Extending Toy's Shelf Life: How to Keep Playthings Interesting to Your Child
Only minutes after young children enter their classroom, they’re engrossed in an activity that is both educational and fun. Yet at home the same children grumble, “There’s nothing to do.” Why are the toys at school, even if they are the same as the ones at home, so much more engaging?

Early-childhood educators select and arrange toys that will encourage the construction of knowledge. During this constructive play, children are building skills leading to a feeling of competence, and increased competence motivates the child to continue playing.

The idea that children construct their own learning is based on a comprehensive theory of intellectual development introduced by renowned Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.

“Piaget’s theories have helped educators understand the value of constructive play or self-regulated learning,” says George E. Forman, author of Constructive Play: Applying Piaget in the Preschool.

In order to facilitate constructive play or self-regulated learning, early-childhood teachers pay attention to four key principles when providing toys for children:
• quantity of toys
• types of toys
• organization of toys
• kinds of adult involvement with toys.

Parents can encourage constructive play and persistence at home by adopting and adapting these same ideas from the classroom.

Quantity of Toys
Teachers do not make their entire collection of materials available to children at all times. Janet Brown McCracken, author of Play is FUNdamental, a brochure published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says: “Children can be overwhelmed with too many choices, and are easily bored with too few.”

So teachers select a portion of the toys and store the remaining materials where children cannot see them. Later, the toys that were put away get rotated into the selection and others are rotated out. This rotation happens several times throughout the year.

Here are some tips for maintaining an appropriate quantity at home:

• Control portions. Select a “reasonable” number of toys to have available. A reasonable amount fits comfortably on a single toy shelf.

• Rotate toys. Store the toys that do not fit on the shelf out of sight. It may sometimes seem as though a child has outgrown a particular toy, but after not seeing it for a few months, McCracken says, “the child will have matured, and will see the toys differently.” For example, a young child playing with blocks will build expansive, flat structures while an older child will build vertical towers complete with stairs and interlocking walls.

Types of Toys Teachers choose toys according to their openness and complexity. Anne Mitchell, editor of the curriculum guide Explorations with Young Children, describes “open” toys as those that can be used in a variety of ways with no correct outcome. Closed materials, on the other hand, are those that are used in a specific way with a definite outcome.

The complexity of a toy refers to its possibilities for combination with other toys. More complex toys are those that can be used in different ways and are easily combined. Simple toys are used in a specific way and have few possibilities for combining with others.

• Range of Toys – Offer a range of toys – from closed to open and simple to complex – with most toys falling nearer to the open and complex end of the spectrum. Some examples:
- Puzzles and shape sorters are closed toys. - Sand, water and play-dough are open toys. - Blocks combined with animals are a complex use of two open toys. - Sand with water and a variety of tools are a complex combination. - Toys that talk and battery-powered vehicles are simple toys that limit the possibilities for play. A child’s interest is likely to wane quickly.

Be sure to include an assortment of textured toys, McCracken suggests. “Children love the feel and smell of wood, fabric and other naturally textured materials.”

• Toy Choices – It can be tricky for parents to decide which toys are appropriate. If the goal is to have toys that are educational and long-lasting, then thinking in terms of “open” and “complex” makes the decision less complicated. McCracken advises against TV-related toys and says: “Toys based on TV shows simply encourage commercialism and consumerism. Book characters, real-life puppet shows and friends spark the imagination far more than TV characters.”

Eva Essa, author of Introduction to Early Childhood Education, a textbook used widely in teacher-training programs, has another way of looking at this issue.

“Many of today’s toys give children little power,” Essa says. “Our children will spend a lifetime overwhelmed with glitzy media that they do not control. Having toys over which they have no power and which engage their minds in very limited ways only adds to the external control to which children are subjected.”

