Toys are the tools children use to learn about themselves and about their world. Children learn about themselves through those toys which permit the discovery of their own powers of imagination and fantasy. Children learn about the world with the aid of toys that expand their understanding of the people, plants, animals, and objects, which surround them. By far the best toys are those which children themselves create. This is particularly true for young children who are literally at the mercy of adults. We decide what they should eat, when they should sleep, and what they should wear. Self created playthings, like toy boats out of anything that can float, give them a much needed sense of control over their world. That is why “watch me” toys run on batteries are so useless for this age group. If anything, they reinforce the child’s sense of being a bystander in a world run by others.
It is easy to see how all consuming self-made toys can be. Recently, our four-year-old granddaughter visited us. In a kitchen drawer she found a pad of paper, small scissors and some scotch tape. She spent the afternoon cutting forms out of the paper and sticking them together with the scotch tape. She could not have been happier. We didn’t ask her to explain, or describe any of the pieces she had put together. That was not what the play was about. If we allow children access to cardboard boxes, pots and pans, pie tins, strainers and the like, they will create their own magical world. We cannot enter that world, nor should we try.
I am not saying that we should never purchase toys for young children. Well made and constructed toys, like the wooden Brio trains and Lego bricks give children plenty of leeway to use their imagination and to give them an appreciation of quality. Plastic materials like clay and paints also invite creative play. What I am saying is that in addition to purchasing toys; we should also provide children with the materials and the time to create their own playthings.
When purchasing toys for young children, age appropriateness is all important. Computers, for example, have no place in the crib. Infants and young children need toys that will nourish their senses and encourage motor coordination. Colorful rattles, crib gyms and plush toys all serve these ends. By the age of two the best single toy for children is a good set of wooden blocks. These support children’s evolving understanding of size, weight, balance and gravity. Large balls that children can roll by pushing can provide a game for parents and children to engage in. For three, four and five year-olds, skills toys like scooters, wagons, and tricycles help build muscle coordination and control. Sandboxes, plastic slides and climbing forms also speak to the abundant energy of this age group. But books, music tapes are also supportive of the child’s growing language and intellectual abilities.
Last but not least try to fit the toys to the child. If a child likes to draw, provide materials to draw with. If a child shows a liking for sports, provide toys that support this interest. And don’t try to fight city hall. Don’t force children to take lessons and participate in sports for which they show little aptitude and even less interest.
Toys are the child’s means of discovering both self and the world. Infant learning can be damaged by too many toys, or by toys that are not developmentally appropriate for your infant’s age and stage.
By Professor David Elkind. Renowned child psychologist David Elkind Ph.D. shares his experiences, opinions and insights on children’s perceptual, cognitive and social development. Read his blog to learn more about how early experiences in infant development impact growth into adulthood, and how you can support your child's healthy development every step of the way.