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Eastern Unveils 2016 TIMPANI Toy Study Results

Published on December 13, 2016

Eastern Unveils 2016 TIMPANI Toy Study Results

Eastern Connecticut State University’s Center for Early Childhood Education announced on Dec. 12 that “Plus-Plus®,” a toy made by the Danish company Plus-Plus®, has been named the 2016 TIMPANI (Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination) Toy.

The annual toy study, which is now in its eighth year, investigates how young children play with a variety of toys in natural settings.  This year, 10 toys were selected for the study by teachers, faculty and student researchers.  The toys were placed in preschool classrooms in Eastern’s Child and Family Development Resource Center, and student researchers used hidden cameras to videotape children playing with the toys.  Researchers then coded the footage according to the study’s evaluation rubric, which includes four subscales: thinking and learning, cooperation and social interaction, creativity and imagination, and verbalization.

“The TIMPANI study is ground-breaking, empirical and thought-provoking, and has garnered international attention since we started it eight years ago,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “Eastern faculty and students are providing research-based guidance to preschool teachers, parents and others on toys that promote children’s intellectual growth, social interaction and creativity. In the process, our early childhood education students are learning to conduct empirical research of the highest quality.”

Plus-Plus® (Midi size) received the highest overall score in this year’s study.  It also scored the highest in the “thinking and learning” and “creativity and imagination” subscales.  In addition, the toy scored very highly with both boys and girls and with children from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“This was a toy that children from all different backgrounds could play with at a very high level,” said Julia DeLapp, director of the Center for Early Childhood Education. “We didn’t see some of the gender differences that we did with other toys, and children from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds played with it at equally high levels of play quality.”

Leah Slawinowski, a psychology and early childhood education student involved in the study, said, “I think that Plus-Plus did really well overall because you can do so many different things with it.  Children could build simple structures and develop their fine motor skills, or build something to be used in an elaborate pretend-play scenario.”

Professor Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, principal investigator of the study and Phyllis Waite Endowed Chair of Early Childhood Education, noted, “Plus-Plus is a construction toy, and we’ve found from previous research that construction toys do very well on our evaluation rubric.  As children are building with these toys, they’re creating designs; they’re testing out their designs; they’re re-building their structures.  So if you think about it, construction toys like Plus-Plus are really simple engineering tools for very young children.”  Plus-Plus® is the fourth construction toy to be named the TIMPANI toy of the year since the study began in 2010.

Speaking to today’s educational emphasis on STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — Trawick-Smith found that the skills developed through playing with construction toys are similar to the skills developed in engineering schools, citing Columbia University’s Graduate School of Engineering as an example.  They include skills like planning, measuring, model making and modifying designs. “Toys serve as engineering tools for young children,” he said.

One interesting finding in this year’s study was that the most frequently used toys did not always earn the highest play quality scores.  “Just because a toy is very popular does not mean it’s going to be the most beneficial in terms of children’s play,” commented Trawick-Smith.  “One implication of this is that adults need to carefully observe the impact that individual toys have on children and keep an eye open for toys that may not be selected as often but are really supportive of children’s play.  Then maybe they can guide children toward those toys and provide some support to children as they play.”

Rachel Borden, an art and early childhood education student involved in the study, noted how working on the study will influence her future teaching practices. “I will definitely think about the toys that I put in my classroom. Some toys are great for imagination, while others may be great at fostering thinking and decision making.  If I really want my students to work on socializing more, I’ll pick a toy that’s going to help and foster that.”

Slawinowski, also an aspiring teacher, added, “This study has made me consider the toys that are most beneficial for children in the long run. It really is important for kids to play with high-quality toys that promote critical skills such as verbalization and problem solving.”

Previous TIMPANI toys include Wooden Cash Register by Hape (2015); Paint and Easel (easel by Community Playthings), and Hot Wheels Cars by Mattel (2014); Magna-Tiles by Valtech!, and My First Railway by Brio (2013); Duplo Blocks by LEGO (2012); Tinker Toys by Hasbro (2011); Wooden Vehicles and Signs by Melissa and Doug (2010).

In discussing the success of certain TIMPANI toys, Trawick-Smith mentioned the Theory of Loose Parts. Developed in the 1970s by architect Simon Nicholson, the theory suggests that “loose parts” — materials that can be moved around, modified and tinkered with — allow for more creative and thoughtful play. “Loose parts are a common characteristic of many of our toys,” said Trawick-Smith. “They don’t come with instructions and they can be used in an infinite number of ways.”

For more information about the TIMPANI Toy Study, contact the Center for Early Childhood Education at (860) 465-0687 or visit

Written by Eastern Connecticut State University’s Center for Early Childhood Education announced on Dec. 12 that “Plus-Plus®,” a toy made by the Danish company Plus-Plus®, has been named the 2016 TIMPANI (Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination)