by Cari Ebert, MS, CCC-SLP
The holidays are coming so this seems like an appropriate time to start talking about the (sometimes dreaded) process of shopping for and buying toys. As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I am passionate about this topic because toys are the tools for learning. You see, well-designed toys can enhance development and stimulate a young child's mind. As an early childhood expert, professional speaker, and toy connoisseur, I had the privilege of meeting with the toy designers at Hasbro toys in Rhode Island to give them my two-cents worth. I provided them with my "Top 10 List" of how to buy high-quality store-bought toys. I figured if they were interested in my thoughts, you might be too. So here we go!
Tips for choosing high-quality toys:
1. Limit the number of battery-operated, button-pushing, cause-and-effect toys. Low-tech/no-tech toys are better at enhancing a child's natural curiosity, creativity, social skills, problem-solving abilities, language, and motor skills. Think about it this way: the more the toy does, the less the child does. We want the child to provide all the power, all the imagination, and all the sound effects. We don't want battery-operated toys stealing those learning opportunities away from the child.
2. Look for toys that encourage active play. Many battery-operated and screen-based toys keep children passively entertained. The most important thing young children need for learning and development is play-based movement! Tunnels, tents, hula hoops, balls, and self-propelled ride-on toys provide lots of opportunities for running, crawling, jumping, and climbing. Don't forget about toys that foster fine-motor development as well. Look for toys with beads and pegs, stringing toys, stacking toys, crayons, child-safe scissors, and toys with keys, hammers, and latches.
3. Select simple, open-ended toys that can be played with in a variety of ways. Traditional toys such as blocks, nesting cups, Play-Doh, play food, dress-up clothes, a kitchen set, toy tools, toy animals, and toy vehicles (without batteries) encourage young children to use their imagination. While toys such as puzzles and shape sorters are developmentally appropriate for young children, they are rule-based and therefore don't offer the same benefits as open-ended toys. Making sure young children have opportunities to play with rule-based toys that have a definitive ending point AND open-ended toys is the adult's responsibility.
Nesting cups are one of my favorite open-ended toys. Think of all the different ways to play with them. Nesting cups can be: nested, stacked, counted, used as tea cups, used in the bathtub or water table for pouring, placed in the sensory bin with spoons for stirring dry rice or beans, paired with toy animals and used as food and water troughs, used to make stamps on Play-Doh or with paint on paper (this works because nesting cups have a raised outline of an object on the bottom of each one), or used to sort small objects by color.
4. Provide toys that can be played with outside too. Whether blowing bubbles, drawing with sidewalk chalk, riding a tricycle, pulling a wagon, flying a kite, playing in a sandbox, or kicking a ball --- playing outside provides multi-sensory learning experiences that are important for young children with developing brains and bodies.
5. Select toys that are safe and durable. Buy toys that are well-constructed and will hold up to lots of use. For children who are still mouthing toys, it is important NOT to buy toys from discount dollar stores. Any toy that can be purchased for a dollar is not likely constructed from materials that are safe to be put in the mouth! For children who tend to be destructive during play time, wooden toys may not be a wise choice (they become weapons when thrown). Look for light-weight plastic blocks instead of wooden blocks for children who tend to throw their toys.
6. Choose toys that are interesting to young children but expose them to different types of toys as well. Some kiddos get "stuck" on play themes such as Thomas the Train or Disney Princesses and have difficulty being flexible in their play. For a child who likes trains, try buying ONE train along with several other different types of vehicles. Or try buying ONE train along with a train book, a train puzzle, and a train coloring book. Generic toys without characters from movies or cartoons are best at encouraging open-ended, imaginative play. When children play with character toys they tend to just repeat lines from the movie or show. This "scripting" doesn't help children learn to create their own narratives.
7. Limit toys that force-feed academics. Play time shouldn't always be focused on teaching early academic concepts such as letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. Look for toys that allow the child to learn naturally through discovery and exploration and facilitate the development of problem-solving skills.
8. Select toys that are developmentally appropriate (not necessarily age appropriate). All children develop at different rates. The age guidelines provided for toys is in reference to safety, not developmental expectations. We want young children to be successful during play time, while challenging their abilities just enough. Finding toys that offer the "optimum challenge point" is especially important for children who are struggling achieving their developmental milestones. Small doses of healthy frustration are expected during play time, but if the toy is too challenging, the child may give up all together. Toys that are not developmentally appropriate may simply be thrown, chewed on, or ignored.
9. Remember, books are toys too! Board books with colorful pictures are best for very young children. Look for rhyming books, predictable books with repeating text, touch-and-feel books, and books with sturdy flaps. Books are fabulous because they can be looked at alone, with a parent, with other kids, or with a pet! They can be looked at in bed, in the highchair, in the car, at the restaurant, at church, or while snuggling on the couch.
10. Choose toys that are interesting to the adult as well. This helps to foster cross-generational play. What did you do for fun when you were a child? If you loved playing Go Fish, your child may love playing this card game with you because of the passion you bring to the table. If you loved playing with a dollhouse, then get one for your child. Action figures? Silly Putty? A Slinky? Paper dolls? A Lite Brite? Lincoln Logs? Tinker Toys? Fashion Plates? Spirograph? Toy cash register? I promise you this...your passion will be contagious!
To summarize, the more young children have to use their own minds and bodies during play time, the more they will actually benefit from the play. So...happy shopping and choose your gifts wisely! Oh, one more thing. LESS is MORE when it comes to the quantity of toys. Buying a few high-quality toys is better than buying a large quantity of poorly designed ones.
What therapists and educators need to know about early child development
Cari Ebert, MS, CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist who specializes in apraxia, autism and early intervention.