The work of childhood is playing, and it serves a critical purpose; children need toys to help them learn, explore, and create. At the same time, pressure on parents to buy toys — Legos, dolls, remote control dinosaurs with wheels and flashing lights — is immense. Toy companies spend billions trying to convince children and parents alike that their product is a must-have. Adding to that pressure are the picture-perfect Instagram posts of parents showing off their complex toy rotation systems and immaculately curated playrooms.
All toys are educational
“Play is an important part of children’s development,” says Erica J. Card, who holds a psychology degree and is a store director and buyer for Child’s Play, an independent toy store. According to Card, “all play is educational,” which is why it’s important to “curate a toy collection and focus on what’s appropriate to get children to engage in play” that will help them develop essential skills.
What is a toy diet?
“Having a variety of toys is important since each kind of toy is an ‘invitation’ to develop different skills in kids,” says Rebecca Rolland, a Harvard lecturer in education and author of The Art of Talking with Children.
There are six categories of toys that make up a balanced “toy diet,” Card says creativity, movement, communication, logic, fine motor, and gross motor. She notes that “it’s important to start young” to help children develop skills in all six areas.
Arts and crafts are the most popular toys for developing creativity. Card thinks these are great because even children as young as one can start with finger painting, and projects can become more involved as children get older. Toy musical instruments and those that promote pretend play, like toy kitchens, are other great ways of promoting creativity.
Storytelling games, dress-up, dolls and figurines all help children build better communication skills. If children don’t like these types of toys, she recommends playing cooperative games that require players to talk to each other to get children to stretch their communication skills.
Games like jump rope help children learn how to move their bodies in relation to others, teaching them to share a physical space in a way that promotes healthy interactions and builds problem-solving skills. Even children who don’t like sports tend to like games that involve movement.
“Active play toys are beneficial for health and well-being, and when used with other children can serve to help build important social skills like sharing and collaboration, and these are great skills that adults can help guide,” he says, noting that children who develop these “soft skills” early on reap positive benefits later in life, including higher educational achievement and increased earnings.
Logic toys include math and strategy games, toys that help children understand how things work and those that demonstrate cause and effect, explains Card. A marble run is a classic logic toy because children can rearrange the track in multiple ways to see what works, and what doesn’t. Board games and basic engineering toys can also help children learn logic and problem-solving skills.
“Activities like building with blocks or LEGO bricks, sewing or engineering with an educational robot set all also help to develop spatial ability, visualizing and manipulating mental images. Spatial ability is vital for future engineers, surgeons, scientists, and designers among other careers,” adds Coxon.
Children need strong fine motor skills to do almost any task that involves their hands, from holding a pencil to tying shoes. Toys that involve pressing, grabbing, twisting, lifting, and grabbing can all help build and strengthen these skills. For younger children, Card recommends puzzles that have large knobs for grabbing. Older children will benefit from puzzles that require pressing pieces into place, or Legos.
Gross motor skills are important for running, jumping and climbing. Scooters, balls for tossing and rolling, trampolines and pull-along toys (like a wooden dog attached to a rope) are all great ways to develop these skills.
How to narrow down the selection
Even so, sorting through countless toy options can feel overwhelming. According to Card, when deciding which toys to buy within each category it’s important to focus on two factors: age and interest.
Making sure that a child is interested in a toy is key to keeping them engaged, says Card. A child may reject logic games if they don’t like math, but if they love dinosaurs getting them a stegosaurus-themed logic toy may encourage them to try it. Another child may love science but have weak fine motor skills. If the goal of buying a science kit is to help them progress in science, look for a kit that does not involve a lot of small pieces, as that may be frustrating and cause the child to give up.
If your child does wind up with a toy or game that’s too complex, Card recommends putting it away before the child becomes so frustrated that they give up and try again in a couple of months.
Fewer toys are better — but there’s no perfect number
Rather than going out and buying several toys in each area, Card recommends being intentional about choosing toys to promote specific skills. She stresses the importance of getting quality toys that will last through repeated uses. Even though these toys may cost more money up front, they tend to save money in the long run because they are less likely to break and are likely to hold children’s interest longer.
“Filling a playroom with toys most often only leaves kids distracted or moving quickly from one toy to the next, without really exploring any of them,” she says. “Instead, focus on having a few toys that fit your child’s interests and current skills.”
Coxon says that while there is no magic number of toys a child should have, parents should ask themselves two questions: “Does everything have a place for your child to easily put away when it’s time to clean up?” and “Does your child have a sufficient variety of toys that can engage them in developmentally appropriate pretend play, active play and building/creative play?”
“If you answered both of those with a yes, your child has a good number of toys,” he says.
How to deal with boredom
Eventually all children will hit a wall and get bored. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to go out and get more toys if the ones you have are still developmentally appropriate and in line with your child’s interests.
Dr. Zishan Khan, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, also recommends “helping your child enjoy their time with activities that don’t require toys.”
“Encourage them to go outside, help them develop a passion for reading, make them feel included when you are baking in the kitchen and think of ways to make life enjoyable, fun and exciting without the need for a specific toy.”
How can parents resist pressure for the latest hot toy?
If pressure is coming from your own child to buy the latest toy, Khan says that parents should “set limits as to what their children are watching on television and the tablet. It is helpful to avoid commercials, since they are designed to attract a person’s attention and encourage them to buy their product, and children are not immune to this.”
He adds, “It is actually beneficial for your child’s future to set limits and help them realize that they can’t just get whatever they want as soon as they want it.”
Read the full Yahoo Life article with sources.