Making Trouble — A Curriculum of Toys


Every pundit cries that education is broken. I’ll say all we really need are good toys.

What are the fundamental things kids should know to help them understand, enjoy, and someday improve the complex physical world we live in? Could a curriculum of engaging toys be so powerful that the role of schools is reduced to mere socialization?

Here’s my start at a list of core life skills I think can be taught by toys and play. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

Drawing and Sculpting. Communicating ideas visually is critical for future makers. You needn’t be Rembrandt; just learn proportion, perspective, and representation in 2D and 3D. Chalk and a sidewalk, pencil and paper, an Etch A Sketch if you must. Play-Doh, clay, sandboxes, food, aluminum foil, paper and origami.

Joining Things. Gluing, nailing, soldering, welding, lacing, riveting, taping, stitching, screwing, and tying knots. Give kids some rope, or a log, a hammer, and a bag of nails. Any DIY kit or craft project, ropes, kites.

Shaping Things. Cutting, sawing, chiseling, whittling, sanding, grinding, drilling. Give kids real tools, not cheap copies. Woodworking tools, craft projects, penknife, scissors.

Forces. Gravity, levers, projectile motion, friction, pulleys, gearing, torque. Mobiles, trebuchets, magnets, juggling, throwing, ball or board sports, sailing, seesaws, slides, bicycles!

Fluids, Hydraulics, and Pneumatics. Water guns, water balloons, boats and rafts, blowgun darts, bathtubs, rivers, beaches, lakes, dams, skimming stones, bike pumps.

Electronics. Voltage, resistance, current, and blinky lights. Battery-powered toys (hack them), 9-volt batteries (lick them).

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

Energy. Conservation and momentum, transformation, generation, storage, and consumption. Marbles, batteries, rubber-band airplanes, bicycles, dirt bikes, slot cars, train sets, swings, skateboards, kites.

Math. Counting, arithmetic, geometry — just about any toy has a math lesson in it. Beads, marbles, dice, Monopoly, cards, Tetris.

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

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

Properties of Materials. Every toy is a materials science lesson, whether wood, plastic, or metal. Oobleck, chemistry sets, cooking.

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

Your Body. Dance, sport, climbing, swimming, hiking, gymnastics. Go to the park!

Storytelling. Children tell stories and release their imagination through whatever toy is in their hands. Dolls, stuffed animals, wooden trains, Lego, Play-Doh, imagination.

Logic. Building a Lego model or knitting a hand puppet is an exercise in basic instructional logic: do this, then that; if this happens, do that. Construction toys, craft projects.

Until our school system is reformed, I think the burden falls on parents, guardians, and friends to teach children the skills of life. Let’s share the lessons and experiences embodied in the best toys. (But subtly. Kids can smell didactic like a giant adult skunk.)

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Saul Griffith

DR. SAUL GRIFFITH is founder and principal scientist at Otherlab, an independent R&D lab, where he focuses on engineering solutions for a clean energy, net-zero carbon economy. Occasionally making some pretty cool robots too. Saul got his PhD from MIT, and is a founder or co-founder of,,,,,,, and more. Saul was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

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