Classic Low-Tech Gifts For Your Child

By Scott Reeves  NOV 27, 2007 2:45 PM

Classic toys can engage children and give parents a chance to participate in the fun.


Call us mossbacks, fuddy-duddies and fussbudgets, but we dislike electronic toys. Strike that – we abhor them.

They’re glitzy and flashy, but most don’t teach a kid anything. Sure, sure – video games develop hand-eye coordination few geezers can match, but after that?

“Certainly, some toys are better than others for stimulating creativity and thinking,” says Dr. Mark A. Brandenburg, director of the Oklahoma Institute for Disaster and Emergency Medicine in Tulsa. “I like toys that stimulate a child’s mind and encourage physical activity – not things such as video games or DVDs that encourage sedentary behavior.”

Our tastes run to blocks, teddy bears and model trains because they engage the child and parents can participate in the fun. 


Blocks teach a child about size, shape and structure. If you put too much weight on the top of your rickety tower, kiddo, it will collapse! Blocks also help develop a sense of symmetry – kids like to balance the color, shape and size of their structures. The upside for parents: Blocks are nearly indestructible and don’t gobble batteries.

Teddy Bears

Teddy bears are classic toys for a reason. Cuteness and cuddle properties aside, you can tell your kids bedtime stories about their critter that they’ll remember. Make the bear earnest, good-hearted and slightly inept – after all, it’s hard to think when your head is stuffed with sawdust. (Just ask your Congressman.)

Amazingly, the bear has an outstanding vocabulary and can teach your child all the right stuff – grammar, too. Get the bear into endless scrapes that only your child can resolve. Kids enjoy stories about themselves and like being able to handle the world like adults, even if it’s a fictional realm populated with earnest but ham-fisted teddy bears.

You can use the furry fella to introduce your child to A.A. Milne’s wonderful books about Winnie the Pooh – a distant cousin of your kid’s bear, no doubt. The Corduroy books are good, too. Or make the toy a rabbit and read your child Beatrix Potter’s books about Flopsy, Mospy and Cottontail. Monkeys? Don’t forget Curious George. Early in the game, introduce your future reader to that classic book for young children, Make Way For Ducklings.


If you want your child to know something outside the world of video games and other electronic toys, introduce the young ‘un to a killer model railroad at the next train show in your town.

Model railroading is a dying hobby, and that’s a shame because it teaches engineering skills. Building to scale requires the ability to understand proportions and make mathematical calculations. You’ve got to wire the layout to bring it to life – more lessons to be learned, including a sharpening of hand-eye-coordination.

Then there are endless geography lessons for your child – where do the Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern run, anyway?

Any idea how diesels work? (Hint: It’s a diesel-electric and unlike trucks, locomotives have no forward or reverse gears.) Physics? You bet – dynamic brakes. Your kids need to know this stuff.

Business? Natch. Ever wonder why most railroads were built as east-west lines rather than north-south? Eventually, your kid will get into the mergers that created today’s major lines.

In short, railroads were as important to the 19th Century as the Internet will be to the 21st. The Golden Spike ceremony in 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah probably meant more in its day than Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon 100 years later. And railroad tycoon Leland Stanford made good use of his money, eh?

There are tons of books about railroads and everything that flowed from the Industrial revolution and the movement Westward. All you’ve got to do is feed them to your kid. Then there’s the small matter of railroads and the Civil War.

Other Models

It doesn’t have to be trains. It could be planes, ships, cars, construction equipment, ballet, horses, cats – you name it, just as long as it isn’t electronic. If your daughter has a fondness for dresses, why not make a few? That teaches measurement skills, knowledge of materials and thinking in three dimensions while developing hand-eye coordination. Who knows, your kid might get interested in the history of fashion and have a good time poking fun at contemporary tastes with her creations.

For the Math Whiz

If your child is older and good at math, introduce the whiz to a sliderule. It’s a good bet that the kid will hoot with delight. There are endless variations on the theme of The Way Things Used To Be Done and, come to think of it, all are linked to the present. You might call it history.

Think about the classic toys you loved as a kid and “Go fly a kite” takes on a whole new meaning.

It’s time to turn off the TV and get off the couch.

Check out our collection of the very best in parent-friendly personal finance, Shopping With a Purpose, for more ideas and information on helping your children learn and grow through finance this holiday season and beyond!

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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