Before having my son, I had seen one too many living rooms taken over by toys. I was determined that my own house would never be filled with plastic blinking contraptions that would inevitably become tripping hazards and leave my husband and I howling in pain. But, like all the other things I said I would never do, I found it difficult to avoid once I actually became a parent.
I have tried to curtail my toddler’s toy collection by buying only a few thoughtfully curated wooden toys, and even so, he spends most of his time at home playing with a mixing bowl and measuring cups. As I have watched him delight in gift boxes while ignoring the toys inside, I have become more and more curious about how many toys kids actually need. So I decided to ask child development experts that very question.
“Children need to play, but this doesn’t require toys,” says Deborah MacNamara, a clinical counsellor in Vancouver and author of Rest, Play, Grow, a manual for parents. “They will explore their environment and examine articles that are interesting to them—from pots and pans to blocks.” In other words, kids do need something to play with, but that doesn’t have to be toys. Your home likely has enough objects to keep them entertained and learning.
As children grow, their relationships with toys change. While babies are mostly preoccupied with being around the people they are attached to, MacNamara says they can also be content exploring things with their mouths and hands. As toddlers, they become more and more interested in the exploration of objects. During this stage, the key is to give them access to open-ended things that foster imagination. These can be objects from your home, like pots and pans or stacking bowls, but if you would like to provide actual toys, things like building blocks, nesting cups, dolls or stuffed animals are good options. There is no minimum number of toys needed—in fact, a recent study found that when toddlers had fewer toys in their environment, they played with each toy longer, allowing them to focus more and play more creatively. Experts say parents should allow their children to gravitate towards the toys or objects that interest them. By the time they reach age three, MacNamara says children’s creativity is really starting to blossom and they may be able to play for short periods of time on their own.
One toy parents should always have on hand is drawing supplies and paper, according to Anne Rowan-Legg, a paediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. Drawing can be introduced as early as two years and can continue throughout childhood. It promotes several skills, says Rowan-Legg, explaining that it offers a place for kids to express emotion or mimic images in the same way they mimic behaviours. Furthermore, drawing is a good opportunity for parents to praise kids for their creativity and diligence, which is important for children’s development and self-esteem, and to teach them that not everything needs to be perfect.
As children near the age of five, MacNamara says they may show a clear preference for certain types of play or expression, such as building towers, designing train tracks, taking dolls on adventures or serving food. She points out that parents should look at what form of play their children are interested in and provide toys or props accordingly, but always provide room for imagination. “To allow for individual expression from a child onto their environment, it is preferable to have open-ended things like blocks, blank canvases and things that do not press onto a child a certain outcome. Play is no longer play when adults impose outcomes on what things should look like or determine how they should function,” says MacNamara.
As children grow older, they’ll start to ask for specific toys. While you’ll likely fill some of their requests, keep in mind that the most stimulating kind of play for kids is doing activities that allow for personal interaction. So consider saving some money at the toy store and spending it instead on admission to a museum or science centre.
And what about the onslaught of learning toys? Don’t worry about spending money on them for a supposed boost in development. “The reality is that any object, walk outside or personal interaction will be developmentally stimulating,” says Rowan-Legg.
If you’re looking around your living room and it's already overflowing with toys, take heart: While your children probably need less than they have, playing with toys is better than the alternative. With kids of all ages spending so much time in front of TVs and tablets, Rowan-Legg notes, “Toys present a far greater opportunity for parent and child to interact and for the child to express some creativity, and learn some valuable life lessons that they won't learn in the virtual world.”
Bolstered by this information, I will continue my efforts to prevent our living room from turning into a playroom. But with my son’s second birthday and the holidays approaching, I don’t want to be a Scrooge—I’ll likely invest in a couple of open-ended toys that foster his growing interest in food preparation. But my guess is the tissue paper will be as exciting as the gifts themselves.
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