Children &
Their Culture

Why Play, Toys, and Games are Important

Dr. Toy

The following piece is really an article in magazine form rather than our customary MLA academic paper. Its author, Stevanne Auerbach, earned a Ph.D at the Union Institute (Antioch College). She is known as Dr. Toy™, and is a speaker, author, and consultant, as well as a former teacher who has written 15 books, among them, Dr. Toy's Smart Play/Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ (Play Quotient). Her web site, the first web site on the Internet on toys, Dr. Toy's Guide, ( provides information on over 3500 toys, games, and many related resources.
Some of her other experiences include approving the first grant for "Sesame Street" as well as focusing on pioneering efforts for child care programs while she was at the United States Department of Education. She has appeared worldwide as a media guest. A member of many child- and toy-related professional organizations, she recently was the U. S. Representative to the Toys for Tomorrow International Forum held in Ahmedabad, India.

It is a happy talent to know how to play
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher, poet, essayist

The potential to improve the learning, reading, and experiential processes through play, toys, and games is great. Understanding the toy selection process, the proper use of toys and games as play products, and how these tools can positively impact the learning, reading, math, science and experiential processes is a goal worth pursuing. As a librarian, teacher or parent, it is frequently challenging to help children to realize their potential, but it is also inspiring and stimulating. Play provides a special opportunity to gain new insights about the child.

Taking the time to understand the importance of play and, in particular, the use and value of games will give new perspectives and enrich classrooms, libraries, or homes. Play is not limited to any one setting or one product or type of product. The potential for play is anywhere and at anytime.

This unique opportunity for experimental learning arises and is especially challenging during these days of outside pressures caused by budget cutbacks, increased demands for testing, and other requirements. There hardly seems to be any free time left for anything new, or even what is basic, like the arts, or important to children, like recess. Our educational and social system often feels like a fully packed "pressure cooker" with both children and adults feeling the heat increasing, and the pressure is building.

Play reduces stress, improves self-expression, supports emotional development, strengthens physical development and much more. I have been quoted as saying, "Playing reduces stress, improves life, and increases creativity. Who doesn't want that?" There is a great deal of research available to support the importance of play and, specifically, how effective games, improvisations and simulations are in the classroom. I refer you to the organization Playing for Keeps [1] to learn more about research and resources ( and to ERIC, an online searchable database of articles ( is one portal). The amount of excellent research work on play and its impact that has been done throughout the world is staggering.

Children are each unique. Their senses vary—auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic. They learn in many different ways, as Howard Gardener reminds us in his book Multiple Intelligences [2]. Research shows that children develop skills through multiple ways of learning. The seven separate forms of intelligence, as described by Gardner, are

  1. Linguistic intelligence (as in a poet),
  2. Logical-mathematical intelligence (as in a scientist),
  3. Musical intelligence (as in a composer),
  4. Spatial intelligence (as in a sculptor or airplane pilot),
  5. Bodily kinesthetic intelligence (as in an athlete or dancer),
  6. Interpersonal intelligence (as in a salesman or teacher),
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence (exhibited by individuals with accurate views of themselves

As an educator by training, and a lifetime reader who lived at the public library as a child while devouring books, my years of experience lead me to conclude that teachers and librarians do make a vital difference. Teachers and librarians know about individual differences, learning styles, and how to find the right materials to help children reach their highest level of potential.

I developed an approach to extend the concepts of "Multiple Intelligence"2 and "E.Q.—Emotional Quotient" as coined by Daniel Goleman [3] into the realm of play. I consider the value of play, the individual level of playfulness, and have applied a new concept, a term I call, "Play Quotient" (PQ), to indicate that "the more one plays, the more playful one will be." [4]

What is your "P.Q." Rating and how has it changed from your early memories of childhood? We may remember the quote attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw, "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." Drs. Dorothy and Jerome Singer [5], professors and authors at Yale University, believe "Play can miniaturize a part of the complex world children experience, reduce it to understandable dimensions, manipulate it, and help them understand how it works." My hope is that adults will soon recognize the importance of play as an essential process throughout life, and understand that it is not restricted to childhood.

