Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Toy Choice Influences Child Literacy and Numeracy

Parents can help improve their children’s literacy and numeracy skills by having a greater influence on the type of games they play in their free time. A Macquarie University study published in Early Child Development and Care indicates that the type of toys or activities adults present to children can influence what they want to learn about – and that children are influenced by what adults are doing in the background while we think they’re not watching.

The researchers exposed 4-year-olds to demonstrations of literacy and numeracy in everyday life, while a control group had the same materials to play with but no demonstrations. While children were doing other things, parents and educators did activities linked to literacy and numeracy in the background. After just 4 weeks, the children began to play more with literacy and numeracy concepts, and their reading abilities improved.

“We know early learning is centred around the child’s interests; that is, for children to learn things, they have to be interested in them,” said lead researcher Dr Yeshe Colliver. “Playing is a key way for children to begin learning, but it’s hard to see what benefit playing with Spiderman or Barbie can bring. Even more difficult is creating a link between a superhero and, say, mathematics.

“So rather than looking at how adults can ‘follow the child’s interests’ and link them to learning, we wanted to know... if adults could change what children are interested in.”

The basis of the study comes from the idea that children want to learn the skills they see as important in society. Would children who observed problem-solving literacy and numeracy activities among adults come to value those skills and want to play and therefore learn about them?

“We tapped into the fact that what children are interested in is a reflection of the world around them, but we didn’t know if altering what they are exposed to would shape what they are interested in,” Colliver explained. “Our findings indicate the common view that parents and educators have little influence on what kids are interested in is untrue.

“But making it meaningful to life is key. While an action figure may have limited value, so might ‘educational toys’ if parents force children to use them.”