Organization of Toys
Most parents have had the experience of getting down on all fours to root through a pile of toys and sort them into categories: animals, vehicles, action figures and so on. Almost simultaneously the kids are wrestling for their unearthed possessions as quickly as the toys are categorized, screaming “There’s my polka-dotted monster lizard!” Teachers suggest putting these categories into clear, labeled containers as a great way to encourage their use.

Here are some strategies for getting and keeping toys organized at home:

• Labels – Keep the children’s toys organized by category. It helps kids remember what they have and makes it easier to put their hands on what they want more quickly. Organization also helps children make sense of their world.

“When children follow the organization of their toys, they are learning to sort and classify,” Mitchell says. “Both are math skills that will help them later in school.”

• Shelves – McCracken recommends displaying toys on shelves, rather than in a large-size toy box, for ease of access but also for the message it sends children. “Low, open shelves make it possible for children to easily see what their choices are,” she says. “And, shelves convey the message that toys and play are important for children’s learning.” Mitchell also notes that “organized, labeled storage shelves help children assume responsibility for cleaning up.”

Adult Involvement with Toys
Teachers observe children’s play and look for signals to get involved to further students’ understanding and learning.

“An important distinction to be made,” says Mitchell, “is that you can’t give children experiences. You provide an opportunity for the children to create their own experiences.”

If a child has tired of a toy, a teacher may turn that toy upside down or somehow present it in a different way. They know that once children apply a label to a toy after long periods of usage (“That is my riding toy – I sit on it and spin”) they are less likely to see the actual qualities or attributes of what is being labeled (“it is circular and rotates”). James L. Adams describes this “perceptual stereotyping” as a block to creativity and problem-solving for both children and adults in his book Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas.

Another way teachers get involved with kids’ play is by adding a new toy to the mix to create or add to a complex combination. Here are some beneficial ways parents can get involved in their child’s play:

• Break perceptual stereotypes. Try these strategies:
- Arrange a patch of yellow and a patch of blue on the seat of a riding toy and rotate it very quickly. The spinning toy becomes a color mixer. - Turn a bike or tricycle upside down and transform it into a cotton-candy machine, magical web-spinner or other manufacturing center for something that interests the child. - The tread removed from a toy backhoe can become a bracelet or can be used as a cookie-cutter in the sandbox.

Soon, children will be turning their things upside down and sideways to find creative ways to play. Think of how children everywhere have done so much more with dominoes than just match up the dots!

• Add on. Use the labeled boxes of toys to add on to the child’s play, creating complex combinations. Don’t forget about sand, water and play-dough. Combining these open, fluid materials with other toys also encourages extension of play. For example:

- A child puts rubber bands on a geo-board, forming several squares and triangles. Add a box of small animals and suggest the child find homes “on the farm” for them.

- Add blocks to vehicle play. Then suggest building ramps at various heights and watch the child experiment with velocity.

- Mix blocks and ping-pong balls. The child first builds a maze, then directs the ping-pong ball through the twisting course by blowing through a straw.

- Suggest children bury their rock collection in a tray of sand. Then they can play geologist by using some tools to extract and examine the rocks. Or bury dried chicken bones in the sand for your budding paleontologists.

- A bucket of water is always fun for a game of float or sink: Which objects stay on top? For how long? Why?

- Play-dough can be used in all kinds of ways. Press vehicles into the dough and compare track prints, or mold the dough into trees and shrubs for an animal habitat.

Forman gives a great example of adding on to playing with blocks. When a group of student’s he was working with began to lose interest in their play, his solution was to add stick-on “googly eyes” to the side of many blocks. When the children came in and saw the blocks personified, a whole new range of play was created.

“Sometimes a set of materials can be ‘re-catalyzed’ by a simple modification,” he says.

It’s a joy to see children fully engaged in their play at home. By adopting and adapting these classroom methods, parents can help children persist in the joy of play and lead them to become competent, skilled learners. And, as Anne Mitchell notes, “much of a person’s character can be traced back to their positive play experiences in childhood.”

Claire Blumenfeld is a freelance writer and mother of two.

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From United Parenting Publications, August 2002