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Episode 171

Just in time for toy-buying season, Barry Kudrowitz, PhD, a toy designer and professor of product design at the University of Minnesota, and Doris Bergen, PhD, a professor emerita of educational psychology at Miami University in Ohio, discuss the psychology of toys. What makes something a good toy? Why do some toys stand the test of time while others fizzle out after one season? How has technology changed the way kids play with toys? Does gender affect kids’ toy choices? And do we ever grow out of toys?

About the experts: Barry Kudrowitz, PhD, and Doris Bergen, PhD

barry-kudrowitz Barry Kudrowitz, PhD, is an associate professor and director of product design at the University of Minnesota. He received his PhD from the mechanical engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), studying humor, creativity, and idea generation. Kudrowitz is interested in how creativity is perceived, evaluated and learned. He has years of experience working with the toy industry and has taught toy design for over a decade. Kudrowitz co-designed a Nerf toy, an elevator simulator that is in operation at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and a ketchup-dispensing robot that was featured on the Martha Stewart Show. He is also the associate editor of the Journal of Food Design.

Doris Bergen, PhD Doris Bergen, PhD, is a distinguished professor emerita in the Department of Educational Psychology at Miami University in Ohio. Her research interests have included international evaluation of cross-cultural programs for young children, development of play and humor in early and middle childhood, effects of technology-augmented toys, adult memories of their childhood play, gifted children’s humor development, social interactions of children with special needs, effects of early phonological awareness levels on later reading ability, and developmental effects of international adoptions. She is a Miami University Distinguished Scholar, having published more than 70 book chapters and journal articles, and 13 books, including her most recent The Handbook of Developmentally Appropriate Toys (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Streaming Audio



Kim Mills: It's that time of the year, when parents and other caregivers race to find the hottest toys and stock up on classic favorites. From Pop-Its to Pokemon, from Squishmallows to LEGOs—toys might seem frivolous, but to psychologists, they're a subject for serious study. Researchers have long known that children learn best through play. Play is how kids stretch their brains and develop crucial cognitive, social, and other skills, and toys are a fundamental part of play time.

But what makes something a good toy? Indeed, what makes something a toy at all? Why do some toys stand the test of time while others are just a one-season wonder? What's the difference between fun and educational toys? Why do we assign gender appropriateness to some toys and not to others? How do kids’ toy preferences change as they age and how has technology changed what toys are and the way kids play with toys?

Welcome to Speaking of Psychology, the flagship podcast of the American Psychological Association that examines the links between psychological science and everyday life. I'm Kim Mills.

We have two guests today. Our first is Dr. Barry Kudrowitz, an associate professor and director of product design at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where he teaches classes in toy product design. Dr. Kudrowitz has a PhD in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied creativity, humor, and idea generation. And he has studied how play can fuel creativity and innovation. In addition to his academic career, he's also a toy designer. Highlights of his work include the Catsup Crapper, an anthropomorphic roller skating ketchup bottle that he designed as a grad student, and the Nerf Atom Blaster, a Nerf toy sold by Hasbro more than five years.

Our second guest is Dr. Doris Bergen, a distinguished professor emerita of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Dr. Bergen began her career as a pre-kindergarten and elementary school teacher. Over her long academic career, she has explored the many ways that play is crucial to children's development. She has studied play and humor in early and middle childhood, the effects of technology-enhanced toys, and cross-cultural considerations in play, among many other topics. Dr. Bergen has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including her most recent, The Handbook of Developmentally Appropriate Toys, which was published in March 2021.

Thank you both for joining us today.

Barry Kudrowitz, PhD: Thanks for having me.

Doris Bergen, PhD: Glad to be here.

Mills: All right. So let's start with a broad question, which we usually do. What is the purpose of toys and what makes something a good toy, or makes something a toy at all? For example, can a stick or a rock be a toy?

