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How to choose the right toys for your child

Boy playing with toy car

Toys are great

Who doesn’t remember their own favourite childhood playthings with nostalgia for the magic they brought. Mine were a beloved orange bunny and a horse with flowing mane and tail. My brother had barrels of Lego and an epic Scalextric train set that took up the whole garage. These treasures gave us endless hours of fun, imaginative adventure and discovery.

Playing with toys is an everyday part of family life, and there’s no doubt, an important part of development.

Fun is good!

Starting right from the first months of baby’s life, play is indelibly linked to learning, socialisation, development and even intellect. A rich play environment is critical to a baby’s development and teaches skills he will use later in life.

Think about the train set. Not only is a child using his imagination to build a story around the train journey, he also has to have an idea of what the train station needs to look like and plan how the pieces will fit together. “He needs to problem-solve minor obstacles and have the frustration tolerance and patience to make it work like he imagines it could. All this motor planning is vital for general learning and will impact a child’s work pace and task completion in the classroom one day,” says Nubabi occupational therapist, Lourdes Bruwer.

Children build skills naturally through play. They practice cognitive, emotional and social skills such as creative thinking, verbal and nonverbal communication, spatial and body awareness, empathy, adaptability, decision-making and more. Through imaginative play children learn language; they get to try on different experiences; build communication skills; and even decrease anxiety and grow in concentration, attention span and memory, as well as confidence.

All good toy play for children has a common thread: the child is in charge of the experience and it meets his or her unique inner needs at that time. Toys are fun, and fun is good!

But, before you panic that you’re going to bankrupt your family in order to buy in the latest and greatest (and let’s face it, the toy industry is big business: In 2014, Americans spent an estimated $22 billion on toys, according to Toca Boca toy magazine); let’s talk about what type of toys are best and how to choose the right toys.

Passive toys = active minds

Some ‘active’ toys prompt kids to push buttons, sit back and be entertained. But passive toys make for active children. When the toy is simple, a child is encouraged to be creative, dynamic and engaged on a whole new level, which enables and promotes development.

For instance, look at these basic playthings and their developmental benefits:

  • Blocks promote fine and gross motor skills as well as spatial perception and problem solving
  • Bubbles promote eye development and visual tracking, as well as depth perception and oral motor control
  • Dolls promote socio-dramatic and pretend play
  • Cardboard boxes encourage imagination and creativity
  • Pots and pans prompt auditory stimulation and cause and effect

Professor Trawick-Smith directs the TIMPANI toy study, which looks at how young children in natural settings play with a variety of toys.

“One trend that is emerging from our studies can serve as a guide to families as they choose toys: Basic is better. The highest-scoring toys so far have been quite simple: hardwood blocks, a set of wooden vehicles and road signs, and classic wooden construction toys. These toys are relatively open-ended, so children can use them in multiple ways.”

Also, don’t assign gender preferences to toys. “What set the highest-scoring toys apart was that they prompted problem solving, social interaction, and creative expression in both boys and girls. Interestingly, toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented—construction toys and toy vehicles, for example—elicited the highest quality play among girls. So, try to set aside previous conceptions about what inspires male and female play and objectively observe toy effects to be sure boys and girls equally benefit from play materials,” suggests Professor Trawick-Smith in the National Association for the Education of Young Children newsletter.

The magic of toys is love

Far more important than fancy toys is your presence, focused attention, and interaction. The best possible brain-building activities for babies and young children are happy, easy moments spent with someone who loves them, and this doesn’t have to cost much at all.

“Children will place a higher significance on memories involving parent interaction with them than on specific toys from childhood. While your child may really love to play with a specific toy, his preference will likely be to play with YOU with his special toy. The benefits of getting down on the floor with your little one and engaging with them, whether it’s with an empty cereal tin or the latest toy gadget you can find, are endless,” says occupational therapist Carly Tzanos.

“Before your little one enters toddlerdom you will generally find that they are more excited about the packaging a toy comes in than the actual toy itself! So rather collect some boxes, some shiny or shredded paper, and have fun building, hiding, drumming and zooting around your living room.

If your child is having fun they are learning; and just as importantly, they are building on their relationship with you.

“If you can give your little one a small amount of uninterrupted, focused time everyday to play something that they are interested in you will be amazed at the impact to their learning in all areas. This requires you to switch off your cell phone, the TV, the radio and put supper and bath time on hold for a few minutes. Then literally get down to his level and start playing with whatever he is busy playing with. Try to take his lead and go in the direction he takes the game. Some days this may mean playing peek-a-boo behind a pillow and ending in tickles and giggles and kisses, while on another day it may mean seriously exploring all the different ways to use a pot and wooden spoon,” says Carly.

When it comes to toys, less really is more. Simple, even recycled and homemade, toys that are stage appropriate and in line with your child’s interests are more than adequate to promote your baby’s optimal development, especially when he can play with them with you.

Toy Tips

  • Give your baby a few pots and spoons to play with while you are cooking supper. A toddler could help you by mixing and pouring.
  • New toys are usually fun and exciting and can offer many great developmental benefits. Just remember who the toy is for – are you more excited about it than she is? And also remember that a “new” toy does not need to cost any money to have a developmental benefit – a drum made from a formula tin or a cardboard box can be just as exciting (and possibly more so) than a store bought toy, says Carly.
  • Present one toy at a time and explore it fully; don’t skip from one toy to another quickly as vital learning opportunities are missed.
  • Keep toys fresh by storing a box of toys in the garage which are recycled with items from the playroom every 6-12 months. This way there’s always something ‘new’ at no cost! As your toddler gets older he can negotiate and swap toys out, this can be a great learning opportunity and will keep your child’s interest in his toys for longer as old favourites are rediscovered.
  • Huge toy bins can hamper play as toys may be hard to reach or find. Use a shelf or organize toys into crates or smaller boxes so that like toys can be pulled out with ease, e.g. a crate with all the dolls and dress up clothes or a puppet box.
  • Follow your little one’s lead; remember that skills mature quickest and fastest when they are in the developmental spotlight. If your baby is mouthing everything, his touch system is in the developmental spotlight, thus look for interesting spikey and bumpy textured toys for him to mouth and discover. If he is jumping, crashing and rolling everywhere, a small trampoline, a swing or a jungle gym may be the right thing for him as his gross motor skills, balance and core strength are in the spotlight to mature, says Lourdes.
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