Friday, November 4, 2011

Want to Get Your Kids Into College? Let Them Play

Really? Play gets kids into college? What could be better?

At Think-a-lot Toys, we've long advocated that play is an important factor in education. Play gets kids to have fun while learning new things. It teaches them how to interact socially and emotionally in healthy ways. So when I came across an article by a Harvard professor and an early childhood teacher who serve as "Masters" of a residential house at Harvard, I felt it was worth passing on because it shatters some of our beliefs that we have about how to create smart kids.

Their article says that while most parents think that while play-based education is good for a kid's childhood, skills-based education is what will get them into Harvard. After working with Harvard students for many years, they both came to the conclusion that in fact, this belief is wrong and should be switched. A play-based curriculum is better at getting kids into Harvard than a skills-based one.

Why? Because a play-based curriculum teaches kids how to play well with others. It teaches them how to listen to the feelings and ideas of others. It teaches them how to disagree, problem solve, be flexible and live with disappointment. And it teaches them how to control their impulses, which research says is the best predictor of school success.

How does this relate to getting into college?

Well, these authors write, "As admissions officers at selective colleges like to say, an entire freshman class could be filled with students with perfect grades and test scores. But academic achievement in college requires readiness skills that transcend mere book learning. It requires the ability to engage actively with people and ideas. In short, it requires a deep connection with the world." And play seems to be one of the best ways to get kids to engage with others and connect with the world in a constructive way. As they said, "They all know how to work, but some of them haven't learned how to play."

So, it appears that a play-based education really does get kids into college. As parents, we can make sure our kids have enough play in their life and we can advocate for having enough play at school and even in the classroom. Having games like Think-ets, StoryPlay Cards and Story Speller in the classroom may help get them into a great college.

To read the full article, visit

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Storytelling in Education

I came across an amazing statement the other day about the importance of storytelling in education.

"Amidst the bustle of our visually-oriented, technologically-enhanced, multi-tasking, competitive world where we share information through text messaging, sound bytes, cell phones, and disks that we burn, we need to be reminded of our humanity... Storytelling helps students be active not only in presenting but also in focused listening and reacting, enhancing the vital skills of communication."

This comes from a statement from the Youth, Educators and Storytellers Alliance of the National Storytelling Network (aka YES! Alliance) and I think it hits the nail on the head. Too often we spend time in digital communication rather than face to face communication. Storytelling, in all its forms, is a shared form of communication that brings us closer to our humanity.

According to their report, some of the benefits of storytelling in education include the following:
  • it enlivens the delivery of curriculum
  • it encourages students to think about issues
  • it can deliver emotional and factual content beyond a child's vocabulary or reading ability
  • it helps students stretch and expand their thinking
  • it expands visualization skills as children form pictures in their minds.
Indeed, we tell stories naturally. At dinner parties. In casual conversation. By the campfire. Even in business presentations. Learning to tell stories effectively is a useful skill and when we bring our silliness, imaginations and creativity to our stories we further engage our audience.

Sure, there are ways to manipulate stories to our own ends. And there are ways that we over indulge our emotional responses when we share our stories with others. But the art of storytelling requires that we balance our own personal stories by listening to our audience and blending our emotions with fact.

The YES! Alliance recognizes that storytelling has an important role to play in education. We here at Think-a-lot Toys couldn't agree more.

(To read the full statement from the YES! Alliance, go to: Position Paper.pdf)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Think-ets is...Major Fun!

We're thrilled to say that our game Think-ets has just won the "Major Fun" award from, who else...Major Fun!

Major Fun is also known as the award-winning designer and educator, Bernie DeKoven! Bernie has been inventing new ways to play since the early 1970s when he developed a curriculum in social skill development through games for the School District of Philadelphia and helped the New Games Foundation develop its international training program in facilitating large scale community play events.

What we love about him is the quality of his reviews and the insight into games, culled from years of experience. Check out what he wrote about our "game" Think-ets:

"But despite all the games that can be played when you open one of these packages, I’m not going to talk about the games. Instead I’m going to talk about what makes Think-ets such a great toy as opposed to a game.

A quick story. When I handed my daughter (9) and one of her best friends (11) a couple of bags of Think-ets, one of the first things they did was arrange the pieces. My daughter went for shape and color and her friend by alphabetical order. They created other patterns and spent half an hour or more just moving the pieces into lines. This actually seemed to fit some of the games mentioned in the instructions, so I suggested one of the other games and they shrugged without much enthusiasm but went right on playing with the pieces. They soon left the table and went off to incorporate the Think-ets into a rather complicated game of school they had going upstairs.

