A Curriculum of Toys

Making Trouble Volume 25
Saul Griffith: Making Trouble

Every pundit cries that education is broken, the standards of standard-based education are mixed up. I agree completely! All we really need are good toys. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a curriculum of life skills and the toys that would support it (and not only because I have a 2-year-old).

What are the fundamental things kids should know to help them understand and enjoy the complex physical world we live in, to modify or repair it in the future, to succeed as adults? How do we enable kids to be masters of their destiny? Can we do it with nothing but good toys and experiences? Could a curriculum of engaging toys be so powerful that the role of schools is reduced to something manageable, like merely socialization?

The best toys and games can be foundational lessons in life, teaching how stuff works, how stories are told, how strategies play out. Here’s my list of core life skills I think can be taught by toys. It’s a work in progress. I’d love to hear your ideas.

1. Drawing. Being able to draw sufficiently well to communicate your ideas is critical, especially for future makers. You don’t have to be Rembrandt, just learn proportion, perspective, and how to represent 3D objects on the 2D page. Chalk and a sidewalk, pencil and paper, an Etch-a-sketch if you must.

2. Sculpting. Understanding three dimensions and producing 3D forms. Play-Doh, Fimo or Sculpey, clay, sandboxes and beaches, food, aluminum foil, paper and origami.

3. Knots. It frustrates me that so many people know so few knots. Rope can help you do almost anything. String or rope, kites, sewing, knitting, crochet, sailing, rock climbing.

4. Joining Things. Gluing, nailing, soldering, welding, tying, lacing, riveting, taping, stitching, screwing. Most of these are cheap to learn — give them an old log, a hammer, and a bag of nails, and let them bang nails until that log looks like a rusty hedgehog. Nearly any craft project or model kit.

5. Shaping Things. Cutting, sawing, chiseling, whittling, sanding, grinding, drilling. Give kids real tools, not plastic versions, at any age. Woodworking and metalworking toys, most craft projects, origami, a penknife, scissors.

6. Forces. Gravity, levers (moments), projectile motion, friction, pulleys, mechanical advantage, gearing and gearboxes, torque. Mobiles, trebuchets, magnets, juggling, throwing and ball sports, board sports, sailing, seesaws, slides, Lego, and bicycles!

7. Fluids, Hydraulics, and Pneumatics. The power of pressure and displacement. Water pistols and super-soakers, water balloons, boats and rafts, blow darts, bathtubs, rivers, beaches, lakes, dams, skimming stones, bicycle pumps.

8. Electronics. Voltage, resistance, current, and blinky lights. Battery-powered toys (hack them), 9-volt batteries (lick them), LED throwies, introductory electronics kits.

9. Structures. Trusses, compression, tension, architecture, how things stand up. Blocks, cardboard forts, Lego, sticks and stones, sandbox play, Erector sets, Lincoln logs, treehouses.

10. Energy. Conservation and momentum, transformation (one type to another), generation, storage, consumption. Marbles, batteries, rubber band-powered airplanes, bicycles, dirt bikes, cars, slot cars, train sets, swings, skateboards, kites.

11. Math. Counting, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, geometry — just about any toy has a math lesson in it. Beads, marbles, dice, poker chips, money, Sudoku, card games.

12. Laughter. Life has to be fun, and toys should help us laugh. Soap bubbles, Slinky, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, whoopee cushions.

13. Natural Philosophy. Inquiry into the ways of the natural world, including geology and biology. Magnifying glasses, magnets, telescopes, microscopes, buckets, nets, specimen boxes.

14. Properties of Materials. Every toy has a materials science lesson waiting to be explained. Cooking, Play-Doh, chemistry sets, any toy made of wood, plastic, glass, ceramics, metal.

15. Magic and Illusion. I love magic, because it challenges you to search for the illusion — an opportunity to learn about reason and the scientific method. Magic sets, physical puzzles, brain teasers.

16. Your Body. Exercise and nutrition, dance, sport, climbing, swimming, hiking, gymnastics, and all the wonderful things the human body can do. Go outdoors and to the park!

17. Storytelling. We survive socially by telling each other stories. Encourage children to tell stories and release their imagination through whatever toy they have in their hands. Dolls, stuffed animals, wooden trains, Lego, Play-Doh, it doesn’t matter.

18. Logic. Building a complex Lego model or knitting a hand puppet are both exercises in basic instructional logic: do this, then that; if this happens, do that. Any construction toy, any craft project presented in sequence.

I doubt our school system will be reformed soon, so I think the burden falls on parents, guardians, and friends of children. We can teach them the skills of life, and toys are the medium. Let’s share the lessons and experiences embodied in the best toys, with each other and with our kids. But subtly. Kids can smell didactic like a giant adult skunk. Make it fun, don’t make it stink.

This column first appeared in MAKE Volume 28 (October 2011), page 27.

Saul Griffith is chief troublemaker at

From the Pages of MAKE

MAKE 28MAKE Volume 28: Toys and Games!
MAKE Volume 28 hits makers’ passion for play head-on with a 28-page special section devoted to Toys and Games, including a toy “pop-pop” steamboat made from a mint tin, an R/C helicopter eye-in-the-sky, and a classic video game console. You’ll also build a gravity-powered catapult, a plush toy that interacts with objects around it, and a machine that blows giant soap bubbles. Play time is a hallmark of more intelligent species — so go have some fun!

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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