I thanks to the erudite Joy Maul on Google+ I read a nice piece by Saul Griffith about a "curriculum of toys". I fundamentally belileve that ALL play is learning and thus ALL toys and games are educational. It is impossible to play with anything without learning. If you spend time watching a baby play you will see a fairly systematic exploration process going on. They do indeed put everything in their mouths to get a feel and taste of it. They wave if to sense it's weight and solidity and discover the strength of their arms.
It's a cliché, but completely accurate in my experience, that when you buy an expensive toy for a child she spends all her time playing with the packaging. I actually remember doing that: it is because the packaging has more possibilities. Many elaborate toys have a single directed purpose, they are the "cherry-pitter" of toys. We once bought a magnificent plastic walking, LED fire-breathing dragon for one of my kids. He was charmed by the spectacle (as we had been), but got bored quite fast and kept it as an ornament rather than a toy. It reminded me of the elaborate robots with sparking effects that were the must-have toy when I was a kid. I always got frustrated by them because they stopped working when I took them apart. Taking apart is a very good impulse. It looks destructive to parents, who know that the workings cannot be easily understood or put back together, but it is in fact healthy curiosity. The outer, walking, sparking behaviour is great, but just look at all the complex moving gubbins inside.... that is really interesting.
Let's talk about video games. There is no video game in existence (with the exception of the infamous Desert Bus prank) that does not present and reward an ever increasing level of difficulty. This is so well known that the conclusion is overlooked: games are only fun it you are learning and developing. They provide you with immediate thrills and spills, but also with visible and measurable growth in your skills. I have personally experienced the joy of coming back to a place where I was stalled in a tough game after a night of sleep and discovering that I had somehow become better during the night. Gamers are addicted to that feeling of growth, so successful games feed it, no exceptions.
My children have a history with video games. The ones they play the longest are the ones where you can design your own levels. The oldest built elaborate levels with complex scripts and behaviours in Warcraft 3 and then moved on to Phun (that was before they got all "educational", changed the name a charged money for it). Middle one builds buildings with lifts and stairs and gun-emplacements in Roblox. All three of them are now obsessed with Minecraft. If you are not a gamer, you need to know that Minecraft is the free-to-use product of a single programmer with a lot of unpaid assistants, has ancient, crude blocky graphics and is a sandbox: within the (large) confines of a Minecraft world you can do pretty much anything. Take a moment to Google Minecraft and watch the videos if you don't know it, I'll wait here.
You back? Pretty impressive stuff wasn't it? Of course some of the kids at play with these toys are industrial designers and programmers with full-time jobs, but that just brings in the next drop of bloody obvious: there is no toy as fascinating to a child as the tools of an adult. Any parent knows that kids will find your mobile phone, your electric drill and your lipstick more interesting than anything they have. They do not want a plastic hammer and pretend nails. They want to do what you do, because they are programmed to learn the stuff that big humans know before they become big humans themselves.
So what are we homing in on here? If we accept that all play is learning and that children play at every opportunity with anything that is not nailed down the question becomes: "why is education not play?"
It even becomes "how on earth can education be effective if it is not play?"
Play, particularly imitation of adult behaviour, is pretty obviously the built-in monkey instinct for learning about the environment. It is exploration, taking apart, copying and experimental creation. It is the reason we rule the world (good luck world), fly aeroplanes, build, create and discover.