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Imaginations run wild at ECSU


Chronicle Staff Writer

WILLIMANTIC — The imaginations of young children ran “wild” Wednesday morning at Eastern Connecticut State University’s Child and Family Development Resource Center.

But it was all in good fun and, after all, it was done in the name of research.

That research at ECSU led to the university naming the Animal Kingdom Mega Pack, the winner of the eighth annual Toys that Inspire Mindful Play and Nurture Imagination (TIMPANI) study.

The announcement, which usually coincides with the holiday season, features more than just university officials making comments at a podium.

It features a demonstration of children showing why a given toy is given the TIMPANI award.

“For a president, this study is a dream,” said Eastern President Elsa Nuñez, who came up with the idea for the study.

She was speaking during a press conference announcing the winning toy Wednesday.

Observers were also able to watch — and learn — while children in the ECSU-run preschool played.

Nuñez emphasized the involvement of both Eastern students and faculty in the study, which evaluates how young children play with a variety of toys in natural settings.

During the several-month study, 10 toys were evaluated in four categories: thinking and learning, social interaction, creativity and imagination and verbalization.

“Not many undergrads in the nation get to conduct criteria-based research, but it’s happening here at ECSU,” Nuñez said.

The Animal Kingdom Mega Pack, a playset made by Animal Planet, received the highest overall score of all the toys evaluated.

The package contains an assortment of 60 pieces and is on sale for $30 at

The toy received the highest score in the creativity and imagination, social interaction and verbalization categories, according to Eastern.

According to Eastern, it was the highest-scoring toy for both boys and girls and scored highly for children from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

ECSU professor Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, principal investigator of the study, and Phyllis Waite, chairman of ECSU’s early childhood education department, said the winning toy is a “replica toy.”

He said replica toys have “been around forever” and the toys support a “child’s entry into the fictional dream.”

Trawick-Smith said play with replica toys is a “really valuable kind of play” because it triggers the imagination.

Janette Rivera, a teacher assistant at the center, said the winning playset includes a variety of pieces boys and girls enjoy playing with.

“The females do take on more of a motherly role,” she said while watching children play in a preschool classroom.

Males, on the other hand, enjoy making the animals fight each other, Rivera said.

She said the children enjoy “sorting” the animals based on the types of animals and sizes.

Student researchers used hidden cameras to videotape children in the preschool classrooms playing with the selected toys and then coded the footage according to a rubric.

According to a press release from Eastern, researchers observed nearly 8,000 five-minute observations as part of the study.

Julia DeLapp, director of Eastern’s Center for Early Childhood Education, said students and staff at the center are engaged in various studies and their YouTube channel is approaching one million views.

“None of this would be possible without the Board of Regents and Eastern’s senior administration,” she said, referring to the work on the TIMPANI toy study.

Nuñez said she is a grandmother and the results of the study help parents and grandparents buy quality gifts for children during the holidays.

The results of the study are used nationally and internationally.

“I congratulate the team that put the study together, that executed the study and produced the winning toy,” said Nuñez.


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