A Curriculum of Toys

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 otherlab.com.

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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76 thoughts on “A Curriculum of Toys

  1. Anonymous says:

    As an older guy, and as a new teacher, there is a lot to like in this. Make them think. Get them engaged.  Be patient. Encourage, with hold judgement. The people who pay for education (roughly, the parents) and the proxies (the politicians) need assurance that they are getting value for money, ie, the kids are learning; and so they test. They test the kids, the schools, the school districts and so on. It follows that there is a curriculum, or standards, that we can measure against. So far so good. Where I think it gets hard is how it is paced. “What to know” is not hard. “When you know”, that is how long does it take to learn, is harder. Public education is hard pressed to provide pacing matched to a student. If we expect everyone to pass the test, then the faster kids will have to wait while we bring the slower students up to standard at the pre-ordained time. Given the technologies available to us, I think student based pacing is feasible, at least in sciences and without much change in staffing. And you are right, conventional classroom teaching can be stultifying.

  2. Bill Cecil says:

    you’re talking about Technology and Engineering Education! Used to be known in a former life as Industrial Arts Education (aka “Shop”).
    We still teach it. Hands-on and heads-on.
    Get a skill… get a job… get a life!
    Bill Cecil
    high school Technology Education instructor

  3. Bill Cecil says:

    you’re talking about Technology and Engineering Education… used to be Industrial Arts (aka “Shop”). We still teach it!
    Our message: Get a skill… get a job… get a life!
    Bill Cecil
    high school Technology Education instructor

    1. mothernatures daughter says:

      Your rude @ Bill you should get some manners.

      1. Daniel Macintyre says:

        I just have two points:

        1.  “You’re rude” – not “your rude.”
        2.  I don’t think the motto is meant to be insulting.  I believe it’s making the point that shop teaches you skills that you can use in your career and as a lifelong hobby.  Consider it something equivalent to the “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” cliche.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Basic ability to visualize an idea is a must: esp 2D and a little 3D is grand.

    Having some hand drawing skills (just a bit) can put you way ahead of folks in terms of both you being able to synthesize your thoughts, and your audience in being able to sign on to them.

  5. VRAndy says:

    “Gamification” is an overused buzz-words, but the underlining idea is often sound. A lot of things can be made into games, especially computerized games.

    What if, in the near future, a phone could be programed to enchorage children to explore a park? Download the game at the ranger station. Photograph the bark of ten different species of tree to unlock the next challenge! Follow the entire blue trail in under an hour to get an achievement!  Reach six different geo-caches to get an unlockable.  Top fifty players get their initials on the big TV near the entrance, so come back next weekend to improve your score!  (Parent’s phones could get real-time feeds of the kids’ GPS location, so they wouldn’t be too terrified to let the kids explore a little.)

    Or how fast can you make something out of play-doh to match certain requirements?

    Or, I’ll bet a lot of kids would try harder at gym class if their sprint times somehow added to their X-Box Live Gamerscore! 

    A lot of people would say that introducing technology to those pursuits robs them of their “purity”, but I think that exploration, even as a child, always has some excuse, however flimsy.  “Gamification” is really just the old ideas of scavenger hunts, collecting, and bragging rights, updated to be more flexible, and to be able to teach a wider variety of subjects.

    (I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can’t mix in elements that are purely fun! No one learned anything shooting at buffalo in the Oregon trail, but elements like that stopped the game from being too dry.)

    1. Jason Nolan says:

      Sorry, gamification isn’t what you say it is. Have a look at Bogost’s http://www.bogost.com/blog/gamification_is_bullshit.shtml and you’ll get a taste for it. A curriculum of toys requires an open-ended pedagogy of unknowable outcomes, which gamification is the antithesis of.

      1. Daniel Macintyre says:

        I’m not following you on this one.  How does using toys to teach curriculum mean you give up knowledge of outcomes?  Montessori, for instance, uses a heavily constructionist model of teaching where students learn by discovery rather than direct instruction.  It relies heavily on manipulatives that, it seems to me, could be interchangeable with toys.  Montessori itself, however, limits choice of activity to guide children to reach specific milestones and works with children to set goals for themselves to be reached each school year. 

