- Paper and crayons/pens/markers/pencils/chalk. This cannot be understated. The act of drawing not only helps a child learn important motor skills for penmanship, but it also engages both sides of the brain. Most of us can see how the act of creating an image helps the creative half of the brain. However, it also helps the analytical. The logical, analytical brain is figuring out dimensions, shapes, lines, and proportion. It learns that if it wants everything on one page it has to space it right. Some research also suggests that allowing children to free draw then talk about their drawings encourages communication and social skills, as well as helps to develop emotional intelligence and self-reflection.
- Wooden spoons. Most of us have a few of these at home. Buy a cheap pair just for play or give your little ones older ones that have been washed (be sure to check that they aren't splintering). Wooden spoons can be used to teach motor skills by using them as bats or hockey sticks and hitting soft balls around the room. They can also teach rhyme and basic math/counting skills by using them as rhythm sticks. If you have a large number of spoons/forks/spatulas you can use them to teach sorting, counting, and even early division skills.
- A Sheet or Towel. These can be used to teach basic math skills such as fractions. (Fold the sheet in half, then in half again. Now you have fourths.) These are also great at teaching deductive skills and visualization skills. Place a favorite toy or common household item under a thin sheet or blanket. Have your child feel the item and guess as to what it is. You can also give simple clues such as color or use. This is an important cognitive skill that helps with problem solving and creative processes.
- Family Photo Albums. Use your family albums to teach a variety of topics and skills. The topics you can teach are as varied as your photos. Teach about seasons, families, religious events, geography, history, the possibilities are endless. You can also use your family photos to tell stories and teach sequencing. Put photos together and make your own story book. Kids love to hear about people they know. How neat would be to hear of the story of how Grandpa defeated the evil army to come home and marry Princess Grandma? You can also have your child tell you the story of the photo. Have them come up with the craziest possible story behind that photo of you and your roommate from college. This type of storytelling not only focuses on creative skills, but on emotional intelligence, social skills, and empathy.
But wait, I said five educational toys, didn't I? The last educational toy is certainly not least. In fact, the most important educational toy you already own is your brain. You don't need a computer game or dancing doll to teach your child their ABC's, just sing it with them. They don't need to watch special programing on television or have a collection of made-for-babies DVDs. Go for a walk with them and point to things and name them. Then have your child spell T-R-E-E and B-I-R-D and F-L-O-W-E-R. Soon you can have them counting the trees and telling you the types, what season they bloom in, what fruit or nuts they make. And you know what? All it costs is your time.
I know we are all very busy people, but if you really want your baby to be a genius or straight-A student, they don't need special books or learning programs. They need you. Get into the habit of seeing every moment as a learning experience and play with your kids. Your son may not solve all the mysteries of String Theory, but he just might turn out to be one pretty awesome kid.