My guess is that most people will experience Think-ets in the way my daughter and her friend did. They are fascinating toys. They are vehicles for imaginative play, and in this capacity they are incredibly engaging. For a game to work—for anything to be considered a game in the first place—the players must agree to follow a set of rules; a prescribed set of behaviors must be followed. A game is a common set of behaviors. By contrast, a toy might suggest methods of play, but a toy is not limited to a single set of actions. You want your cowboy action figure to dive to Atlantis? Fine. You want it to actually be a dog instead of a human? Sure. That dog has a pet spider that looks a lot like my car keys? That’s great…

Hey! Gimme my keys!

Think-ets are Major Fun not because of the games that are included in the package, but because the collection of trinkets lends itself so well to the imagination."

See what I mean?

So, if you're looking for a great game, or toy, check out his site. You will be pleasantly surprised to see reviews from a pro. Check him out at

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What's In a Story?

Have you ever really listened carefully to the stories that your kids or your friends tell when they are engaged in storytelling? It's an amazing exercise and may even give you lots of information about them.

Kierran Egan is a professor of education at Simon Fraser University in Canada and author of the book, "Teaching As Storytelling: An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School." He argues that schools often ignore the power and educational use of children's imaginations. Kids make sense of the world through stories. It helps them manage the information that comes in. And, teaching through storytelling is an important tool that should be used in the classroom.

So, what does this really mean? Well, it means letting the kids learn about abstract concepts like loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, and honor and selfishness through stories--both those written by famous people and those written or told by themselves. Stories have a way of tapping into symbolic expression, which lies a little deeper under the surface and which gets kids totally engrossed.

So, grab your bag of Think-ets or StoryPlay Cards and tell your kids or friends to tell you a story. Short ones are fine. Then, take a moment and really look at the story elements they included. I like to think of stories as little inkblot tests, they sure can tell you a lot about what a person is thinking. And that, can be really interesting--and boatloads of fun.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Conversations That Feed the Heart

Conversations of the heart are important. They bring us closer to the deeper feelings we have inside that drive us. And, they bring us closer to the things we are thinking about or are truly joyous about. In our busy world, having these kinds of special conversations is important and one of the main reasons we created our StoryPlay Cards.

Our StoryPlay Cards were designed as a multi-purpose deck so kids wouldn't get bored with them. You can use them as storytelling cards. You can use them to play card games. And you can use them to start conversations of the heart.
Here is how it works.

Spread out some StoryPlay Cards face up. You can spread all of them or just 20 random ones. Take a moment to pick the one that says, "This is me right now!" Maybe it's the Path, Sword, Gift, or even the Shadow. Whatever it is, it is saying something that is important to you. We are driven by forces inside us and it's good now and again to look at and even dialogue about these things.

Last month, my daughter and I sat down and did this little card choosing with some close friends and their kids. I chose the Cocoon because I had just finished a long project that was exhausting and I needed a little inward time. We all went around and heard about the card that we picked. What is so precious about this is that we each got to know a little bit more about each other and it brought us closer.

Our world is indeed on the fast track of change and getting together with others to share in laughter, creativity and personal insight is a good thing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stories, Not Data at Heart of Human Motivation

Recently, the Vancouver Sun ran a story under this title describing how stories are really at the heart of human motivation, much more than data. Stories have the essential quality of being able tap into the emotional "root system" that drives all of us. At Think-a-lot Toys, this is music to our ears.

As the author of the article points out, "The work of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell demonstrated that human beings the world over are wired to respond to storytelling. This is because we are emotional, meaning-making creatures first, and what stir us are efforts and opportunities that capture our imagination." Stories, it seems, drive us and have driven us for centuries. And the better we get at telling stories--and listening to the wisdom of others' stories--the better we become at motivating not only ourselves but others.

In fact, the former CEO of Sony Pictures, Peter Guber, has just come out with a new book titled "Tell to Win"and in it he shares that a lifetime of refining his own storytelling ability has accounted for the lion's share of his success. He shares how he motivated people first through their heart or gut and then followed up with the reasons to act. And, framing his vision through stories were key to his success.

What this tells me is that storytelling is an important art that we need to nurture throughout life. Whether we are regaling others with our humorous or heartbreaking stories of daily life or we are sharing the deeper stories of our own hero's journey, it is important to remember that storytelling is more important than data, just as imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein captured this well when he said that "not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts."

For the full version of this story by Juma Wood, visit

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

More Ways to Use Think-ets

Think-ets are great for telling stories. They are also great for playing memory games or the strategy game, "Who's Last?"