So why should play, or products like games be used? How do play and games enrich learning? The use of play and games are important because they

    1. Provide for success to match the wide variety of children's developmental skills and abilities.
    2. Help to channel the player's energy in a positive and productive direction.
    3. Provide many other personal and educational benefits.

"Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning...They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play."
—Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

Specific Outcomes of Play

As a result of playing a child can

Let's not forget that it is through play that children learn best. When they're having fun, when they're relaxed, and when they're responding to a positive experience, they learn and retain information best.

What kind of play products and games are available?

There are many options and many alternative products to explore. There are products and games that require use for a short time and there are those that take more time to use and are more complicated. There are playthings and games that can be set up for free time periods (if there are any) or after school activities or in the library, or to create a special activity to complement math, science, or language lessons. Depending on the philosophy of the school it is possible to build whole lessons around the physics of toys, science activity kits, math and language games.

We can use both playthings and games to facilitate the process of play. For this article I have focused more on the use of games to illustrate their potential as playthings that help to promote learning and development. My book, Smart Play/Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High P.Q.[4] provides guidance on play that follows the child's development from infancy through age twelve with a chapter on special needs and many other resources. Criteria for selecting toys, games, and other materials for play plus evaluations of over 3000 products can be found on my web site, Dr. Toy's Guide (

Among the kinds of games you can consider are

What to look for in selecting the right games?
You want to find a game that is

Several companies have done an outstanding job encouraging children to invent games. One such company is University Games, which sponsors an annual game contest. University Games has produced games that children have designed and those children have benefited with prizes and scholarships. There are many excellent games that have been developed by teachers. There are many resources on my web site ( for anyone interested in inventing a game.

Games should be played frequently and in many settings and not only during "National Games Week" or "Turn off TV" Week. You can provide resources in the form of handouts to encourage teachers, librarians, and parents to buy games that support the curriculum and to use at schools, libraries, and at home. A suggested list of some of those games is included and readers are certainly welcome to add to them. [6]

I believe children cannot just jump into playing games immediately. They often need a "warm-up" time where they learn to take turns, follow directions, stop and test their knowledge and skills. "Warm-ups" are a good idea and can be done informally. "Simple Simon" is a good example of a "warm-up" game.

Board games have a variety of functions. Children can learn number concepts, number counting, spatial relations, color recognition, sequencing, matching, and many more skills. A game like "Candy Land" is one of the first color recognition games.

In chess and checkers, moving pieces helps children with spatial skills. They also learn to take turns and soon learn that they can't always be first. This is an important skill in their social development.

Children need to learn how to win and how to lose. They need to understand that it is not possible to win every time. They need to learn about competition, to feel positive about it and know that they're going to have an opportunity to play again.

It's a good idea to have winners do the clean-up and let the losers pick the next game. Laughter and having fun is an enjoyable and natural part of the learning process. All of these things should be part of the process of playing games. Games offer fun, learning, and opportunities to expand experiences.

Following are several games that reflect the principles we've been talking about.

Classroom Jeopardy — This special game, which has been popular on TV, is designed to match textbooks, curriculum, and current events. It has the sights and sounds of the television show. You can put the games on television or project it on a screen using an LCD projector. Players can buzz in on wireless remotes that work anywhere. You can control the game with a wireless host remote. Choose categories and clues easily with software that comes with simple commands. Type in categories and download the games into your computer. The directions are simple. Each playing cartridge holds five to twelve games. You can create your own questions with the software that is included and then download them into the cartridge using an Internet link. Plug your customized cartridge or one of the pre-programmed cartridges that are sold separately into the back of the Classroom Jeopardy scoreboard. Then you're ready to introduce the game. The game includes three wireless remote controls, name cards, antennae power adapters, and games. Now you can role-play being Alex Trebek. But even better, you can help youngsters learn basics in language, solar systems, earth, animal habitats, US government, ecology, history, states and capitals, math, science, geometry, algebra, and history. The game will expand reading and the use of books as children become more involved in the topics of the game. For more information see Educational Insights ( 800 995 4436.

