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Toys that Inspire Mindful Play And Nurture Imagination

The TIMPANI Toy Study was a ten-year, empirical study that looked at how young children in natural settings play with a variety of toys. The study identified toys that best engage children in intellectual, creative, social, and verbal interactions in preschool classrooms. Below are findings from the past ten years of research.

Videos about TIMPANI Study Findings

A teacher holding up a toy for children to see during group time

Do Toys Need to be Introduced?

View video of a 3-year study
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Why Study Toys?
  • Play is the fundamental way children prepare for the future -- when children create a make-believe world, build a tower of blocks, or race a friend to the top of a hill, they acquire social and intellectual abilities needed to be successful in school and adulthood.
  • Nearly all meaningful play includes toys -- a single, engaging toy can transform a child's play from simple to symbolic, from repetitive to inventive, from solitary to social.
  • While there was much research on children’s play, there had been few studies that looked at how children interacted with toys in their play.
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  • What Makes a Good Toy?

    Summary of Lessons Learned from Ten Years of Research

    Download a printable version of this handout.

    #1: Simple

    Many toys on the market today have complicated bells and whistles—they make noise; they light up; they talk. In many cases, these items function more as entertainment than toys that actively engage children in rich play. Our research has found that simpler is better. For example, a simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling—but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly. Similarly, a doll that does the talking for a child will generally result in play that is less imaginative than a simple doll where children have to imagine for themselves what the doll might say.

    #2: Open-ended

    Some toys suggest to children exactly how to play with them, and these kinds of toys can certainly be valuable. For example, puzzles and board games help children learn to solve specific problems, follow rules, and take turns. A set of construction vehicles may motivate children to learn more about (and then act out) the functions of a bulldozer vs. front loader vs. steam roller. But the toys in our study that inspired children to be the most creative didn’t suggest just one way to play—they were open-ended and flexible, which allowed children to come up with their own ideas. We observed children using plain hardwood blocks to create houses, zoo enclosures, castles, and roads—and children pretended that individual blocks were cell phones, cars, or sandwiches. In addition, open-ended toys in our study tended to hold children’s attention for a longer period of time.

    #3: Non-realistic

    Some toys are exact replicas of things in real life, and these can inspire certain kinds of positive play. For example, a set of plastic dishes may lead to elaborate pretend play with lots of conversation as children pretend to prepare and serve a meal to their peers or to an adult. However, we found that non-realistic toys—or toys that didn’t look like something that exists in real life—were especially powerful. When building with a basic set of Legos, children must make their own decisions about what they’re creating, and then they must communicate their ideas to their playmates. This kind of play often results in complex problem-solving as children work to bring their vision to life, creativity as they conceive of new ways to put together pieces, and rich interactions and conversations with peers as they discuss their creations and then use them in pretend play.

    Two Kinds of Toys That Are Especially Powerful

    While we found something positive in many different categories of toys, our study found that two types of toys consistently resulted in high-quality play among preschoolers:

    • Construction toys such as hardwood blocks, Legos, TinkerToys, Magna-Tiles, and other toys with multiple pieces that children can put together in a variety of ways did well every year of our study. The best construction toys for preschoolers are open-ended (e.g., not a kit for making a specific product) and have enough pieces that children have the flexibility to build many different things.
    • Replica play toys such as small people, animals, or vehicles also did well in our study over multiple years. When playing with these toys, children create elaborate, make-believe scenarios, and they engage in rich conversation and cooperative play with their peers.
  • TIMPANI is an acronym for Toys that Inspire Mindful Play And Nurture Imagination. The TIMPANI Toy Study was a scientific study of toys for preschool-aged children conducted from 2010-2019. The purpose of the study was to identify toys that best engage children in intellectual, creative, social, and verbal interactions in classrooms, and to pass this information on to preschool teachers and parents. Each year, a different set of toys were rotated through preschool classrooms, and children were recorded playing with them. The quality of children’s play was analyzed using a scientific instrument developed in a previous study (Trawick-Smith, Russell, & Swaminathan, 2010). Researchers also looked closely at differences in play quality scores across age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Results were announced annually through national conferences, a video, and a press conference, and study results have appeared in peer reviewed journals. Twenty-six Eastern students (primarily undergraduates) were involved in carrying out the study over the ten-year period.

    Learn about other research conducted by the Center.

    Disclaimer: The TIMPANI toy study does not consider, nor does it test, the safety of toys. The study makes no claims about the safety of any toy studied. Neither the Center for Early Childhood Education nor Eastern Connecticut State University is liable for any mishaps related to the use of toys mentioned in study findings. Concerns about any toy listed in the study findings should be directed to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

    Contact: For additional information on the TIMPANI toy study, contact the Center for Early Childhood Education at (860) 465-0885.

  • Trawick-Smith, J., Wolff, J., Koschel, M., & Vallarelli, J. (2015). The effects of toys on the quality of preschool children: Influence of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43, 249-256.