        I’m not saying that this is the only approach to a toy based curriculum – I’m just suggesting that it is one approach that is not open ended and does have knowable outcomes.

  6. Ed Rehring says:

    A good list Saul, I would add language skills, written and oral.

    1. David Walker says:

      Totally agree – a great list, but Literacy is a glaring omission.  Scrabble, Consequences, Boggle, Word-searches, Story-writing/Plays etc.. might help here

      1. Daniel Macintyre says:

        and books – don’t forget books.

  7. KO says:

    As a designer just beginning my career as an educator, there’s a lot here that I really love. I will also say that a lot of these things are already happening in schools. There are fabulous teachers out there designing games and experiences for their students that enforce all of these skill sets and areas of expertise. 

    I work in a high school art department that offers courses in ceramics, industrial arts, graphic design, digital photography, culinary arts, stage craft, apparel design, drawing from life, sculpture, filmmaking and screen printing. In addition to this we have music and theater. I can check off most of the skills you have listed through courses in our arts department.

    I think the key to more game-like education lies in working with educators to develop interactive learning experiences for their students, and working to create school environments that accommodate this. Looking at the bigger picture, a true education doesn’t come in a box or a kit or on a disk. It comes from a variety of activities and experiences that occur both within the classroom and beyond.

    “Could a curriculum of engaging toys be so powerful that the role of schools is reduced to something manageable, like merely socialization?”When you pose this question, what exactly are you envisioning? Families initiating and guiding the education of their children through a “curriculum of toys”?

  8. Jason Nolan says:

    pedagogy free curriculum… what’s missing here. Try reggio emilia or the reconceptualist movement… both are DIY maker friendly pedagogies. Curriculum without pedagogy is like a car with no imagination as to where you might go with it. Just goes in circles. :)

    1. Daniel Macintyre says:

      most unschoolers and quite a few other homeschoolers would disagree with you.  Just because you don’t have a set of goals set by people you don’t know doesn’t mean that goals won’t develop.  If it helps, don’t think of it as “pedagogy free” – think of it as pedagogy growing or evolving to accomodate the identity of the student and/or the wisdom of the parents.

  9. Heather Martinson says:

    This is a great list! My 10-year-old is a maker. He tells everyone that’s what his special skills are. He naturally does many of the things on this list. But there’s a lot of great ideas here that I’m sure he’ll want to use. I’m going to print this up and seriously make it his curriculum!! Thank you!

  10. W Craghead says:

    This sounds a lot like the school my kids attend: http://www.cvilledayschool.org   There’s a great emphasis on making things, doing things, figuring things out.  Great post!

  11. Ed Sobey says:

    Wow! What a great list. I suggest adding measuring to the math section, and maybe adding graphing, too. Kids do neither and need both. You have joining things, how about a preamble of dis-joining things. 

    We (Kids Invent! and the Northwest Invention Center) teach science through the process of inventing toys. I will have to evaluate our 70 or 80 activities to see how many of your topics we cover. Thanks. Ed

  12. Bob King says:

    My grandson (5) and I recently totally dismantled an old desktop computer with explanations of all the parts. What an afternoon that was. In a few months we will put it back together. If it still runs, good. If not, so what. For him it was amazing. Before throwing away anything to the garbage, get your child, grandchild etc and “take the thing apart”.

  13. Andrew Bowman says:

    For me, the key point here is that we don’t teach these things early enough. I took “shop” in high school, and I still don’t know when to use a screw as opposed to a nail or a rivet or superglue. I just know that they’re all fasteners that do basically the same thing in a slightly different way. If I had had screws, nails and rivets to play with when I was four years old, by high school I would know exactly when to use what (and when not to).

    This is a great list of skills every human should have. The best time to teach humans new skills is when they’re small and still figuring out how the world works. I was introduced to photography and literature when I was very young, so to me they are simply part of my existence. They’re not just “this thing that I know about.”I’m a photographer and I’m expecting my first child in April. She’s going to be born with a camera in her hand (not literally of course). By the time she’s in high school, she’s going to know more about photography than most “professionals.” She’ll be a photographer her entire life. Maybe not professionally, but if that’s a career she wants to explore, she’ll have the tools.