Bergen: Actually, toys have existed for a long, long time. You can even find them in early sites. Some of the typical toys that children still play with today, like dolls and wheel toys, things of that sort, have been around for a long time. I would say that the purpose of toys, in my view, is to enhance children's play—because children will play even if there aren't any toys. They'll find sticks, or they'll find rocks, or they'll find other things to use in their pretend play and in their game play. Toys are a means of enhancing the play and making it more creative and often more elaborative.

Kudrowitz: Yeah, I agree. Toys are a tool for play. There's a difference between a toy and a toy product. There are certain toys that are designed by people to be intended to be used for play, and then there're things that are not intended to be used for play that children still play with, like cardboard boxes, and spoons, and rakes and stuff. They're still toys, but maybe they're not toy products.

Bergen: Many toy products are designed by people who have ideas about what they think is good for children to play with. Maybe they think they'll learn particular things from them, they have different expectations about the toys. I would say a really good toy is one that doesn't do everything itself, but has the child do it. Unfortunately, I think some toys designed do too much and there isn't really even room for children to do very much with them. So those toys typically don't have very lasting value. Maybe kids will play with them for a while, learn what they do, and then they'll probably turn them into something else and use them in a different way or maybe discard them all together.

Mills: Are those things that you think about, Dr. Kudrowitz when you're designing toys or teaching people how to design toys?

Kudrowitz: I'm thinking about them, but not necessarily the students. Even when we do play testing, it's not necessarily, even the children that we play test are thinking about those things. Oftentimes it's what is trendy or popular that they might gravitate to. I also think that what makes a toy a good toy is that it could be used in a variety of different contexts and it doesn't die. You can use it for generations, for example, or in multiple different ways of playing. The cardboard box is a great example. We actually have a box in our dining room right now from a couch, but it's been played with by the children for months now. We left this giant box in the dining room, and they play with that more than all the toys we've gotten so far. It's a fort, it's a rocket ship, they're drawing all over the walls, they're cutting out holes. And that was free, and it's compostable. I think it's fantastic.

Bergen: There are different kinds of play, of course, and different kinds of toys facilitate different kinds. If you're thinking of just exploratory play or manipulative play, that's one kind of toy that'll work for that. If you're looking at pretend play, there's a whole range of other kinds of toys that are really facilitative of pretense. And then, of course, there's game play of all different kinds and very different kinds of toys for that. There's certainly some overlap among those. The type of play that the child's going to do, if its active play, quiet play of various sorts, we'll usually need, or at least there'll be an expectation, that different kinds of toys will meet the needs for different kinds of play.

Mills: A lot of parents think that toys come in basically two categories. Dr. Bergen, you just described several categories, not just two, but for parents, they think they're educational toys like those that are designed to teach science, or math, or reading. Then there are toys that are for fun, which covers pretty much everything else. Is that a valid distinction? Is there a difference between a fun toy and an educational toy? Should there be?

Kudrowitz: I mean, going back to the very first thing we talked about, the primary purpose of a toy is play. If the primary purpose is to teach something, it may not be a very good toy. That being said, play is how we learn. That's how we've learned skills growing up, as we learned developmental skills, cognitive skills, physical skills. You could also argue that no matter what kind of play, if you're engaging in play, you could argue that you're learning something. It's a little bit hard to separate those two, but I don't necessarily like the idea of a toy being primarily designed to be teaching you something.

Bergen: I would agree. I think that's maybe more of a marketing distinction than it is a toy distinction, because I think children learn from every type of play and from every type of toy. They may not be learning a specific thing like letters, or whatever the toy maker thought they would do, but they also learn many other social and physical, and intellectual skills from just about any toy. I think the distinction, educational toys, is primarily a distinction for parents, and for teachers, and people who think that, “Oh, if it says educational, it's going to have a greater educational factor.”

The other way that an educational toy could be seen, is if there's a specific kind of teaching that the adult wants a child to have. Unfortunately, sometimes those kind of toys that are very specifically designed to teach a certain thing are either not used very often with the child, or the child transforms them in some way into pretend or something else, and they don't exactly use them in the same way that the person who designed them thought they would use them.

