How To Choose Toys That Encourage Development Through Play

Children learn through play, so with the gift-buying season fast approaching, I thought I’d give you some tips on what to look for in a toy. These tips apply to children of all ages, though the toys listed as examples may not be appropriate for all ages.

  1. Choose toys without batteries. The more the toy does, the less your child does. Toys that run on batteries limit your child’s ability to be creative and use his imagination during play. For example, the latest Fisher Price barn is battery-operated. When your child opens the barn door, it makes a horse sound. Not only does it potentially teach your child that doors say “neigh,” your child misses out on the opportunity to make the animals “talk” on his own. By choosing not to put the batteries in the toy, your child will have more opportunities to engage in pretend play.
  2. Look for toys that can be used in a variety of ways. Your child will be more likely to enjoy the toy as he grows older. A great example is play food. Your 2-year-old may enjoy just putting it in a play kitchen. By age 3, he may use it to feed his stuffed animals or offer it to you on a plate. A year or two later, he can use it in dramatic play, while playing store with a friend.
  3. Choose toys that are safe and durable. If your child still puts everything in his mouth, small figures are a choking hazard. A better option are Fisher Price Little People. They are big enough that they can’t fit in your child’s mouth, and there is not much kids can do to break them.
  4. Look for toys that allow your child to learn naturally through exploration and encourage problem solving. You don’t have to choose toys that are labeled “educational;” children can and will learn their shapes, colors, numbers, and letters through natural experiences. Preschoolers love the game Candyland. If you sit down and play it with your child, he will benefit from the social interaction with you and learn about taking turns, following directions, following through on undesirable activities (i.e. having to go back to the beginning of the board because he picked the candy cane), and being a good sport whether he wins or loses. And or course, he’ll get practice naming and matching colors naturally as part of the game.
  5. Choose toys that spark your child’s imagination. When you walk through the Lego aisle of a toy store, you’ll see that Legos tend to come in sets. There are picture instructions and just the right Legos in the box to complete a vehicle (or dinosaur or super hero or Star Wars scene or… you get the idea). Not much creativity involved there. However, if you got your child an assortment of Legos (like they sold them back when I was a kid), he could use his imagination to build whatever he wants.

Last fall, in my post Top Toys for Toddlers, I listed several toys that meet these criteria. Another toy I’d like to add to this list is nesting cups or boxes. This is a toy that truly can be used in a variety of ways.

nesting cups

Of course your child can work on problem solving while trying to figure out how to nest the cups. He can also stack the cups upside down and knock them down and learn about “up” and “down.” He can match the colored cups or use them to sort other toys by color. The cups can be used in pretend play in a kitchen. Many plastic nesting cups have raised pictures or shapes on the bottom that can be used as stamps to use with Play-doh.

The most important idea to keep in mind is that the more your child has to use his own mind and body while playing, the more he benefits from playtime.

Adapted from Cari Ebert’s seminar – The Power of Play: Effective Play-Based Therapy and Early Intervention

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