It’s that time of year and everyone is looking for the perfect toy to give at holiday time. A walk down the toy aisle reveals toys that light up, spin, and make music. They all claim to teach your child the alphabet and other educational skills. With all these options, how do you know what makes an appropriate toy at what age? More importantly, with all these toys claiming to be ‘educational,’ what really makes an ‘educational’ toy?
While it may be tempting to buy the light up box that spins, makes music, and counts in four different languages, research tells us that when it comes to toys and child development, simpler is often better. (Child Development Institute, 2019)
DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE TOYS
One of the important things to consider when purchasing a toy is to purchase developmental toys, which take into account the child’s age and the skills they are working on at that stage of development. For example, infants and toddlers are busy exploring their world using their senses, so brightly colored toys that are non-toxic and delight the senses are the best option. Selecting toys that have different textures and sounds is imperative, such as rattles that shake and books that have multiple textures. Keep in mind that babies and toddlers put everything in their mouth, so avoid toys that have small parts or pieces that could come loose and be a choking hazzard.
As children grow, you want to select toys that target different areas of development, such as gross motor skills, fine motor skills, language skills, cognitive skills, and social skills. The best way to do this is to seek out traditional and open-ended toys. A traditional toy only entertains you if you play with it actively, which differs from an electronic toy. Think of a wagon full of wooden blocks. It is just a pile of blocks until your imagination (and motor skills) turn it into a rocket ship, or a horse stable, or the Empire State Building, waiting for King Kong to attack. In contrast, an electronic toy can entertain your child without even requiring much physical movement or imagination from them. Although the bells and whistles of electronics toys can be tempting, remember that open-ended toys that will spark your child’s creativity and imagination. Select toys that can be played with in a multitude of ways in order to nurture creativity. Remember the old refrigerator box that became a spaceship when you were a kid? That is what you are striving for when purchasing open ended toys!
When shopping for gifts this holiday season, the goal is to select developmentally appropriate, traditional toys that allow for open-ended play. One way to help ensure this is, before purchasing the toy, look at it and ask yourself these questions:
Can children use this toy in more than one way?
Can children decide how to play with this toy, or does it play for them?
Is the toy right for the age of the child?
Will children of other ages be able to use this toy?
Can the toy be used with other toys for playing?
TOYS & THE DEVELOPING BRAIN
Toys teach children about the world around them and play is a child’s first classroom. With all the buzz about STEM and coding and jobs of the future, do not forget the most important lessons are learned early in childhood through play. Kids are natural scientists, performing experiments through play. When you knock your block tower over, you learn about gravity. When you try to put a puzzle together, you are learning about visual spatial relationships. These little scientists learn about science, technology, engineering, art, and math all through play. By getting children away from a screen and giving them open ended toys, they will explore the world around them and learn through play.
In addition to prompting cognitive development, toys promote the development of fine motor skills, hand eye coordination, and gross motor skills. After being couped up inside way to long due to the pandemic, everyone’s motor skills could use a little polishing. Depending on the stage of development, toys that require children to push, pull, reach, turn, lift, throw or otherwise use their hands and body can be instrumental in motor development. Small toys such as dolls, cars, or craft materials can really promote hand-eye coordination. Practicing stringing colorful beads on a string helps with the real-life skill of manipulating buttons and zippers. When children play with toys that involve their whole body (think balls and bicycles), they are promoting physical development, balance, and coordination. Learning how to catch a ball or jump on a pogo stick may look like child’s play, but it is actually a hard-earned physical skill set.
One final word of caution as we head into the holiday season, ‘more is not better.’ While quality toys can greatly contribute to a child’s development, too many choices can be overwhelming. Consider doing a toy clean out and donating items your child no longer plays with to charity. With less clutter around, your children will be better able to enjoy the toys they do have. Children need ‘blank spaces’ in their room; space where they have free room to create and build. If every inch of the floor is covered with toys, your child has too many toys and not enough space for creativity. Think about safety and how a child would use it before you buy it!
GREAT TOY CHOICES FOR CHILDREN
You cannot go wrong by choosing toys in the groups listed below (suggestions made by Penn State University):
Exploratory play – toys that help infants and toddlers develop their senses. These include ring stackers, blocks, teething toys, books with multiple textures, balls, mirrors, pop up toys, rattles, etc.
Dramatic play – toys that help children work out their ideas about the world. These include blocks, cars, trucks, planes, boats, dress-up clothes, animals, insects, tool sets, medical kits, doll houses, puppets, play kitchens, props to make a restaurant, store, post office, etc.
Small object play – toys for children (three years of age and older) to use the small muscles in their hands and fingers. Playing with small objects helps children’s learning about math and science. These include construction sets, blocks, plastic blocks that fit together, puzzles, beads that string.
Art play – materials for children to use in ways they choose. These include paints, paper of all sizes and colors, crayons, markers, children’s safety scissors, glue, clay, glitter.
Physical play – helps children use their arm and leg muscles. These toys include bikes and other riding toys, balls, bats, jump ropes, slides, swing sets, things to climb on, or tunnels to crawl through.
Game playing – teaches children about taking turns, following rules, solving problems. These toys include board games, card games, and games you or the children make up.
Michelle Yetman, PhD
Associate Professor Clinical
Children’s Center at the School of Allied Health Professions
LSU Health Shreveport
Rebecca Durr Butler, MCD, CCC-SLP
Rehab Faculty Clinic
School of Allied Health Professions
LSU Health Shreveport