Mills: I think that's an amazing thing that kids can do. I mean, I've known parents, for example, who've decided that they never want their children to have a toy gun. And somehow, kids will figure out how to make something into a gun. If they want to play with guns, they're going to have a make believe gun, right? I mean, it's just the creativeness of childhood. Dr. Kudrowitz, you were quoted in a recent article talking about the fact that toy makers worry that kids are losing interest in toys at a younger age than they used to. Is that actually happening? And if it is, why do you think so?

Kudrowitz: This is related to the concept of age compression. There's probably other terms related to this, and you can talk to Doris about that, but it seems like kids are playing with the stuff that the older kids were playing with in the past. This may be more of an artifact of technology advancing to the degree that things that we used to play with in the past were, I don't want to say dumb, but they didn't have high tech inside because that was expensive. In today's society, you can put LEDs in anything and it's relatively low cost. You could put motors in things and processors and there're computers in everything, in my pocket right now.

It's not that much more expensive in today's society. So a lot of the things that children are playing with today are not necessarily video games, but they're more like technology. In the market space, some of those things kind of get lumped into consumer electronics and not necessarily in the toy aisle. And so again, it kind of goes back to maybe marketing in some ways, but also you're not necessarily seeing kids play with the same toys as they were years ago. There's a lot more screens and digital things in their hands.

Bergen: As a long-time observer of play and interviewing of adults' memories of their childhood play, I definitely agreed with Barry that the time and the experiences children have in play now has changed quite a bit. When you think back to your own play time, or certainly many other people who I've interviewed, they recall long periods of time where they pretty much could decide what they wanted to do with the time, and the kind of play materials they had were ones that they created. They made the toy talk, or they made the toy walk, or they did whatever it was with their own imagination. Now, so many of the toys, the toy does everything. There's really not much for the child to do, and so that toy is not going to be nearly as important in terms of children's development or their interest level.

Because if there's 10 buttons to push and you've pushed all 10 buttons, and then that's really the end of what you can do with the toy. Usually that what you see the child do is either put it away and not look at it anymore, or pick it up and pretend it's something altogether different, and use imagination and do something else with it. So I do think that that change, and certainly that idea that experiences have gone down to lower levels, is not just related to toys, but it's pervasive across a lot of other things for children today. I've often thought the people designing the technology are the ones that are having the playful time because they're the ones that get to figure out what to do with it and so on.

Mills: So it's the grownups who are coming up with these ideas. The kids aren't asking for the toys to be—yeah. Are you recommending that parents give their kids dolls that don't do anything except sit there?

Kudrowitz: They still make those.

Mills: I know.

Bergen: One of the things that concerns me a great deal is, if you remember back to your childhood, maybe all summer, you didn't have anything to do except just figure out what to play with yourself. Now, children's lives are very structured, both after school and in summer, and so they don't necessarily have those long periods of time where they can really create their own play world. That's a very, very different thing that we see now.

Mills: Let me ask a kind of a developmental question. Maybe this is for Dr. Bergen, although you're both welcome to answer it, but what happens to children who grow up without actual toys? Do they develop differently? And are they different as adults?

Bergen: That's a really interesting question. I really don't know of any research that's really looked at children who grew up without play, because the research that let's say would be done in a country where there were very few toys, show that children play anyway. They don't necessarily have to have toys to play. So it's more of a question, I guess, if you had children who had to go to work at age six or something like that, and I don't really know, that's a very important issue that probably should be studied. I don't really know of the case that there are children who have any play experiences, but they may be very different kinds of play experiences.

They may have play experiences where they use whatever is in their environment and create their own play, as compared to the kind of play that Barry was mentioning where they have many, many toys, but a lot of the toys have all these characteristics that just require you to push a button or something like that. I think there's a wide range of play experiences, but at least in my experience, children, even if they have 10 or 15 minutes of their own time are going to find something to play.

Kudrowitz: Going back to the last thing that Doris said on technology maybe restricting play, and that is true, that happens, but it can also be used for good and designers can create open-ended play experiences for children taking advantage of technology. They could create new types of musical instruments, or things where children can program their own things to do whatever they want. What is the Spiderman quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It's in the hands of the designer to create those good toys.

