Learning Toys and Tools


Educational Toys
Instructive Toys


Objects designed to support learning

Principal Metaphors

Educators from a wide range of theoretical backgrounds encourage the use of Learning Toys and Tools. In particular, because Learning Toys and Tools are physical in nature, they are often endorsed by proponents of Learning Styles Theories who align with the Acquisition Metaphor and who frequently and simplistically advocate for visual, kinaesthetic, and other modes of engagement. More sophisticated treatments are associated with Embodiment Discourses and Embeddedness Discourses, and so the following clusters of metaphors are typical:
  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … appropriate functioning
  • Learner is … a bodied agent (cultural situated)
  • Learning is … noticing, interpreting, and integrating
  • Teaching is … designing experiences (orienting, juxtaposing)


ancient, with textual records dating to the 1500s


Broadly speaking, the notion of Learning Toys and Tools can be applied to any object that invites play and stimulates learning. In more precise usage, Learning Toys and Tools and associated descriptors are reserved for those objects that are deliberately designed for children, to support the development of specific skills and/or the understanding of specific concepts. Typically, Learning Toys and Tools are usable by individuals or groups, but are distinguished from games as less rule-bound and usually less structured. (See Games and LearningConstructionist Gaming, and Gamification.) Below are some examples of Learning Toys and Tools (note that many are associated with specific models of Alternative Education):
  • Froebel Gifts (Friedrich Fröbel, mid-1800s) – a set of age-indexed objects for young children – including, e.g., a ball of yarn, wooden geometric shapes, and wooden building pieces – that are intended to support educational play and support conceptual development
  • Manipulatives (ancient, but a spike in interest in the late-1990s) – objects that are deliberately chosen or designed for use in teaching key conceptual content. Most often encountered in mathematics education, Manipulatives are commonly and naively viewed as concrete representations of abstract ideas, and are thus typically discussed in terms of illustrating concepts and demonstrating procedures. More sophisticated treatments revolve around the realization that Manipulatives have more to do with structured acts of moving than with acts of moving structures – that is, they are about educating the knowing body. Prominent examples include Base-10 Blocks, Cuisenaire Rods, and Pattern Blocks.
  • Mapping Tools
    • Concept Mapping (Thought Mapping) (Joseph D. Novak, 1980s) – a process aimed at generating a graphic representation of a concept by generating relevant statements and then organizing them in some coherent manner
    • Knowledge Mapping (Edward Rogers, 1990s) – a collaborative process aimed at excavating individuals and collective tacit knowledge, and bringing it to bear on organizational problems
    • Mind Mapping (Tony Buzan, 1990s) – a image-based activity used to collect and organize information on a specific topic by constructing a network based on major and minor themes
    • Thinking Maps (David Hyerle, 1980s) – visual aids that are designed to afford useful structures for organizing information, linking ideas, and communicating insights. There are eight types of Thinking Maps, each intended to reflect a specific thinking process: Brace Map (whole–part relationships), Bridge Map (for illustrating analogies and metaphors), Bubble Map (effective use of adjectives), Circle Map (context-specific definitions), Double Bubble Map (for comparing and contrasting), Flow Map (for ordering events), Multi-Flow Map (for analyzing cause-and-effect), Tree Map (for clustering and classifying)
  • Mindtools (David Jonassen, 1980s) – a re-envisioning of educational technologies, not as devices to “learn through,” but as tools to “learn with” in the development of reasoning and higher-order thinking
  • Montessori Sensorial Materials (Maria Montessori, early-1900s) – materials that are intended to invite inventive play, critical examination, problem solving, and learner independence – and that are designed to be supportive of the development of concepts that are or soon will be relevant in young learners’ lives
  • Objects-To-Think-With (Seymour Papert, 1980s) – cultural objects that are part of the learner’s natural landscape and that embody significant conceptual information
  • Waldorf Doll (Steiner Doll) (Rudolf Steiner, early-1900s) – a doll designed to invite creative and imaginative play – with simple expressions and natural postures, typically constructed entirely of natural fibers, and with features appropriate to a child’s age


As intimated above, in our discussion of “Principal Metaphors,” there are dramatic differences in theorizing around the design and use of Learning Toys and Tools. Based on online descriptions, it would seem reasonable to conclude that most advocates of Learning Toys and Tools lean in the direction of the “very naïve,” with much more pronounced emphases on illustrating principles than on developing complex repertoires of bodily actions and critical discernments. For instance, Base-10 Blocks are often used to “show how” a base-10 numeration system works, thus giving short shrift to a design that can afford coordinated, far-reaching, and extendable multisensory experiences of magnitudes, relationships, and operations within a base-10 system.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Learning Toys and Tools tend to be derivative of prominent theories of learning, but they do not typically contribute to understandings of the nature and complexity of the phenomenon.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Learning Toys and Tools are about influencing students’ learning. Thus, while not necessarily about deliberate acts of teaching, Learning Toys and Tools is certainly about incidental and indirect acts of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

A handful of Learning Toys and Tools satisfy all our criteria for scientific discourses. (The ones we've singled out above are good examples.) However, it appears that most examples and public discussions of Learning Toys and Tools fall short in multiple ways.


  • Concept Mapping (Thought Mapping)
  • Froebel Gifts
  • Knowledge Mapping
  • Manipulatives
  • Mind Mapping
  • Mindtools
  • Montessori Sensorial Materials
  • Objects-To-Think-With
  • Thinking Maps
  • Waldorf Doll (Steiner Doll)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Learning Toys and Tools” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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