Blokus — Is another great game that teaches strategy skills and only takes a short while to learn. On a colored board, the squares hold a place. Players choose a color and place the set of 21 pieces on their side of the board. The first player places any of the pieces in a corner square. The play proceeds clock-wise around the board, each player putting a piece down in one of the corner squares. Play continues as each player lays down one piece during a turn, touching only corners of its own pieces. Whenever a player is unable to place a piece on the board, the player is out of the game. This product not only helps in learning strategy, it also helps in eye-hand coordination, thinking, and sequencing. For more information see Educational Insights ( 800 995 4436.

Kids on Stage — This is a classic game of charades that invites players to get into the act. From hopping like bunnies to flying like airplanes, players take turns acting and guessing in this creative game for budding young "actors." This is a great language game that kids and adults can both enjoy. This game encourages creativity and imagination while fostering group play, cooperation, and self-expression. It also fosters self-confidence and helps children and adults overcome shyness. This game teaches movements, balance, and coordination. It stimulates social and character skills and can be played in groups at anytime. This game is for two to four players. University Games ( 800 - 471 0641.

Go to Press!™ A Grammar Game is an example of helping children with language combined with the excitement of a big-city newspaper. This unique game reinforces a child's understanding of grammar. Players move from department to department finding and correcting errors in the headlines. The first player to create a complete newspaper by collecting a correct headline from each department and returning to the boss's office saying, "Go to press!" wins. Learning Resources ( 800-333-8281.

Bilingual Needs — With over 47 million non-English speakers in the U.S. and a majority of these children and adults speaking Spanish, the Learning Resources Company ( looked to fill a need both at home and at school with three engaging board games that help teach the Spanish language.

¡Mezclalas!™ (Mix It Up!) This game teaches Spanish-speaking children to recognize letters and sounds of simple Spanish words and letters. Players say the beginning sounds of colorful picture tiles they choose and move forward with every correct answer. The first player around the board wins! Ages 5+

Mar de Silibas™ (Sea of Syllables) This game provides a fun way for children to learn word building skills by combining the syllables found in the "sea" to make different words. The ocean-based theme is engaging for players and sure to be an enjoyable game for anyone learning to speak Spanish. Ages 6+.

Oraciones Divertidas™ (Silly Sentences) Game is a unique sentence-building game that helps Spanish-speaking children learn how to build Spanish sentences. Players travel around the vibrant game board building silly sentences and practicing grammar, all while having fun! Ages 7+.

Examples of other great games that help children learn include word games like Scrabble, Pictionary, Apples to Apples ( and Boggle; geography games like Reading Roadway (; and strategy games like Yahtzee, Monopoly, Life, and Careers (

There are other fine games that match these themes, such as non-competitive games from Family Pastimes ( or classic games from Front Porch Classics (

There are three "Cs" I refer to when thinking about how the child's social development is nurtured by games and by thinking outside the limits to the learning process and traditional settings. When thinking about the value of games in the school or in libraries consider these values:

    1. Communication — Communication involves others and leads to sharing, discussions, negotiation, and compromise.
    2. Challenge — Challenges of game play give the child the opportunity to master new skills, solve problems, pursue goals, and enhance self-confidence.
    3. Creativity — Creativity helps children imagine and wonder about ideas and stimulates self-expression.

These tips are appropriate for considering games and other play products.

Dr. Toy's Tips for Choosing Appropriate Playthings and Gamesß

    1. Determine the child's skill level — how well he or she plays and what he or she is ready for next.
    2. Be aware of the child's developmental needs — choose the games and playthings that both challenge and stimulate and are not frustrating.
    3. Involve groups of players—interaction with two or more people is better for balance and greater opportunities to play.
    4. Understand the child's interests in selecting games or playthings—so the game or play activity is valued for the benefits in school and in life.

I asked game master and friend Bernie DeKoven ( for his thoughts on the value of games. He said:

Probably the best reason for playing games is that it's something the kids might actually want to do together. If they can play peacefully, for 20 minutes, without adult supervision, it's already a major accomplishment.

The fact is, almost any game that is interesting enough to kids to merit sustained play has more opportunities for cognitive and affective development than most curricula would dare to mandate. The other fact is that the skills that are developed during game play are, for the most part, far outside the scope of anything that could be directly related to the 'three Rs'. Here are Jane and Johnny playing checkers together. Neither is very good at math. But, both are demonstrating mastery of highly complex reasoning skills, complex and relevant—maybe not to the curriculum, but to living in the real world.