But one enthusiastic player wrote in with all the ways she can think of to use Think-ets in addition to the games we list. These will surely stimulate creativity, critical thinking and who knows what else. Thanks to Diane Black!


1) Make up a themed story (school story, story featuring a particular person--real or not, camping story, Halloween story, birthday story, fun variation on a book or movie already known, etc)... each person could also take a turn at declaring the theme (e.g. declaring trumps)

2) Sounds: order items by initial sounds or by ending sounds, or alphabetically, or by number of syllables... or voice the sound that each makes, or "could" make

3) Language: give a verb (or adjective, or proper noun) relating to each item... put items down by "sentence" or by "paragraph" to separate and begin to get concept of organizing speech/writing

4) Visual: sort by color/etc. attributes: (darkest to lightest... solid color vs. pattern... palest to most saturated colors.... same color or same color familiy... as "color wheel")

5) Sort by size ...sort by shape--perhaps least amount of "stick-out-ness"... make solid shapes with lines/columns --e.g., lines of rows to make a square or rectangle shape

6) Make a circle/triangle/square/diagonal/radius, etc., outline with the items

7) Nest objects as close together as possible (leaving least amt of empty space), like puzzle pieces
...pick one object up without moving others (like pickup sticks)

8) Use tweezers, chopsticks, etc. to pick up ...then perhaps immediately stack, or toss into a circle, magazine, piece of clothing, or pouch/bag, etc.

9) Add other objects to the 15... e.g., a number of the same items like rocks or beans, then use those as another object (3-D mountain) or as a path, or an outline of scenery feature (like a corral or map)... or add various objects one might find around the house, or could make

10) Add a piece of aluminum foil to the 15 objects --it can be scrunched or bent to make all kinds of shapes, requires no glue, and can be torn into more pieces ...plain paper can also be twisted or bent into various shapes

11) Make a tunnel or an arch from twisted paper/foil or anything around, then try to flip objects through it (like playing marbles), or put objects on a tilted surface then try to slide them through....... or make ramps and jumps of various kinds for objects

12) Draw a scene to go with the story as it's made up, or for the story to conform to... or draw something for each object to sit in, etc., or that relates to it

13) Draw a path on paper or napkin at a restaurant (possibly with obstacles or other things), then move object inside path without touching edges of path or obstacles ...or have the drawn objects be part of story... or make a regular game with a drawn "board" by using other scraps of paper/etc as indicators of the # of spaces to move (or could have stop-for-one-turn, or jump-ahead-six or similar icon marked on path ...or use a die or a spinner or draw straws, etc., or add something like rock/scissors/paper, to decide how many objects to use for a round of play)

14) Or instead of drawing on something temporary, at home make a more permanent "board" or scene by gluing (onto cardboard or something a bit stiff) string or yarn as paths, wads of green paper for bushes, tunnels, etc.... if make the board or scene in a shallow box, can be covered and taken with pouch when not at home

15) To avoid having a "winner," avoiding having an
end if there's a path...and/or just play for a certain amount of time, or until players want to move on to something else.

OK, then. Go get busy!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Think-ets and StoryPlay Cards as Writing Prompts

Sometimes it just takes a little thing to get us motivated. A word said. A gesture made. Or even a miniature given. Teachers have found that using tactile objects or illustrated cards are a wonderful way to get kids out of their inertia and into a whole world of their imaginations--and Think-ets and StoryPlay Cards have been a fun way to get kids thinking and then writing.

Teachers love having these two classroom tools in their classroom because of how they can spark their imaginations and get them going on writing a story. Writing can sometimes be a tedious job when you just can't think about what to write about. Most of us have had writer's block. But having a little story prompt, like a Think-ets trinket or a StoryPlay Card, can launch kids into the unknown and get them writing.

How does it work? Theoretically, it works because we are often motivated by something that triggers not only our minds but also our hearts. Emotion is a great driver for a story. When kids connect with a Think-ets trinkets or StoryPlay Card, they do so because they love what they choose because it has some meaning for them. It connect with something in their emotional worlds. And then, they can begin to write about something meaningful to them.

Practically, it works like this. Lay out your set of Think-ets trinkets or StoryPlay Cards and have kids pick one that they like. If you have time, get them to talk in pairs with a partner about why they picked the object or card and what it reminded them of. Many kids love having time to talk about it with someone else before they get started. It further fuels their creative juices.

Parents who want their kids to be more imaginative love these tools. And, it works equally as well for adults as with kids, though adults may prefer the StoryPlay Cards to miniatures.

We all know the power that imagination has on our lives. It creates new ideas, new products, new jobs, even whole new industries. It can also combat boredom and help in resolving conflicts. But perhaps best of all, it creates tons of fun.