to type when I was about ten, with “fun typing games” at school. Since all the programs on the school computers were educational, the most “fun” things there were to play, were math games where you raced cars or horses, “choose your own adventure” type games where you had to live “a day in the life” of a fictitious teenager, Cross Country Canada, and, of course, typing games, where you had to make an animated character do chin-ups, block hockey shots, and so on, and so forth. I didn’t like math, Cross Country Canada was useless without the manual, and the “day in the life” game only had so many outcomes (and I played them all), so I played typing games, and learned to type.

  35. Mya Greene October 4, 2016 at 4:14 am #

    Perhaps a fun app is better at teaching typing. Does it really need a whole semester? I learned to type in less than a week using an online program ( which I forgot the name of because I used it over a decade ago ). I also learned typing before texting. I think I would have pulled my hair out and grieved over all of the wasted time if I spent a whole semester on typing.

  36. Liesbet Coppens October 4, 2016 at 9:33 am #

    As a beginning freelance translator, I noticed that typing blind would benefit my business enormously. I typed rather quickly with 4 or 5 fingers, but I could never reach the same speeds as a blind typer. So I bought some silly typing game that made me watch cartoons as I typed, and in which the character would end up dead if you lost and would live if you won. I always wanted to see how he ended up dead, of course, ’cause FUNNY! But the second time I wanted him to win, so I always did my best. I could type in about 20-30 hours practice. Crazy how fast that went.

  37. sexhysteria October 5, 2016 at 5:36 am #

    In my experience parents are the greatest believers in the idea that education must not be fun. If any activity is enjoyable, then it can’t be educational. They can’t imagine that forcing kids to do boring things destroys the child’s natural desire to learn.

  38. Katie G October 5, 2016 at 6:22 am #

    And vice versa, that something meant to be educational can’t be enjoyed. My father has since changed his tune, but how well I remember one instance! My cousins- homeschooled- and my own family were at Valley Forge together, and they picked up the “Junior Ranger” booklet at my aunt’s suggestion. They were about 6, 9, and 12 at the time. My father grumbled and frowned all day about how my aunt “couldn’t just let them have fun- everything has to be a lesson!” Pennsylvania’s homeschool laws aside (most people there record *everything*), my cousins had fun doing the activities!

    Fast-forward 15 years to the homeschooling lives of my own children….my dad thinks more like my aunt now.

  39. Mark October 5, 2016 at 7:57 pm #

    The boring “educational” games can be quite fun (and educational) if you break them properly. For example, my elementary school had a computer game that was supposed to teach something curriculum-related — I forget what — but the important thing for me was that it could produce sounds under the user’s control. More importantly, if you did the right things, it would interrupt itself. Most importantly for a fourth-grader, if you did the right things with exactly the right timing, the game would produce fluent obscenities.

    Forget math or logical reasoning or whatever — tricking a computer into swearing out loud is fun and educational.

  40. Teresa October 9, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

    When my older son was a baby I went to a home sale of children’s educational toys. I forget which company it was but it was quite popular at the time, 15 years ago. The presenter got quite a sour look on her face when I started asking whether the toys I was considering were actually fun/entertaining for the babies. Apparently the only thing that mattered was how educational they were. I bought one toy to try, partly to help out the friend who was hosting it; my son played with it a handful of times and then got bored.