I think this tells us more about the nature of schooling than maybe we want to know. As long as games like Scrabble and checkers and charades are considered extra-curricular, the relevance of the curriculum itself needs to be questioned.

There are many commercial recreational games that seem more obviously relevant. For example, one of my favorite games is A to Z ( It's a knowledge or trivia game where players race to fill their boards (with pieces labeled from A to, as you might surmise, Z), with examples that fit a randomly drawn category, such as: trees, animals, etc.

By pre-selecting the categories, you can emphasize almost any area of the curriculum, without in any way diminishing the fun or challenge of the game. But the game tests more than knowledge. It also tests social skills like fairness and turn-taking as well as personal mastery like dealing with success and failure. For the players, this part of the game is the real point of play—and in it lies the deepest challenge. For their personal development, these challenges are clearly more central than mastery over the names of, for example, kings and queens.

In sum, there are many, many games that I would strongly endorse for children and for classroom use. And though they might reinforce the curriculum in some way, their real contribution is, sadly, far outside the scope of tests.

Your interest in play, games and toys is appreciated. Hopefully you will discover and use more playful processes, toys and games to enrich learning, reach all students, and add more fun to their learning, and strengthening important skills. Perhaps you will create events like — an afternoon "Let's play a board game" activity, or "Game Nights" for the whole family at your facility to test the potential of playfulness. The latter is a wonderful way to raise the level of game play, plus help to raise needed money for school programs while increasing parental awareness of the value of game-playing.

May your program soon be filled with the best books, board games, terrific toys, plentiful play products, and no boredom. So, Let's Play! [7]

Dr. Toy's Suggested Games

Younger children ages 4-7
Apples to Apples, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders...

Children ages 7-9
Bingo, Careers, Checkers, Clue, Connect Four, Go To The Head of The Class, Go to Press, Operation Reading Roadway...

Older children ages 9 and up
A to Z, Boggle, Careers, Chess, Kids on Stage, Life, Monopoly, Pictionary, Scrabble, Upwords, Yahtzee...

and many more.

You will find more games and resources on the following web sites:


1. Playing for Keeps. Non-profit organization established to improve access to healthy play.

2. Gardner, Howard, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (10th Anniversary Edition), New York: Basic Books, 1993.

3. Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More than I.Q. New York: Bantam Books 1997.

4. Auerbach, Stevanne, Smart Play/Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High P.Q. California: Educational Insights, 2004.

5. Singer, Dorothy and Jerome, The House of Make-Believe: Children's Play and the Developing Imagination Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

6. National Games Week — Established as the fourth week of November every year when families and friends come together; it is a perfect time for them to play games. You can support this effort by providing information on games, such as that included in this article, to your family and friends, and you could host your own event. Game retailers will run events, but otherwise events will be run by people who take up the challenge. If you agree and share the interest in games, you can be an "Ambassador" for National Games Week. Make your own plans or contact your local game retailers to find out what events they are going to run. They may want your help with their events. National Games Week provides the tools, including posters, invitation cards, official stamps, specific information for teachers, even games. Should you decide to become a member of National Games Week (there is no fee), you can log in to the secure part of the web site and find resources you can order. Some are free or have a minimal cost, and may have a nominal shipping and handling charge. Stock up on the supplies you need, including up to three promotional packages of products from publishers. During Games Day be sure to have both your favorite games and some games suitable for newcomers. Be prepared to teach the games so players can start enjoying games right away.

In "Games Quarterly #2" there is a good article on teaching games. You can download it at You can also get a "How To Host a Games Day Kit" at no cost by ordering it on the web site.

7. If readers wish to send me your recommendations or experiences I will be pleased to compile them into a summary for a future special issue to share with other librarians and teachers who will value learning more about your experiences with the use of games and toys. I look forward to expanding this feature in a future issue. Send a summary of experiences and questions. I will, if there is interest, compile the questions and experiences and create a new article based on contributions.


Dr Toy

Volume 10, Issue 3 The Looking Glass 2 September, 2006

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"Why Play, Toys, and Games are Important"
© Dr. Toy, 2006.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor.