Use your kid's cars, action figures, stuffed animals, and more to reinforce the skills he's learning in school.

boy playing with toy cars
Credit: Lane Oatey/Blue Jean Images/ Jupiter

When your child begs for another Skylander or Lalaloopsy, it's easy to say no. But when she asks for a toy that helps with math, do you give in? Families spend about $6 billion on learning toys every year. "While there's nothing wrong with those, all toys can be educational," says Jeri Robinson, vice president for family learning at Boston Children's Museum. "In fact, the most educational ones are usually the simplest, like cars and dolls. It's not about how they're marketed -- it's about how you play with them." We asked Robinson and other experts to share creative suggestions on how you can help your 5- or 6-year-old get more out of the toys you already own.

Build Science Skills

Every kid creates towers or houses out of Legos, but how about a flower, a person, or a zoo? Make up your own game by writing a bunch of "challenges" on slips of paper (animal, favorite food, garden, something wearable, a room in a house) and then have your child choose one and try to create it. Building anything with Legos enhances your child's spatial and fine-motor skills, says developmental psychologist Betty Bardige, Ed.D., coauthor of Your Child at Play: Five to Eight Years. Following the directions and correcting mistakes engages scientific thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. To boost these abilities, give her engineering challenges. How wide can you make a bridge or a roof? Can you build a tower that will hold the weight of a golf ball on top?

Drive Home Reading

If your child is constantly playing with cars or trains, he can use them to practice reading and writing. With sidewalk chalk or masking tape, make roads in the shape of letters your child is struggling with, suggests Robinson, who used the technique with her son. You can also create parking lots on big sheets of paper, label each spot with a letter, a number, or a word, and then make a game of it: Call out the label and have your child zoom a car into that spot. The parking-lot game is also a great way to help your child recognize some sight words like stop and go.

Doll Up Storytelling

Chances are your kid already uses dolls, stuffed animals, or action figures when playing make-believe. To stretch her imagination further, try introducing a new element to her story: "What would happen if ... ?" Encourage her to be as zany as possible. What would happen if her Pillow Pet couldn't fall asleep? Or if Barbie were Batman's sister? Or even if her Fijit Friend got stuck in slime? You can also create a game by putting characters in one bin and objects (like sunglasses, a banana, a sword) in a second one. Have your child pick two characters and two objects and create an adventure that includes all of them. "Most of us think of literacy as decoding letters, but comprehension is a bigger piece of it," explains Dr. Bardige. "Understanding the parts of a story prepares kids for writing and reading."

Have a Ball With Math

Of course, playing catch helps your child's motor skills and hand-eye coordination, but experts say you can reinforce basic math concepts with just a few twists. Counting backwards as you toss to each other will help your child with subtraction. If that's easy for him, try counting by twos, fives, or tens. Often called "skip counting" by kindergarten teachers, it prepares kids for the abstract thinking required for multiplication. To liven things up, set up a target for throwing or kicking, construct a homemade scoreboard, and let him do the tallying as the two of you compete. "Kids love keeping score," says Dr. Bardige, "and it can be a great way to practice math."

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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