Helping kids learn this holiday season

December 19, 2018
Jillaine Henry

With no shortage of great toy options for children, knowing what gifts to get them for the holidays can be challenging. Parents may be eager to buy the best products for them, but often, gifts that focus on educating and expanding the mind of your child can be forgotten in the process. Lisa Scott, Associate Professor of Psychology in the University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shares some beneficial tips when shopping for the little ones on your list.

Take note of your child’s interests

Gifts that will foster innovative and creative thinking are great for children, but paying attention to the child’s interests is crucial. “Parents should try homing in on their kid’s interests and look for products or activities that will be engaging to their child,” she said.

Parents often find themselves purchasing toys, rather than books, as holiday gifts. There are ways parents can make books more appealing for kids, such as picking a book on a topic or toy that the child is really interested in.

“Research from my lab has shown reading books as early as six months of age is really important for development,” Scott said. There are a lot of fun products on the market right now that have a matching book to go to it. Kids may be more attracted to books about characters they enjoy from popular culture.

Engage with your child

Play is important for child development, but children learn best from adults. Whether it’s a book or a board game, parents need to think about the things that they will engage in when the kids are playing.

“Parents who read books to their kids end up talking a lot more during those book reading periods than other times, such as meal time, and with that back-and-forth talk, kids learn a lot about language.”

Activities that include multiple people create an opportunity for a playtime that is social and engaging. Young kids learn a lot from their parents and siblings, so it is good for friends and family to be involved in that playtime. Imaginary play enhances a child's social and emotional development. Fun character costumes and dress up play offers kids a chance to use their imaginations, build their vocabulary and heighten skills for social interactions. Physical activity is also important for development.

“Products that enhance physical activity or increase a child's interest in getting active are excellent gift ideas,” Scott said. Whether the gift is a football and some cones, or a jump rope and a hula hoop, anything that gets children moving is great. When kids start moving their body, their mind will follow, she added.

Use tech and traditional toys as tools

While books and STEM-based toys seem like the obvious educational gifts for children, it’s important to remember that there is really no such thing as an educational toy, according to Scott.

“Parents can turn almost anything into an educational experience. You can have kids count things on a page, you can have them spell words,” Scott said. “All of these things strengthen development, and in the end, many of the products out there can be enhanced by parents and teachers.”

Children can learn problem-solving skills and improve brain development by using toys such as puzzles and blocks. Toy trucks and animals allow children to expand their view of the world.

Tablets and smartphones can be educational too. With millions of apps available for purchase, there are many high quality, digital learning tools and games that children can benefit from. Increasing the use of digital toys and applications can promote developmental skills including reading and language, number understanding and math, problem solving and memory, while also stimulating and enhancing interaction between adults and children.

“Giving a child an iPad and walking away for an hour is not the kind of high-quality learning experience that engages a toddler’s development or cognitive ability, or helps them learn about their numbers and letters,” Scott said. “Parents should be engaged with their children when they are on electronic devices and should research applications that are educational. Monitoring what kids watch or play and setting limits for children is very important.”

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