They’re just toys, right? Wrong!
Chances are when you walk into a toy store, or browse the “toy aisle” on-line, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. Or, maybe you’re remembering what you liked to play with as a child, or what is “cute”. But, as I’ve often said, every toy is a “learning toy”. The question is how much, and what, is a child going to learn by playing with a toy. Learning is a funny thing – it rarely is a straight line, but is, rather, usually accumulative, and the toys we provide play a big role in the how, what, and why of our children’s development.
For instance, some toys build on each other – for instance, the gross muscle skills that come from finger paint, lead the way to finer coordination needed to use a paint brush. Soft stacking blocks, build the way to wooden blocks, and later to Jenga towers and Lego sets.
We socialize through toys, too. We give clues to our children about what roles are open to them as adults when we give toys that don’t rely on stereotypical gender roles. In that way, every toy has a political subtext. Likewise, when we exclude things from our child’s diet of play – whether it is books, music, art supplies, or toy guns, we are, intentionally or otherwise, teaching them about or values.
When kids play, it isn’t all fun and games. The skills children learn and develop through play are critical in their development. That’s why the toys, books and resources we give them are so important.
We want the right toy for the right age. One that helps a child “level-up”, that builds skills, exercises the imagination and the body, and does it safely. Give a toy before a child is ready for it and we can make play a source of disappointment, frustration, and even danger.
Infants and Play
The number one toy for infants is you! Nothing is more interesting to your baby than you. Nature has set it up such that the way you smile, sing, and snuggle your baby is exactly what they need. From day one babies are learning from you as they explore the world through their developing senses. There world starts small, but they are constantly growing and learning. How? By interacting with you, by listening, touching, tasting, smelling, looking, developing their senses with each breath.
Some parents worry about spoiling their children by giving too much attention. Relax! The time you put in with your child at this stage, the way you respond to their needs, sets them up for success down the road.
In the beginning it will be you playing with your child’s toys! Before your baby is ready to shake a rattle, you’ll do it for them. They’ll learn from that, too, and soon they’ll be doing it themselves. An infant’s toys will give impetus to learn about how their body interacts with the new world into which they have been thrust. Some give exercise in motor skills and coordination, others stimulate the senses.
What are we looking for in baby toys? Safety first. Materials should be non-toxic, parts shouldn’t be dangerous if they go into baby’s mouth. As you can imagine, toys for a big eight year old are likely not safe for your baby, but did you know it works in the other direction, too? Some toys, notably crib mobiles and some play mats that are safe for a young baby can become down-right deadly strangulation or choking hazard as the child ages up and is strong enough to pull them down onto themselves or into the crib.
Beyond the safety concerns, your impulse will often be correct: Infant toys should be pleasing to the touch, and satisfying to the eye, so a soft, small, teddy with stitched eyes is a good choice. Of course, friends and relatives will have a similar impulse. My first daughter received plush animals to the exclusion of almost anything else.
What you need to provide is a variety of play experiences. Toys to grasp, rattle and shake, mobiles and baby mirrors to view, and playmats to encourage physical activity.
Your baby is now up and walking, sometimes running, and maybe even skipping! Just as they have grown, their toys age-up to match their developmental needs. You’ll play an important part here – since not all toddlers level-up at the same time, you’ll want to be guided more by your child’s growth rather than the age it says on the box.
(While we’re at it, this is a good time to mention that the ages listed on toy packaging is usually safety related, and not necessarily related to a child’s developmental abilities. For this reason I see toys labeled 3 & up all the time that are really appropriate for much older children. This is exacerbated by toy manufacturers pushing ABC/123 toys long before a child is ready for, or has any idea what number and letters are all about.)
So, what are the toys for Toddlers: Some develop big motor skills with active physical play: big lightweight balls, slides, big blocks, and even ride-on or ride-in toys. Others develop hand-eye coordination and a sense of independence. In this category you’ll find stacking and nesting toys, simple puzzles, blocks, and simple (preferably open ended) construction sets. Finally, there are toys that stimulate the imagination: Costumes, dolls, pretend sets, and art supplies.
The kind of play your preschooler is going to engage in is really going to change as the mind and body develops. They can engage in play that requires greater dexterity and more stick-to-it-iveness. They will often still want your attention when they play, but will have the ability to entertain themselves and also a desire to play with others, even though their limited tolerance for sharing may cause issues when there is company!
Toyland will push counting and letters, but in my opinion, at this age the most important toys don’t mimic school, they encourage imagination, growth, and exploration through “informal” play. Again, a diverse toy chest is key: It should include art supplies, blocks and wooden trains, sand and water toys, housekeeping toys, simple puzzles, costume and dress-up props. It is a time for picture books and music, and as they get older a balance bike or trike.
I think of preschool years as an important fork in the road for kids and play, one that might test your will as a parent. It is the moment when the conglomerates really begin to hook your kids on commercial licenses that they, the companies, can bank on for years to come. It wasn’t so long ago that superhero products didn’t filter down to this age group, but now Star Wars, Marvel, and other licenses (often associated with combat) reach into the toy chest. As a parent you have to decide how much you want to buy into licensed products. I favor a balanced, not necessarily absolutist approach – no need to be a Grinch. Some families draw the line on toys that involve shooting or guns. Others, allow a toy that might have some toy weapons, but remove the shooting parts.
Early School Years
The toys for early school year’s kids is as varied as children, themselves. The temptation, of course, is to serve up what is on their toy list, eschewing others that they might not even know to ask for. I always ask kids this age for a wish list, but spice up it up with some new things for them to discover. Sports equipment is supplemented with craft kits, arts supplies, and musical toys, Legos with board games, and dolls with puppets, construction sets, and books. In other words, a smorgasbord of toys may help your child discover new avenues of play and interest.
What about high-tech toys?
Technology has its place in toyland, but it is often misused, sucking creativity from play, and replacing it with directed activities, noisy sounds, and flashing lights.
For years, developmental specialists and pediatricians have urged parents to limit their children’s screen time, and I agree. Part of the problem is that TV and videos displace your child’s need to imagine, turning them into passive cogs in the machine. Video games may “involve” the child, but to what end? Shakespeare wasn’t known for his fast thumb reflexes, nor was Marie Curie. Children, particularly once they are in school, have limited time for “play” and screen-based play tends to drain away time from the diverse set of activities kids should have in their diet. In worst case scenarios, video games become a kind of electronic drug, pushing out interest in non-electronic play. Yes, I’m aware some studies show a benefit in certain types of skills among child-players, but they tend to address deficits that excessive video gaming in other respects, including socialization, gross motor skills, and reading. Again, I don’t think you need to be an absolutist, but use caution when introducing video based activities.
By the way, the problem isn’t just in screen based games. Electronic-enabled toys, particularly those that make the noises, or supply the actions that would ordinarily be done by the child, supplant the child’s imagination. They can also undermine the stealthy educational value of a game. For instance, battery powered Monopoly might speed up the game, but deprive the child of the opportunity to learn how to make change. A video version of Yatzee that does the addition for a child is, in the long run, hurting a child by doing the work that traditionally would be performed by the child. Toys that do all the sound-effects for a child, encourage passivity. Toys should encourage kids to bring their imagination to toyland.