    Trawick-Smith, J., Wolff, J., Koschel, M., & Vallarelli, J. (2014). Which toys promote high quality play? Reflections on the five year anniversary of the TIMPANI study. Young Children, 69, 40-46.

    Trawick-Smith, J., Woff, J., Koschel, M., Valarelli, J. (2015). Toys that promote high quality play. In H. Bohart, K. Charner, & D. Koralek (Eds.) Exploring play. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

  • 2022:
    "How do you make the perfect toy?" The Walrus, September/October 2022

    "What kinds of toys should you buy for your toddler?Psychology Today, 12/14/21

    "Eastern premieres video on lessons learned from 10 years of TIMPANI study," Hartford Courant, 12/11/20

    "Best toys can be the simplest ones," The Chronicle, 12/21/19
    "Eastern presents toy of the year," The Chronicle, 12/10/19

    "Eastern Study Puts Toys to the Test," WTIV-TV, 12/4/18

    "ECSU researchers name animal figurines top toy for preschoolers," Norwich Bulletin, 12/6/17
    "ECSU chooses plastic animals as 2017 toy of the year," NBC News Connecticut, 12/6/17
    "And the toy of the year is…" Fox News Connecticut, 12/6/17
    "ECSU reveals 2017 TIMPANI toy of the year," News 8 WTNH, 12/6/17

    "TIMPANI toy selection inspires imagination, thinking, learning," Norwich Bulletin, 12/12/16
    "ECSU TIMPANI toy study 2015," Wayne Norman Show (radio interview), 12/13/16
    "Award-winning toy has a Danish twist," Willimantic Chronicle, 12/13/16

    "3 ways schools can incorporate play into innovative instruction," Education Dive, 9/21/15
    "ECSU study shows children get back to basics with play," Norwich Bulletin, 12/7/15
    "Researchers look into most educational toys," WFSB Hartford, 12/7/15 (This story was also rebroadcast in cities across the U.S., including New Orleans, LA; Fort Meyers, FL; Bozeman and Butte MO; Polluck, TX; and Springfield, MA.)
    "ECSU TIMPANI Toy Study 2015", Wayne Norman Show (radio interview), 12/8/15
    "Our View: Don't lose sight of the simple things in life," Norwich Bulletin (Editorial), 12/13/15

    "Selling gender: Exploiting stereotypes for profit," Al Jazeera America," 11/30/14
    "Hot Wheels, easel named top toys in ECSU study," Norwich Bulletin, 12/1/14
    "ECSU study finds some old favorites are still the most popular toys," WTNH, 12/2/14

    "Traditional DUPLO Wins Award as LEGO Expands to New Products, Classrooms and Girls," Connecticut by the Numbers, 1/10/13
    "Tiles, train chosen as TIMPANI best toys for 2013," Norwich Bulletin," 12/4/13

    "Eastern names its best 2012 toy pick," Norwich Bulletin, 11/16/12
    "In Time For Christmas, Science Toys For Girls Aim To Close Gender Gap," International Business Times, 12/15/12

    "BIRTH TO THREE: For creative play, TINKERTOYS trump technology," The Register-Guard, 12/5/11

    "Experts say wooden toys nurture imagination," HTNP, 12/2/10

  • A major goal of the TIMPANI toy study is to train students to conduct behavioral research. Students have been responsible for conducting preliminary research on toys, piloting the instrument, videotaping toy use, and coding videos. From the 2009 pilot of the Play Quality with Toys (PQT) instrument through the 2019 study, twenty-six students from sociology, psychology, social work, early childhood education, English, and elementary education participated as student researchers. The majority of these students were undergraduate students.

    • Principal Investigators: Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (2009 - 2019) and Julia DeLapp (2016 - 2019)
    • Student Research Assistants: Alyssa Barry (2019 study), Rachel Borden (2016), Chamari Davis (2013), Kim DePaolis (2014 and 2015), Stefanie Dominguez (2017), Nicole Green (2018), Marley Koschel (2012), Kristen Krause (2014 and 2015), Allison Lundy (2018 and 2019), Dominique McLean (2017 and 2018), Sayantani Nandy (2019), Heather Oski (2014 and 2015),  Heather Russell (2009 pilot study), Cassie Savalli (2013), Leah Slawinowski (2016), Amanda Terenzi (2017), Jamie Vallarelli (2012), Liza Welling (2010), Morgan Winship (2018), Jenny Wolff (2012), Huihui Yu (2010), Alyssa Zebrowski (2014 and 2015), Kelly Zimmermann (2011)
    • Student Research Support: Danni Meskill (2014), Emily Parsons (2017), Niloufar Rezai (2010)
    • Video Production Interns: Lauren Bedard (2012), Kristen Chemerka (2011), Emily Denis (2019), Joan Gallagher (2011), Hannah Giuffre (2014), April Doolan (2018), Ayla Heald (2017), Jess Marciante (2017), Anny Ovalle (2015), Sarah Pierce (2013), Andrew Rubasch (2016)