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What Makes a Good Toy?

Lessons Learned from 10 Years of the TIMPANI Toy Study

For ten years, the Center for Early Childhood Education conducted the TIMPANI Toy Study to explore how different toys affect children's problem-solving, creativity, social interactions, and verbalization. Each December from 2010 through 2019, the Center announced findings about the highest-scoring toy in that year's study. In this video, we look back at the lessons learned from our decade of research. With help from teachers whose classrooms have participated in the TIMPANI Toy Study, we describe the elements that make a great toy for preschool-aged children.

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  • What Makes a Good Toy?

    Summary of Lessons Learned

    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.
  • What Makes a Good Toy?

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    Narrator: Young children do most of their learning during play. Research from the Center for Early Childhood Education shows that different kinds of toys inspire different kinds of play.

    Child: I’m making a man.

    Narrator: Some toys are better at inspiring deep thinking and problem-solving, while others are excellent at promoting creativity or social interaction.

    Child 1: Say “Ah!”
    Child 2: Ah!

    Narrator: But what does the research tell us about the most important things to consider when selecting toys for preschoolers?

    What Makes a Good Toy?

    Lessons from 10 Years of the TIMPANI Toy Study

    Child: Have a good trip.

    Claudia Sweetland, Lead Teacher: I think a good toy is safe, developmentally appropriate, engaging, and stimulating.

    Child: Let’s connect it on this end and see what happens.

    Patricia McCarthy, Lead Teacher: Something that sparks their imagination, allows them to work together with their peers.

    Child: Yeah!!

    Heather Standish, Lead Teacher: One that everyone can engage with, even children who don’t speak English or have minimal English. So if we have a toy that they can interact with each other, even if it’s not using the same language, I think that makes a really good toy.

    Sabrina Bowersett, Assistant Teacher: Something that you would want to touch right away. You want to go to it; you want to feel what it feels like; you want to move it.

    Child 1: Let’s make a castle!
    Child 2: Okay, we can make some castles.

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, Play Researcher: One of the most important characteristics is that toys are simple and nonrealistic. Why that’s important is that children are able to use them in many different ways.

    Child: Look at my motorcycle!
    Child 2: I like your motorcycle.

    Vincent Knox Douglas, Student Assistant: Something that’s flexible and that isn’t just locked into doing one thing with it all the time.

    Karla Alamo, Teacher Associate: A toy that inspires imagination. Something that they can think outside of the box.

    Child: This is a, this is how you make a magic wand.

    Niloufar Rezai, Director: A toy that is open-ended enough that allows them to use their imagination.

    Leisha Flynn, Lead Teacher: That the children can, sort of, recreate their environment, their world with the toy.

    Teacher: What did you make? Tell me about it.
    Child: House.
    Teacher: You made a house?
    Child: Yeah.

    Patricia Brickner, Teacher Associate: So you see what their ideas are, the questions they ask. A toy that engages them.

    Child 1: This is a big one.
    Child 2: How taller is than me?
    Child 1: Um, no.
    Child 2: It’s tall like Stephen.

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith: Another reason that nonrealistic toys are so beneficial is that they are ambiguous. As children are playing, they need to explain to one another, their peers, what the toy represents, what kinds of activities are going on.

    Child: I’m making flying car! Beep beep! Beep beep, beep beep!

    Emily Grogan, Teacher Associate: When they're playing together, it allows for different play scenarios that they can create with their friends.

    Child: That’s our ball pit that you slide into. This is the slide.

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith: Toys that have multiple parts tend to score very well. There are lots of different parts for children to share with peers, to discuss, to negotiate around.

    Child 1: So what if this goes down here, and then it rolls?
    Child 2: I might have to hold it.

    Stephen Hatch, Student Assistant:
    Something the kids can build with, but after they accomplish it, they kind of can sit back, and they can see that they completed something together.

    Child: That was a perfect idea.

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith: Some of the highest scoring toys are those that are sort of classic, good old-fashioned toys from long ago that have been around for forever. I think about blocks; I think about Tinker Toys, even Legos. I think it kind of suggests that sometimes the toys that have been used throughout the generations are very valuable, still, for children’s development. If I had to pick two types of toys that I felt were, based on our research, most powerful, I would pick these two: construction toys and also replica play toys.

    Child: Do you want to make a house?

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith: Over many years of study, we’ve found that toys with small pieces that they can put together had a really powerful impact on children’s thinking and learning and play.

    Child: I am a robot!

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith: The other type of toy that I find so critical, based on our findings, are replica play toys.

    Child: That’s the sister; that’s the boy; that’s the mom.

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith: These are small people, animals, even cars, I would include, where children can play out elaborate scenarios in kind of a make-believe way.

    Child 1: Someone need help.
    Child 2: Ok. I will come. Wee-ooo, wee-ooo, wee-ooo.

    Jeffrey Trawick-Smith: Those tend to not only do well in terms of promoting thinking and learning and symbolic thought, but they also are great for promoting social interaction and verbalization.

    Child 1: I go to school, mom.
    Child 2: Okay, come on, baby. It’s time to go to toddler school.

    Narrator: The TIMPANI Toy Study investigated more than a hundred toys over a ten-year period and found that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts inspired the highest quality of play in preschoolers. Children playing with these toys were more likely to be creative in their play, engage in problem-solving, interact with their peers, and use language.

    Child: Can I have four lemons?

    © 2020 Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University
    May be reprinted for educational purposes.

  • 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 more about the research.

    See videos about each year's highest-scoring toys.

    • Producer, scriptwriter, narrator: Julia DeLapp
    • Director, videographer, editor: Ken Measimer
    • Production assistant and editor: Eric Warner (Eastern student)
    • Videographer: Sean Leser

    Special thanks to the teachers, children, and families at the Child and Family Development Resource Center for their cooperation in making this video.