    My dad was a computer man. When computers started being a big deal, he jumped on the bandwagon and learned everything there was to know. Naturally, I learned how to program in BASIC, write an MS-DOS batch file, and developed a very good understanding of networking and hardware interaction. Because it’s what my dad was into, it was the coolest thing in the world, so he didn’t have to “present it” to me. I came to him and said “hey daddy. Watcha doin?” . I think he knew that, and that’s why he (and I) stayed up late every night watching mysteries on A&E and listened to a lot of classical music and movie soundtracks.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that while providing your children with a good curriculum of toys is a great first step, you also need to engage with them. Don’t just hand them a lego kit. Build it with them. After all, you don’t give your child an English language primer and come back in six months. You talk at them non-stop for the first five years of their life and they figure out how it works. Giving your kids the right tools is good, but teaching by example is so much more likely to succeed and foster a sense of the necessity of continuing to learn every day of their lives.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Under #12, add joke and riddle books. Kids (and adults) have a lot to learn from and laugh about in figuring out a brain teaser or just comprhending the references in a joke to get the punchline.

  15. umbrarchist says:

    Of course there is the RIGHT STUFF to read.

    Teach Yourself Electricity and Electronics, by Stan Gibilisco

    Some stuff is free now:

    Star Surgeon by Alan E. Nourse

    Cost of Living by Sheckley Robert

    Subversive  by Reynolds Mack

    The Ethical Engineer  by Harry Harrison

    The Fourth R by George O. Smith

    Some good old stuff still ain’t free.

    A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke

    Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

    The Space Merchants  Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth

    Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein

  16. Anonymous says:

    I don’t even have kids, but I was glad to see this on a friend’s Facebook page.  I taught for 11 years and was so dismayed at the kids who lacked problem solving skills.  The same skills outlined above would encourage kids to solve their own problems.  Much to my chagrin, too many kids have helicopter parents who hover over the children and rescue them without allowing them to discover their own  mistakes, challenges and satisfaction in being able to solve their own problems.

  17. Sarah Bear says:

    You may find the book How Children Learn by John Holt interesting..  Also, I would like to see a companion list of toys kids have that they hardly play with.  If you take into account how much space and money they take up, I think toy kitchen sets would rank as one of the top.

    1. Amy Mollin says:

      Respectfully disagree on this one, at least in our household.  Based only on the frequency of dispersion of the small plates, dishes and other items this is one of the favorites. 

  18. John Seward Johnson says:

    Great post Saul! This also brings building the skill of critical thinking to mind and media literacy as something to start early with.  Like a lot of people responding to your post, I was shaped by my Dad’s decision to sit me down at a fairly young age and watch TV commercials together.  At first I got to listen to him deconstruct them e.g. “Two larger scoops — notice they didn’t tell you how big the scoops were to begin with.” and then we began to do that together.  For all the lip service that my educated parent friends pay to critical thinking, very few seem to be confronting the collection of cognitive biases that come with being human and helping their kids become aware of them.  Yet, confronting them is critical to becoming a good critical thinker.  I intend to incorporate that into my breakfast table discussions with my son and daughter once they are old enough to get it, which judging by the way they keep surprising me, will be sooner than I think.

  19. Christine Canty says:

    Love this list!  Not sure if this has been added already, but Cooking/Nutrition (kids recipe books, are Easy bake ovens still around?), and Teamwork/Division of Labor (assembling something big, like a tent, or role-playing games).  

  20. Michael Crumpton says:

    Skills that drastically change your abilities to make stuff are vital to developing the maker mindset. Simple woodworking skills are great for learning precision and dealing with dangerous tools, and once that safety mindset is set, welding is an amazing mind expander. Casting ceramics, concrete and finally metal are great for rounding out your expertize.

  21. Ellen says:

    Sewing is also great for learning about measuring, and the shapes of pieces and how they fit together. Also, how to follow 2D directions for making 3D objects that must fit your 3D body. Sewing without a pattern is great, too. Lots of problem solving involved.

