|Toy Resources |
Whether you’re a toy manufacturer, a parent or a child-development researcher, there’s no question that play is serious business. Every year, hundreds of new toys and games come on the market competing for shelf space, advertising budgets and, most important, consumers’ attention.
So how can you tell which toys are appropriate for your child?
“Almost any play material can present opportunities for being creative, imaginative and constructive,” says W. George Scarlett, Ph.D., assistant professor of child development at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Children’s Play. Parents should not ask what toys or play materials are “educational” and “creative,” Scarlett advises, but rather how the child’s interests can create opportunities for learning and creating with a particular toy.
Child-development and play experts offer these tips and considerations to keep in mind when filling your own child’s toy box:
Look for toys that are related to your child’s interests. Toy use can be subjective and each child has different needs and interests.
“The key is to follow your children’s interests and to not be limited by what they ask for,” says Susan Oliver, director of Playing for Keeps, an organization dedicated to promoting healthy and constructive play. “Kids have different reasons that lead them to ask for a particular toy. If they have seen a toy on TV or among their peers, that can make the whole thing more complicated.”
|Toy Resources |
But rather than giving in to requests for the latest fad or a child’s whim of the moment, Oliver advises parents to watch how their kids spend their time when given the choice and let that be a guide.
Playing for Keeps analyzes and shares the latest information about play and proper play materials with teachers, pediatricians and parents. To help adults make the best choices for kids, the organization focuses not so much on individual toys, but on characteristics of the play those toys encourage.
“As play is a natural way for children to learn, most children gravitate toward certain play features,” Oliver says. “So, if you try to find a ‘good’ toy, you need to start with where the child is developmentally, what they are working on, and what is fun and/or challenging for them.”
Look for toys that match a child’s stage of development.
“I do not think that parents can choose any toy on the shelf and assume it will work for their child. You have to know your children and understand what they can do and what they like,” says Diana Nielander, director of business development for the National Lekotek Center, an organization that researches play, acts as a consultant to toy manufacturers and provides special play centers and toy lending libraries – all primarily for children with special needs.
Nielander urges parents to pay attention to the manufacturer’s age-level suggestions on toys, even when it comes to kids with special needs. “Age ranges are very helpful to parents because they help guide us to things that are closer to good matches. Even if your child’s developmental age does not match his or her chronological age, age-level labeling can help in your decisions.”
Playing for Keeps’ Susan Oliver believes that today’s parents have more developmentally appropriate toys than ever to choose from. “There is a growing market for developmental products,” she says, citing a trend toward older first-time parents and the increased involvement of grandparents in their grandchildren’s lives. These adults place a high value on playtime and are looking for developmentally oriented toys, she says.
“Companies are working to fill those niches,” Oliver notes. “People seem to feel that they need to justify giving their children time for play, so the support for these toys helps do that.”
Look for safe, well-built, open-ended toys that stimulate imaginative play. When it comes to selecting the right toys for kids, early childhood educator Isabel Johnson believes the problem lies more in finding toys themselves amid today’s store shelves full of electronic, high-tech gadgets geared toward kids.
Citing the recent spate of exercise videos and computer games geared to toddlers, Johnson believes it’s more important than ever to find what she calls “true toys” – objects that a child can manipulate and play with in an open-ended manner.
The best toys are those that are well built, safe, attractive and encourage hands-on exploration, she says. “It is always safe to offer children one of the ‘old reliables.’ Things like blocks, balls, dolls and costumes are always good because they appeal to both genders and because they also support imaginary and creative play.”
Scarlett agrees. “Trendy toys and play materials may work well, but good, old-fashioned blocks, dolls and markers can work better.”
“One of the fallacies now being challenged in developmental research is that imagination is a childish way of thinking,” he says. “Imagination is a lifelong means of knowing and coping, and its origins can be seen in the life of children’s play.”
|Age-Appropriate Toys |
The surest way to keep kids safe, happy and developing appropriately at play is to make sure they’re playing with age-appropriate toys. That may mean keeping older children’s toys out of the reach of younger kids, particularly when safety is an issue. Here are some recommendations for age-appropriate toys from the National SAFEKIDS Campaign.
Ages 1 to 3
Ages 5 to 9
Ages 9 to 14
The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission offers detailed information on the kinds of safe toys that are ideal for kids at different ages. Visit online at www.cpsc.gov and type “age appropriate toys” into the site’s search field.