By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE.
If the child is made of one hundred languages, what is the language of wood? How do wooden toys speak to children? What do they say to their parents? What worlds to discover do wooden toys hold for children and for their families? Made by nature, wood has so many benefits when used for toys. At a time when families are looking to purchase gifts for children that have meaning and are meaningful, wooden toys provide an alternative to the commercialism of plastics. Wood speaks to the senses. The tactile sensation of running your hand along a wooden block cannot be duplicated. The faint woodsy smell emanating from the surface is evocative of time spent in nature. The organic sensory experience of touching, sensing the surface, shape, volume, and weight actually helps to develop complex neurological connections in the child’s brain. A child’s imagination is activated by these toys which are open-ended. Open-ended toys and materials can be used in many ways, inviting investigation and manipulation, fostering symbolic and complex play (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014).
I have always had an affinity for wooden toys. I am an advocate of block play. The first major purchase I made for my first grandchild who is now four, was a set of unit blocks from my friends at Louise Kool and Galt. One of the last workshops I was able to facilitate before the pandemic was on block play. I miss not playing with other educators. Yet, it has been a COVID gift that I now have more time to play with my grandchildren. The learning resources that I have for others to use with children, I now can use myself. These iconic toys are well worth the price tag. Of the many benefits of blocks and other wooden toys is that they provide children with an opportunity to re-enact and imitate the world around them. Toys that allow re-enactment of life experiences such as riding on a train, watching workers at a construction site or picking up a favourite meal from a local drive through, helps the child to find deeper meaning from these encounters. Griffen loves taking my order from his drive through window!
With wooden toys the play is in the child, not the toy. A Grimm’s rainbow does not have bells or whistles. It is silent in how it speaks. In that silence, the child can activate their imagination and the possibilities are endless. There is even a rainbow challenge on Pinterest for inspiration! The rainbow is so much more than a stacking toy. A child can build bridges, tunnels, mountains, fences, marble runs and more. What I love about these toys is when there is a mess, it is a beautiful mess! When it is time for cleaning up, I don’t mind helping. I find it therapeutic, like doing a puzzle. There is something very satisfying about using spatial skills to fit blocks back in their cart and put wooden toys back together.
In addition to math skills, children learn to solve problems when playing with blocks and other wooden toys. The simplicity of wood encourages dramatic play and construction. Children practise balancing, engage in engineering building their fine motor and gross motor skills. Children learn new vocabulary in their play and their language development is enhanced as they communicate with others. Wooden toys also support well-being and health. In a report written about healthy workspaces it suggests that there is growing evidence associated with the biophilia principle, that connection to nature is essential to well-being. A wooden toy is very soothing to children and adults! They reduce anxiety! When I am playing with these toys with my grandchildren we slow down and we connect. My grandson, Griff is in virtual kindergarten and learning about sorting rules. Wooden toys support a child’s cognitive development as they categorize and classify while developing an understanding of weight, volume, shape and colour. I know that as Griffen outgrows these blocks and toys (if he ever does), we can pass them onto his cousin Reese who is starting her own collection!
Wooden toys are ethical and sustainable choices. These toys are much more environmentally friendly than plastics. They offer durability and longevity which increase their potential to last for generations. Plastic toys won’t be handed down from generation to generation in your family but wooden toys can be considered family heirlooms! Wooden toys never go out of style! There are many brand name wooden toys so popular that there are multiple Facebook groups for followers who share photos of their #shelfies and invitations to play. Many wooden toys are made in Germany where there are awards for those who meet certain criteria called “Spiel gut” which literally means “Play well”. You can read more about these awards in this article which speaks to the ability to imagine in the child. The ability to imagine when they don’t have practical experience only develops gradually. Television, computers, picture books and stories cannot fully replace their own experiences. This is especially true with younger children. With blocks and toys children have their own experiences. I have learned so much by joining multiple Facebook groups! I have learned that these toys are loved by all family members, no matter the age. Sometimes I wonder who loves them more, the adults or the children? I learned that there are purists who will not purchase any plastics for their children. All the toys they have for their children are wooden from animals to vehicles to blocks and more. I have found out that there are many DIY block and toy makers so there are alternatives to purchasing the expensive brand names. I have also discovered that followers in these groups split orders to offset costs. One of the most popular purchases for doing this are the mandala pieces made by Grapat from Spain. My good friend, Erica who shares my love for wood toys took these photos of her niece playing with her mandala set. Look at the concentration and focus!
I don’t yet have many mandala pieces. They are on my wish list! Right now, I am obsessed with Bauspiel and I love Gluckskafer. There are so many popular brands. Some wooden toy enthusiasts even curate their own sets by combining brands. You can find Deb Bullington on Instagram. Don’t you love her curated set? She combined a Grimms water toy with blocks from Raduga Grëz which translated is “Rainbow Day Dreams”, stunning wooden toys made by hand in Russia.
Head over to my Instagram account to find out about two giveaways that I am so excited about. Louise Kool and Galt is offering a 100 piece set of Leonardo Sticks! Inspired by the constructions of Leonardo da Vinci, these simple sticks can be used to create a dome, a house, stairs or a bridge. They can stand on their own!
I am looking forward to getting my own set of Bauspiel gemmed windows from Modern Rascals and thrilled that they are also offering a giveaway on my Instagram of this amazing and adorable chocolate box of translucent cubes that will enhance children’s play with blocks.
Here is to many years and many generations of deep and meaningful play and learning with blocks and wooden toys!
This is an amazing innovation. I am in the process of starting a kindergarten and wooden manipulative would be a way for me to go. Thank you Diane for sharing your experience .
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