Bergen: I agree with that. I just think that if there's only one way to use a toy, that it's kind of hard for children to use it for a long time period. So, as long as there are many different things to do with it, even if it's got a lot of technology enhancement, I think it can be a toy that has a lot of playability.

Mills: Dr. Kudrowitz, one for you, do commercial toy designers think about developmental psychology while they're designing toys? Do toy companies routinely have psychologists that they consult with? Do they have them on staff? And are those toys different or better?

Kudrowitz: Well, I think this is probably a question for Doris, because I think she's consulted for those big companies. I can say that not all toy companies are large and can afford consultation, and so it's probably general generally the big players that could bring in consultants like Doris on these things.

Bergen: Yeah. I'll pick up on that, because I did, and a lot of other developmental psychology people did do a lot of work for Fisher Price. They had their headquarters in New York for a long, long time, and they would bring us there and we would look at the toys at the stage before they were in their final stage, and we would evaluate them and describe what we thought might be good developmental aspects, and what would work, and what wouldn't and so on. That was really a very important thing. That's why Fisher Price toys were always so very playable and very good for development.

Once Fisher Price got taken over, I think by another company, I don't think they still have those consultants that they did at that time. There may be some other toy companies that do have consultants, but I thought that was really a good process because it was at the time of where there could still be some fine tuning of the toy, but the basic toy was already designed. I think that made the toys really more playable and more developmentally appropriate by having that input from psychologists.

Mills: Dr. Bergen, you studied play in China. Dr. Kudrowitz, you worked on toy design in the Netherlands. Do the types of toys that kids like to play with vary much around the world? Or are they pretty much universal?

Bergen: I guess I would say as far as China, I didn't see any big differences. When I was there, there wasn't a lot of—where I was, it was not a rich environment, and so a lot of the play was pretty basic. Things like balls, and dolls, and toy trucks, and various things like that were pretty much the same there. They also played a lot of games outdoors, and outdoor play was very big at the time I was in China. I really don't know what it's like now, but that was quite a long time ago.

Mills: What about in the Netherlands?

Kudrowitz: It wasn't too different. I'm always looking for new stuff. Being in a new environment, I felt inspired and I felt like all the toys were cooler there because they're all different. I was just on sabbatical actually a couple years ago there, and it was my first introduction to Montessori. We had our two year old in a Montessori daycare, and that style of play was really exciting. The toys are like real stuff. It's like prepping vegetables, and cleaning and stuff.

It's turning these everyday activities into play, in some ways. They have these kinderboerderij, which are these kind of children farms, I guess, in the city. Your family goes, and the kids take care of the animals, and they harvest vegetables, and they could go and they take these little tiny kid-sized wheel barrels and shovels and they go into the pasture, and they pick up cow poop. They do that for like an hour, and it's play.

Mills: This sounds like a con. This is how you make children do work.

Kudrowitz: No, they—my son is like, “Can we go back to the farm and do more of that?” Right. It's getting out into nature, connecting with animals. These are tools that aren't usually their size, and so there's some novelty about that too.

Bergen: I think that European play researchers have studied a lot of outdoor play because they are very much more focused on the natural environment and doing things outdoors in many of the countries in Europe, not so much here as they do there, but that's been a very strong emphasis I think in Europe altogether. I think though, that what I've found is that children's types of play are very similar wherever you are. It may be that they use a manufactured toy that is designed specifically for something, or if they're in an environment where there isn't a manufactured toy that fits whatever it is they want to do, they can invent something else to use.

You can use a piece of wood to be a truck you want to, if you don't have a real truck. You can use a rag and a ball to be a baby, if you really don't have a real doll. I don't think that necessarily the types of things children play are that different. I do think that there are many different materials they use in different places, but pretend play and game play, and exploratory practice play, just doing over and over and expanding things, those are all very common types of play that you would see just really wherever you were in the world, I think.

