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ECFE Toys, Toys, Toys!

Toys, Toys, Toys! There are so many toys available. The options are endless, but not all toys are created equal. Think of it this way, toys are the tools children use to play and according to Mr. Rogers “play is the work of childhood.” Play is both developmental and supports your child’s development. The tools or toys children have access to impact this development.

Here’s the thing about toys. We want the toys our children play with to be high quality and encourage their development, but we also want them to be enjoyable. Think back to your earliest memories. What toys stood out for you? My guess is it was probably a toy that you could use in many ways and encouraged your imagination. One of my favorite childhood toys was our play kitchen set. This kitchen, which was made by my dad and grandpa, was part of my sisters' and my play in many ways. We played house and restaurant, and once it was part of a hair salon. I say once because my dad wasn’t too thrilled when he discovered I washed my younger sister’s hair in the play sink. I have many memories connected to this kitchen because it was so versatile, and it also allowed our imaginations to soar. The best part of this kitchen set is that I got to relive the fun with my own children when my dad and grandpa built the same kitchen set for them.

So, how can parents make sure they are choosing the “right” toys for their children?

Remember the rule of 90. “A good toy should be 90% child and 10% toy”- Joan Almon, co-founder of the Alliance for Childhood. This means that the child should have to do most of the work to play with the toy. Let’s compare train sets. There are some train sets that have wooden tracks that your child can assemble and disassemble in different ways. Your child must physically move the train around the tracks and make their own train noises. Other train sets have a limited number of track configurations or come already assembled. Your child might have a controller that drives the train around the track and the train makes the train noises for them. Which toy requires your child to do more? The toy that requires your child to do more, is the toy that supports their development and encourages curiosity and imagination.

Less is more. Parents will often comment on how their child has so many toys, but they don’t play with them. Too many toy choices can be overwhelming for children. Consider putting away some of their toys and then rotating the toys every month or so. The great thing about this is children get excited about the “new” toys that come out of storage. Also, when there are fewer toys available children will typically spend more time playing with a toy and play with it in different ways.

Avoid toys that are overstimulating. The upside of this piece of advice is you can avoid battery-operated toys. Toys that have lots of lights and noise can be overwhelming for children. These toys also don’t usually require kids to do much to play with them, which limits the ways a child can explore and learn from playing with the toy.

Choose toys that encourage your child to come up with their own story. For example, rather than choosing a Lightning McQueen car, get a race car. Your child can create their own story for the car. Maybe the car will be a race car or a police car or maybe your child will decide the car is Lightning McQueen. The key here is your child is the one creating and telling the story rather than feeling like they must use a preconceived story in their play.

Play with your child. I am not suggesting that you must play with your child all the time. I know that this is just not realistic. However, find time to engage in play with your child. Follow your child’s lead. Notice what they are interested in and see what they do with it. For example, maybe your child decides to play with a stuffed animal by feeding it play food. You might say, “You are feeding your teddy bear” and then choose another stuffed animal to feed along with your child. Talk about what you and your child are feeding your animals. Following your child’s lead encourages your child to make decisions about what and how to play with something. Remember just because a car is a car, doesn’t mean it has to stay a car. Maybe your child will decide to feed their car too.

Let’s look at some specific toys and how they can help support development, especially when you play with your child with the toy.

  • Children can learn the following from blocks:
    • Positional language-over, under, next to, on top of, below, on, under, bottom, top
    • Colors, shapes, and size
    • Counting skills
    • Problem-solving-how can I keep my structure from falling over?
    • Build fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination
    • Practice sharing, working together, and social skills when playing with other children.
  • Baby Dolls are great toys for all children. Dolls encourage pretend play and can help teach these concepts:
    • Body parts vocabulary
    • Names for clothing and build fine motor skills when they dress their baby
    • Feeling vocabulary by talking about how the baby feels
    • Answering questions like “What is the baby doing?” What does the baby what to eat? How does the baby feel?
    • Sharing and turn-taking skills when children play with dolls together
  • Cars, trucks, and trains are also great toys for all kids to play with. They encourage kids to learn:
    • Basic concepts-big/small, fast/slow, colors, counting, more/less/some, and positional language like in, on, under, etc.
    • Different parts make a whole-talk about the different parts of a car
    • Sharing and turn-taking skills
    • Action words and adjectives-use language like fast, slow, flashy, old, new, go, stop, etc.

And finally, remember a toy doesn’t necessarily have to be a toy. Kids play for hours with things like cardboard boxes, paper towel or wrapping paper tubes, containers, water, sticks and rocks, and so much more! Check out this read-aloud of Not a Box by Antoinette Portis and hopefully, you will be inspired to play with some non-toy!