    By the way, schools aren’t even necessary for socialization. Ask any homeschooler you know, and they’ll tell you all about socializing in the real world rather than a classroom.

  22. Jo Homan says:

    food foraging should be included on this rather excellent list – basic plant recognition. My kids get excited by fuchsia berries, lime leaves (Tilia spp. not the citrus trees) and chickweed

  23. Carol Adams says:

    I only got half way through this list so I am posting to my FB page so I can go back and look at it later.  Pretty impressive.  I want my kids to hammer nails into a log until it looks like a hedgehog. That sounds fun.

  24. Dave Winterborne says:

    Just bookmarked this for when I have kids. I’m 22 and I’m not sure I ever want kids. Maybe I do now.

  25. Maika Clarke says:

    It is a wonderful idea. Where do we sign up?

  26. Anonymous says:

    I was glad to see that DRAWING is at the top of the list. Drawing ability makes so many ideas better. How do we help kids enjoy more drawing practice?

  27. Ben Mcluckie says:

    Great list! I am going to hang it up as a poster in my HS classroom for students and parents to read (from my Maker pdf download).

    It’s been interesting being part of public schools as they transition from “voc ed” to “career tech”. It’s a dynamic where some well-meaning parents and teachers want dearly to bring back the “woodshop” of the past so their kids can have the same fond memories as they did versus the forward thinkers who are excited by all the crazy stuff we can now make on the desktop. 

    Back in my high school years I was advised NOT to take any voc ed if I was going on to 4 year college, ie., the future great scientists of the world don’t need to know how to make a bookshelf or door frame. All my making happened in spite of school, not because of it. Ironically in college I found the greatest enjoyment from doing my own science experiments using my own fabricated lab setups. Now I teach two robotics courses as well as my science classes, and my room is lined with soldering stations, 3d printer, motors from disassembled small appliances, etc … and woodshop has been reduced down to one period of carpentry and frustrated parents. We need to fix this chaotic transition, but there are no easy answers in our public school system – our emphasis on multiple-choice test scores, our tradition of community-responsive schools, our belief that “if I learned well this way, then you need to learn this way too” (in spite of our changing world).

    Everyone … we’ve got to infect everyone with the maker ethos.

    1. Shawn Moore (@MrMoScienceLand) says:

      I’m a science teacher who also was advised to stop taking voc ed courses in high school if I was planning to go to college. What a shame… Now I’m writing grants to fund a classroom’s worth of Arduinos, soldering stations, computers for programming, a 3D printer and a laser cutter so that kids can see how much fun science, engineering and technology can be. We are too caught up in education as a primer for a trivia contest when in reality we just need to learn the concepts from yesterday to create the world of tomorrow.

  28. Sharonne Blum says:

    great article and delicious food for thought. also think it is worth thinking about education beyond a set of skills. as educators/parents/role models, we need to nuture dispositions. skills lie dormant without dispositions and inclinations to create, reflect, explore, analyse etc. in my view, the most challenging and exciting part of education is giving kids opportunities to flex their dispositions. they way they do that is always an unknown and as the adults we need to be there to encourage, maybe guide their dispositions. oh, and, i love pick up sticks! helps to bring out the disposition of patience and analysis, also great for fine motor skills and of course dealing with frustration!

  29. Phil Wrzesinski says:

    What I find interesting in this post (full disclosure: I own a toy store and have been pushing the educational power of toys for decades), is that you never discuss the differences between “toy learning” and most classroom learning.

    Toy learning is very right-brained, all about patterns and relationships. Most classroom learning is left-brained, all about labels and logic and rules. There are schools who are finally realizing just how much of the right brain we leave untapped in our schooling process other than the Fine Arts programs, and are now starting to incorporate more discovery in the regular academics.

    Neurologists are also beginning to see how previously labeled “disabled or difficult learners” are often right-brained children in a left-brained school. Exercises (both mental and physical) designed to help reconnect the right & left hemispheres of their brains are proving to be quite successful in helping these kids adapt better to school.

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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 snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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