Mills: I mentioned in the intro that Dr. Kudrowitz, one of your first toy designs was a pooping ketchup bottle, and Dr. Bergen, you've been quoted in a couple of recent articles about why kids are so interested in potty humor and toys that defecate. Since we're on the poop topic here, what is it about bathroom humor and potty-related toys that kids find so irresistible?

Bergen: Well, why do adults laugh at jokes that have those same kind of elements? The only difference is that young children don't have a lot of experiences, so bathroom stuff is one of the few “shocking things” that you're not supposed to talk about. So obviously, that's the one they focus on. Their motivation, at least in my view, is absolutely no different than the adult tells some kind of a scatological joke or whatever. It's just that that's the material they have to act on about being funny and being shocking.

Kudrowitz: Scatological. Wow, I'm going to use that word in my book. Yeah, I don't know, potty humor. They get reinforced, whether it's good or bad, but if the child says something they're going to get laughs. It could be uncomfortable laughs, or it could be actual laughs, or it could be scolding, but they get feedback and they know it will consistently get feedback. And so, we've had a very hard time getting our five year old to stop saying “poop” all the time. Just like ignoring it eventually, is the—

Bergen: I've done a developmental study of children's humor, and you see that's a particular stage. Later, they're going to do other shocking things or tell you a joke that wouldn't be appropriate, either. It's just that with humor, a lot of humor is designed to have some sort of shocking quality to it because that's what makes it funny. So, you use whatever is available at your own experience level. There's been some interesting study of the differences in men's and women's humor. If you look at it closely, it has a lot to do with what have been their life experiences. It's just the same kind of thing. Potty humor is very funny to young children because that's a very important thing in their life. If you recall, there's a lot of attention their adults have paid to how they manage that. It's a good thing to make jokes about and to find funny.

Mills: Shifting gears here, a few years ago there were a number of news stories about major retailers, such as Target, getting rid of boys and girls labels in their toy departments. I'm just wondering what role gender plays in kids toy preferences and in how they play with toys?

Kudrowitz: I think it's all fabricated to some degree by marketing. When I was little, I just wanted to play with the Easy Bake Oven, but I think it was only in pink or something. That's all I wanted. Then it was like, “No, that's a girl toy,” because it's pink and it's cooking. I don't know. I thought that was weird. Now, it's not. It's in different colors. For us, we get our kids whatever they want to play with, and we're trying not to say that's a gendered thing. Sorry, our son has probably more clothes that are labeled as girls clothes at prior times. He has a lot of dresses and skirts. I think with Art Class, I think that's the brand, it's just all mixed up together and there's no calling out “This is for a boy or a girl.”

Bergen: I think a lot more parents feel that way now than they used to, but the toy companies and the toy stores, and all of them, are still egregious about that because they are always determined to label boys toys and girls toys. I would agree with Barry that the typical child will play with anything that they find interesting. There are times when dressing up is great for everybody, and there's times when pushing cars around are great for everybody to be doing. Children would not be making those boy and girl distinctions if adults were not promoting that.

If you ask a lot of parents, unfortunately, even today, they would say, “Oh, I would only want to buy that for a boy,” or “I don't want to buy that for a girl,” but it's kind of working against that tide of advertisements and store directions to allow your child to have as wide a range of toys as they want to have, as Barry's trying to do. I do think it's worse now than it used to be. There was one time period in my professional career where there was a real attempt to take those labels off of the toys, and then it gradually crept back on everything again. I'm hoping if that's the case, that they're beginning to get rid of those labels again. It would be great, but I haven't seen much evidence of that as yet.

Mills: That sounds like it probably mirrors what's happening politically in a given country or in the world. I'm sure that you both know adults who continue to be fascinated with toys. Do we ever really outgrow them? Do our toys just get bigger and more complicated, and maybe more expensive?

