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Action Figure Fun

Learning Basic Skills Through Toys and Play

It all comes down to the final battle. The other superheroes and villains have been knocked out. Only Batman and Joker remain. Only one will win.

Is that a scene from an action movie playing in my living room? No, it is actually my son practicing his spelling words.

Like many boys, my 7-year-old has lots (and lots) of action figures. Much of their time is spent fighting, getting tripped over or needing an arm snapped back on. But sometimes, these money-draining pieces of plastic earn their keep.

Every Monday in first grade, my son receives a list of 10 regular spelling words plus five challenge words. They are to be studied each night for a test on Friday. By Wednesday, he is usually bored of writing them out but could still use some practice. It's time for a spelling bee.

My son chooses the participants. I serve as the moderator. He spells for everyone. Trash talk between good guys and bad guys abounds. Last one standing wins. Spiderman spelled quite well last month. And so did my son.

Using Toys for Learning

As many educators will attest, keeping students interested is a major hurdle. In his bestselling book Boys and Girls Learn Differently (Jossey-Bass, 2002), educator and family therapist Michael Gurian notes that keeping boys engaged is especially crucial because they tend to have a lower tolerance for boredom. Girls, however, can also benefit from activities centered on things they enjoy. While they may not have action figures, Beanie Babies, Bratz dolls and My Little Pony collections make great substitutes.

Toys can help subjects like math come to life. For instance, rote practice of basic addition and subtraction facts can get dull fast. But when Darth Vader fights five Jedi on Tuesday and four on Wednesday, the numbers become much more exciting and meaningful. Also, the toys are actual objects – not just abstract concepts. Many kids will learn faster through "hands on" experiences, such as physically putting four Ninja Turtles in one group and three Transformers in another and then joining the groups together to create a total of seven.

Fran Sherman of Highland Park, Ill., says her young nephews enjoy lining up their action figures from shortest to tallest. Such activities can be expanded as children grow to further develop their measuring skills. Challenge them to line up enough figures head to toe to create a certain measurement, such as 2 feet. Or have a contest between groups, such as pirates versus soldiers, to see which line measures the longest. Not only do such games give a child practice using rulers and yardsticks, they provide opportunities to visualize concepts. Two inches is no longer just some increment; it is the height of the Yoda figure.

Another basic skill that can be practiced using action figures is categorization. Categorization is crucial to advanced learning. "The ability to compare and contrast is useful in a variety of situations," says Paulette Braccio, an elementary school teacher in Midlothian, Ill., for more than 30 years. "It helps a student organize thoughts when writing. Also, reading and spelling are easier when a student can find common links between words, such as 'everyone' and 'everything' or 'hat' and 'cat.' In math, sorting items such as coins into like groups makes for simpler addition."

Action figures can be categorized in a variety of ways. Make cleaning up educational (and more fun) by calling for toys to be picked up in a certain order, such as all heroes with capes first and all figures not carrying a weapon second. Allow kids to create their own categories based on shared characteristics in order to help train their brains to look for similarities and differences between items.

Another way to sort with a purpose is alphabetically. For younger children who need to learn the order of the ABCs, this could mean just gathering all figures for a given letter as you call the letter. Older children can alphabetize beyond the first letter and create a long line by inserting each character they pick up into the proper spot.

Story Tellers

Of course children will spend much of their time with action figures simply playing. The elaborate scenes they make up can be a good gateway to understanding narrative. Ask them about plot, characters and setting. Encourage tales to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Writing assignments can also become easier when children realize they already create fiction every time they play. "My 8-year-old needed to write a poem," says Frank George, a father and English teacher in Arlington, Va. "He was having trouble figuring out a subject and decided to have a Star Wars duel while he thought. Suddenly, he got the idea to focus his assignment on "-ing" words that described the battle. The poem was quite interesting, and I was happy to have him write something that had meaning to him. Boys who can make connections between their experiences and literature are more likely to be readers and writers for life."

Anything that can get children excited about learning is worth a try. Challenge your child to find new ways to make homework fun. Besides, exercising creativity is a great learning experience, too!

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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