“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers
If play is the work of childhood, then toys are the tools that build young minds. But, which toys should you choose? In my thirty years of working with children in classrooms, libraries, and my own home, I have learned how the right materials enable a child’s growth through play. Here are my top ten tips.
1. If the toy beeps, lights up or makes noise, you do not need it.
This is true no matter how many reviews promise the child will learn to read, become a math genius, or blossom into an engineer while pushing these buttons. The battery will run out, but before it does you (and your child) will be driven crazy by the noise and the stimulation. Do not buy these toys.
2. If the toy is from a TV show, leave it on the shelf.
The bottom line is that children will create their own characters and storylines when they play with non-scripted toys. This means that a dollhouse family, wooden peg people, or a stuffed dog make better playthings than the latest cartoon character made into a plastic figure or stuffed toy.
3. You will want wooden blocks – lots of wooden blocks.
The case for wooden blocks cannot be overstated. Buy the best set you can afford and add to it over time. I bought a small classroom set of wooden blocks for my children when they were toddlers, then added to it each year at the holidays. These blocks saw heavy use all through their childhood from toddlers to teens. We then donated them to a therapy center – still in excellent condition. Wooden blocks look beautiful even on the living room shelf and will bring hours of educational play. Blocks are a must for children.
4. Choose natural materials over plastic whenever possible.
Wooden toys are lovely to look at and delightful to hold. Children are sensory creatures and the tactile experience of natural playthings is great for their little hands. Wooden toys are so aesthetically pleasing. Even the clutter left over from playtime looks prettier with wooden toys.
5. Thou shalt not give young children choking hazards.
Make sure that your playthings are safe. This is especially important when you have older children in the house with a baby or toddler. Check the labels on toy purchases to make sure the toy you are purchasing is safe for the age intended.
6. Choose quality art supplies.
Art supplies nurture creativity and play. A nice set of crayons and some quality art paper are never a bad choice. Beware the waxy cheap crayon. It is frustrating to try to use materials that will not work properly. Many a child has decided they “don’t like art” just because the frustration level was too high.
7. Toys that imitate “real life” are perfect.
A simple doll, a set of dishes, a small broom – these toys allow children to act out real-life scenarios. Adults can join in the play and everyone has a great time.
8. Select open-ended toys that encourage exploration.
Puzzles, play-dough, stackers, shape sorters, and books. These kinds of toys provide the opportunity for problem-solving, vocabulary, and much, much more.
9. Two words – Play silks.
If you have not discovered the magic of play silks, I encourage you to try them. Play silks come in a variety of sizes and colors and can become anything from superhero capes to princess dresses to fort-building materials. They are dress-up clothes on steroids and they are as open-ended as it comes. Children will take these and run with them – literally.
10. Remember that toys are the curriculum.
The toys you choose shape your child’s heart and mind. No pressure, but it takes very little time or money to make good choices in this area. You can pick up a wooden spoon and mixing bowl at the dollar store. Dress up clothes can be hand-me-downs from older children (a size 6 is usually a good size for vests or dresses for preschool play – big enough to put on over clothing). Many playthings can be made from simple household items. Sticks and rocks also make great building materials and mud is a marvelous sensory experience. Checking out quality children’s books from the library is absolutely free and will build a child’s vocabulary in ways the electronic gadget can only dream of. So, take heart and start small. Give your child the priceless gift of playtime together with simple quality toys.
“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.” ― Fred Rogers