Bergen: I think you never outgrow it, but the labels change. So instead of it being, “I'm playing with this,” it's something else. I have a hobby that I collect dolls, or I have a hobby that I fly automated planes or whatever. Play is a basic human characteristic. It is going to be present hopefully for all of us all our life. We should have times when we're playful and we're enjoying things that aren't getting graded, or don't have to be paid for or whatever. I think that we call them by different names. As an adult, you're in a play maybe, but you're not playing, but you're still pretending. You're taking a role. You're at acting and so forth.

So that's a playful type of activity adults would do. That's true for a lot of other adult activities, but we don't call them play. We call them hobbies, or we call them a whole wide range of things. I don't know why the word “play” doesn't continue to get used as much as it should be because the playful quality of humans is one of our, in my view, best qualities.

Kudrowitz: Yeah. In some areas, it stays, like when we're playing video games still as adults or playing sports, for example. In general, it's not like, “Hey guys, you want to come over to my house and play?” You don't call your friends as an adult and say that, unless you're saying cards maybe.

Mills: Right.

Kudrowitz: But yeah, the activities just get more challenging, or they get more fine motor skills. It goes from if you just think about puzzles, you're starting with the four piece puzzle as a toddler, and you get to the hundred piece puzzle, and then an adult you're still doing puzzles, but they're a thousand piece. Maybe they have-

Mills: And it's still fun.

Kudrowitz: Yeah, and it's still fun. Or even skill-based. It goes from stacking, or the Nerf Blasters, to archery or something. It's like your motor skills get better. Your budget gets higher. You can put more time and money into these hobbies or recreation, and we just start to not associate it with that word because that word tends to mean “for kids” or “trivial.” But it's still play. It's just more fine-tuned. It's more advanced.

Bergen: Yeah. We call it a hobby or we might just say, “I want to do creative things.” Instead of saying “play,” I'm “creating” and so forth. I think that my one concern, I guess I'll have to say going back to that earlier when we were talking about technology and how toys have now become so much more technologically designed, my view is the people who are having the playfulness are the people who are designing the stuff more than if it's a toy that you can only do one or two things with. I would hope that as the toys got more sophisticated, that they continue to have many different ways they can be used because if a toy only has a few ways it can be used, it either is not going to be played with very much, or it's going to make children no longer having opportunities to play.

If you're doing video games all the time, or you're doing things that are very structured, you are not getting a chance to have wonderful ideas. There's been some really interesting research on adults who won MacArthur awards, and when they talked with a lot of them, they almost all said that what they most enjoyed when they were younger was what was called Small World Play, which is a kind of play that's allowed for elementary and older aged kids. It's like designing little structures where you make little towns, or you make some kind of a small world, and then you still continue to interact in that small world.

It's appropriate for an older child as compared to yourself taking on a pretend role or something like that. The kind of play that older kids I hope still have, is where they can actually create the worlds and do things themselves and not just rely on the technology that lets them go into somebody else's wonderful idea of what is play, where they don't really get to do their own ideas of play.

Mills: It sounds like you're also advocating for basically more unstructured time, for kids not to always be told, “Now you’ve got to go play tennis,” because they may like tennis, but you're being forced to do it now as opposed to, “Mom, I think I'm going to go out in the street now and play ball with the kids.”

Bergen: Barry's done a lot about creativity, so you might want to talk a little bit about creativity's requirement for playfulness.

Kudrowitz: Yeah. There's a number of studies that have shown you're more creative when you're playing, or when you view an activity as play. I think to just build off of the small world comment or the type of play, in today's world a lot of adults and kids are building those imaginary worlds, but it's in the computer. It's Minecraft and Fortnite, and it is creative. You're building things, you're making up your own stuff, but it's also on a screen. I don't know, there're pros and cons there for sure.

Mills: Yeah. I mean, there's something tactile, if you, for example, make doll houses or you've got a train set, and you've created a whole layout of towns and so forth. It's very different from the experience of doing it just on a screen.

As we're moving into the holiday season, I think I opened with this, and people are out buying toys, do you have any guidance, suggestions for parents who are looking for gifts for their kids, toys, whether they're classics or there's something—I'm not asking you to endorse a particular brand or a product, but sort of the concept of what would you recommend parents be looking for as they're trying to get their kids holiday presents?

Kudrowitz: Wow. Okay. I get this a lot, and then I freeze. Board game-wise, going to my research on creativity, I have a lot of favorites that I think build creative skills. My favorite game is actually called Code Names, and it's a game about divergent thinking and convergent thinking, and it's a word game. It's now branched out into different properties, so there's a Disney version, and a Marvel version, and a Harry Potter version. You're likely to find one that resonates with your child, but I really do like that game as far as the creative skills that it builds.

I'm also partial to anything related to cooking and food, and I don't necessarily think it needs to be a toy version of a thing. I'm not necessarily advocating for the Easy Bake Oven. I'm advocating for maybe the kids knife set that are actually knives. It's the safer knives, but they're still knives. And the kid peeler, vegetable peeler. If there's any other fun products that children can play with you in the kitchen, for example, like a pasta maker, the hand crank pasta maker, at least once a month, the children view that as a toy and we're making food together. It's not that that expensive of a kitchen tool. I guess, think beyond the toy aisle is my recommendation.

Bergen: My suggestion would be, be sure to have some games that everyone in the family can play. If you think back to your childhood, you can remember that some of the best times were when your whole family gathered together and played some kind of game. It might not have been a very intellectual game, but it was something that you could do together. One of the things you learn is how to be a little better sport if you're not always the one who's coming out winning the game. I think that that idea of engaging with your family in play is a very important one. The other suggestion I would have is that the more open-ended toys you can provide, the better in terms of play value. Things that can be used in a number of different ways. Maybe they start out a certain way, but then you can kind of transform them into other things.

Also, the idea that they don't have to be the most popular kind of name, toy brand or whatever, but very simple things. Balls, for example, are still extremely popular toys, and just having a few different sizes of balls and playing with them, but you do need to have either other children to play with or family members to do it. In a lot of my early research, I found kids used to play outside with a lot of other kids. That seems to have been less common now. If they're not playing with other kids outside, then the family needs to play with them, or they have to play more with other kids at school, or somewhere where they can learn some of the give and take. As Piaget would say, enhance their moral development.

Mills: Well, thank you both. This has been really interesting, and I hope that we provided some good advice and guidance to parents and other caregivers of children who are looking for toys particularly around this time of year, but all the time, because toys, there's no season. Toys are for all time. So thank you both.

Kudrowitz: Thanks.

Bergen: Enjoyable to be here. Thank you.

Mills: You can find previous episodes of Speaking of Psychology on our website at, or on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. If you have comments or ideas for future podcasts, you can email us at Speaking of Psychology is produced by Lea Winerman. Our sound editor is Chris Condayan.

Thank you for listening. For the American Psychological Association, I'm Kim Mills.

Date created: December 2021

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Episode 171: Psychology takes toys seriously, with Barry Kudrowitz, PhD, and Doris Bergen, PhD

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Speaking of Psychology

Speaking of Psychology is an audio podcast series highlighting some of the latest, most important, and relevant psychological research being conducted today.

Produced by the American Psychological Association, these podcasts will help listeners apply the science of psychology to their everyday lives.

Subscribe and download via:

Listen to podcast on iTunes

Listen to podcast on Stitcher

Listen to podcast on Spotify

Your Host: Kim I. Mills

Kim I. Mills is senior director of strategic external communications and public affairs for the American Psychological Association, where she has worked since 2007. Mills led APA’s foray into social media and envisioned and launched APA’s award-winning podcast series Speaking of Psychology in 2013. A former reporter and editor for The Associated Press, Mills has also written for publications including The Washington Post, Fast Company, American Journalism Review, Dallas Morning News, and Harvard Business Review.

In her 30+-year career in communications, Mills has extensive media experience, including being interviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other top-tier print media. She has appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Hannity and Colmes, CSPAN, and the BBC, to name a few of her broadcast engagements. Mills holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Barnard College and a master’s in journalism from New York University.